Deep Dive into the English Curriculum

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Claire Killian

As my English teacher handed out our next book, Fahrenheit 451, I couldn’t help but think back on what we had read this year so far. Initially, I panicked, we were already in March and had only gotten through two full books and the short story unit. Then I began to think about the books themselves, and they all felt strikingly masculine. I realized we hadn’t read a single book by or about a female character in the set curriculum. Going back even further I noticed that, with the exception of The Glass Castle and Antigone, none of my freshman year English curriculum books were about women either. Now, with my head spinning, I clocked into the fact that almost none of these books, Freshmen or Sophomore year, were by or about people of color. There are a few conditional exceptions to that statement, one of my Honors English OSR books in ninth grade was The House on Mango Street, a book written by a latina author about her own experiences, and in tenth grade we read Night, to story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. The Kite Runner is also by an Afghani author about Afghani experiences, another one of very few books by authors of color. Additionally, some English classes read Speak, the story of a sexual assault victim by and about a women, however mine did not.

Looking ahead to Junior and Senior year in the course catalog, it looks like much more of the same. Of the nine books listed by title for English Regents/Honors 11 and AP Lang., six are by white men, one is by a white woman, one is by a black woman, and one is by a black man. Of the seven names of authors listed under AP Lit., six are white men. The seventh name is only listed as Brönte, not specifying which, or whether it is both, of caucasian sisters being referred to. 

Looking at this, you pick up on an interesting pattern. The majority of books by women or authors of color are autobiographies. The Glass Castle, The House on Mango Street, A Small Place, and a Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are all about the people who wrote them. Does this mean anything? If so, what exactly? I’m not sure, and definitely not in any place to say. My own personal belief is that it appears like these authors are valued because they tell stories of diversity, of their own experiences. Is that a bad thing? I’m also not sure. What I do know, is that we read Fahrenheit 451 very differently than we did, say, The Glass Castle. Reading The Glass Castle is less about the text, or the style of writing, and much more about the actual experiences of Jeannette Walls, the author and protagonist. While some symbolism is analyzed, it seems less tactical, and more about her life. Alternatively, reading Fahrenheit 451, it’s all about the technique of writing. That is, in part, due to the fact that Bradbury, the author, has a very distinct style, but I believe it is also because his work is more highly valued on it’s own merit, and not because he went through some horribly traumatic experience. Even the author of Night has written dozens of other books, none of which we read or even look at. Is it because they’re just not as good? Maybe. But they’re also not about his struggle, and first-hand account of one of the greatest crimes against humanity. Of course, this brings up a whole other really fun debate about who gets to decide what books are ‘good’ or worth reading?

Most of the work we herald as “classic literature” today comes from the biases of Harold Bloom. Bloom was a Yale professor and English scholar who spent years analyzing the English language, crafting books and critiques about different authors. For better or worse, he is the most influential figure in the world of literature. He effectively single-handedly decided who was worth reading, and why. Bloom literally wrote our English curriculum. In recent years, critics have been vocal about his clear prejudices. He was pretty discriminatory against female authors, and authors of color, firmly believing they could never be as good as strong, white, male authors such as Shakespeare or Kafka. So when we complain about the one-sidedness of our education, we have Harold Bloom to thank.

The English teachers themselves, to their credit, go above and beyond in attempting to expose their students to all sorts of different authors, styles, and points of view. Whether it’s switching out The Taming of the Shrew for Macbeth Sophomore year or encouraging books like The House on Mango Street, American Street, or In the Time of the Butterflies for OSRs. I also applaud their choice of summer reading books like The Book Thief, The Nightingale, and The Secret Life of Bees, all of which feature female characters of diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

Unfortunately and ironically, as our school goes through a period of physical and administrative changes, it is the ninth and tenth grade English curriculums, the most open-minded, which are getting re-written. The new courses will be much more flexible, giving students greater control over which books they read, and stripping away previously required texts. This is a bid to engage students who feel alienated by the books, or uninterested by their material. 

So why does it matter that we have not just character of color and women in our books but also authors of those backgrounds too? Exposure. Rye is not exactly a town of great diversity, of background, race or thought. According to the U.S. census, this town is 87.7% caucasian. Having the opportunity to explore works by people from all different walks of life, and have their pieces valued equally alongside more established authors, brings a larger part of the world into our small classrooms. It sparks important conversations, and hopefully, generates some empathy for other people. Beyond that, the books are just good. Many novels by female authors and authors of color are on the same level, if not subjectively better than those by their better-known male counterparts, but have been kept out of the limelight by antiquated prejudices. There is a reason that Agatha Christie is the best selling author of all time behind Shakespeare, who had a couple-hundred years on her.