It is time to bury the “dead white men”

In 1999, Harper’s Bazaar magazine published the essay I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Sing by reporter and essayist Francine Prose, a critique of the quality of high school required reading. Prose argued that in high schools, a book’s status as a classic will often override the substance and relevance of the book. The essay has aged remarkably well, but the subject it is based on has remained largely unchanged. 

“Traditionally, the love of reading has been born and nurtured in high school English class. High school — more so than college — is where literary tastes and allegiances are formed: what we read in adolescence is imprinted on our brains as the dreary notions of childhood crystallize into hard data,” Prose wrote. 

The operating word is “traditionally.” Tradition, with regards to high school English, currently acts as the absolute antithesis to Prose’s point. Students already rarely question reading material, and even less frequently are student voices pertaining to this material are acknowledged by teachers and administration. 

Perhaps the most frequently complained-about required reading is Shakespeare. Students read Shakespeare in English classes for all four years, indulging in a wide variety from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth and Othello. The dated Elizabethan language is near impossible to understand, and the “decoded” left-hand side just reveals that many of the stories are actually quite boring. So, disinterested students Sparknotes their way through all the reading quizzes, essays, and tests.

Teachers are rarely able to give students a satisfactory explanation for why they are assigned so much Shakespeare other than bolstering vocabulary and developing reading comprehension skills. Neither reason has substance if students do not read the books, or more concerningly, are not interested in reading the books. Though, the biggest problem with the English reading list lies in its long term effects on reading habits.

When students are forced into reading difficult and uninteresting works, reading as a whole becomes unappealing. This goes against the heart of what English classes are trying to achieve; it is more than just grammar courses and the bare minimum of writing instruction. Teachers should strive to foster an interest in their subject. 

This is not to say that SPHS hasn’t made efforts to modernize and diversify its English curriculum with classes like Multicultural English and reading like True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, read in 10th grade English. However, classes cannot go into depth with these young adult works because they simply do not correspond with a high school student’s level of comprehension – they are too easy. 

The capacity for complex analysis required to digest classics has been sacrificed for the sake of providing more relevant and diverse subject matter. SPHS is essentially using nontraditional titles as a blanket to cover up this issue. However, it is entirely reasonable to demand both depth and diversity. 

Misguided attempts to adjust how high school English is taught are just as dangerous as not adjusting the current curriculum. Assigning frustratingly dense archaisms or their polar opposite – insultingly easy-to-read young adult novels – accomplishes the exact same thing. It discourages interest in not only in-school reading, but in extracurricular reading and books in general.

English at SPHS should set students up with the tools to grow into well-read, well-informed, and critical adults. To do that, students must be given a substantial baseline for literature. The books we read in school shouldn’t be supplemental, the books we read on our own should be. SPHS’ reading lists should be altered to reflect this.

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