I realized something unsettling the other day. We’re pretty narrow in what we expect kids to read. I’m guilty of it too, unfortunately. Clearly I have some research to do.
Looking back on my years being educated in public schools, I’m disappointed by what I find. Nearly every book I read was written by a straight, white male (most of whom were at least nominally Christian). That’s pretty sad. The only required reading written by someone outside of that demographic was To Kill a Mockingbird. (We had to read The Diary of Anne Frank in eight grade, but it was the play, not her actual words.)
We read Shakespeare, Dickens, Bradbury, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald. We read a few books by lesser-known authors. We read plays and short stories, with only two women among them (Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O’Connor). Even when we read poetry, it was mostly Frost, Whitman, cummings. I think we might have read one or two by Langston Hughes, but that’s about it. Even in the younger grades, the only female-authored books we read were excerpts from the Little House series included in our textbooks.
Not a single African-American in the bunch. No Jews. (Anne Frank doesn’t count, as it was the dramatization). No gays. No one of any other religious or racial demographic.
On my own, I chose books authored by all sorts of interesting people. But I happened to love reading and devoured anything I could get my hands on. I also had a mother who would recommend books, or strategically place them where she knew I’d find them. I was lucky.
In high school, much of what we read had at least some parallel with what we were learning in history. It wasn’t always an exact match, but they ran roughly side-by-side. I can certainly understand wanting students to read literature relevant to a historical time period. What I don’t understand is the limit placed on that. For example, when learning about the Soviet Union (which still existed at the time) in social studies, we were reading Animal Farm and 1984 in English class. Why weren’t we also expected to read The Communist Manifesto? Certainly would have been useful information, something from the opposite perspective. When we studied the American Civil War, we read Huckleberry Finn and The Red Badge of Courage. But we didn’t read anything at all by Frederick Douglas.
I suppose a case could be made that English class is for literature, which explains not reading nonfiction. However, even in the general pool of fiction, most of our books were, as I said, written by straight, white men. I don’t understand the silencing of the voices of people outside that narrow subset of the population. What is it that we’re afraid will happen if we let those voices speak? What terrible notions do we think students will have if they read them? And why do we expect students to do this entirely on their own, without the guidance of their teachers?
There is limited time in a school year, forcing teachers to choose only some of the available literature. It still seems strange, though, that there wouldn’t be a better sampling of what’s out there. It’s the job of educators to provide opportunities for their students to be exposed to things they might not otherwise choose themselves. Why in the world would we want to narrow it down to a single perspective?
For all my friends out there who teach literature: Expand your students’ minds. Give them books written by people who aren’t part of the dominant culture. Encourage your students to see the world from multiple points of view. Talk about these things. Don’t be afraid to ask, and have them ask, tough questions.
For all my friends who are parents: Don’t expect the schools to do this. Do it yourself. Give your kids books by all sorts of writers. Don’t wait, hoping they will discover this on their own.
I know that it takes more than reading a book for us to understand each other. But making sure we only have one side of the story, so to speak, is a certain way to ensure we never will. It may be a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.