By Somi Jun
Print Managing Editor
The difference between “good” and “bad” literature is constantly debated, but English classes have somehow decided that “good” literature can only mean white, male narratives. As a result, classrooms reserve focus almost exclusively for white male authors, sending the message that art is not significant unless the writer comes from a background of racial and gendered privilege.
AP Literature classes at SPHS have read a total of seven works by this point in the semester. Every work has been written by a white, male author, and five out of seven of these have starred a white, male protagonist. A peek into the syllabus shows that this trend continues throughout the year: we are scheduled to read 19 books by June, four of which are written by female authors and two of which are written by Toni Morrison, the only writer of color in the entire selection. Similarly, the only work AP Language classes studied last year was a Shakespearean play and a textbook about the Western understanding of rhetoric. Possibly the only exception to this trend of white, male focus in school was in World Literature, which incorporated work from diverse American authors as well as translated works from around the world.
Classrooms are supposed to empower youth through education, but this predominantly white, male understanding of literature in English classes can damage students’ self-esteem. A 2012 study by Communication Research found that the self-esteem of African-American children and white girls decreases with TV consumption, most likely because TV shows disproportionately feature white males, often in privileged positions. In contrast, the more TV white boys watch, the greater their self-esteem. The same principle applies to the classroom. When female students and students of color read stories by white males about white males and nothing else, they internalize the idea that they deserve less attention, merit, and worth than their white, male counterparts.
The CollegeBoard mentions 22 authors on its literature course, a selection that includes far more gendered and racial diversity than AP Literature classes at SPHS. Teachers and administrators have this list of readily recognized literary works from which to draw, and yet they continue to teach the same, homogenous narratives.
This is especially unfortunate because the world of female, racially diverse literature has so much to offer the classroom. Students are taught to make connections between literature and the world around them. But when they read work by only white males, they are limited to the tiniest fraction of this world; essentially, just Europe and parts of America. English classes have the potential to analyze translated works, demonstrated by classroom studies of Oedipus Rex, Beowulf, and Tartuffe, which were all originally written in languages other than English. Classes can take this diversity one step further by analyzing works from other continents as well as works by English-speaking authors of color. Students will gain a richer, more accurate understanding of the world through this diversity, as well as a richer understanding of the English language’s unique capacities.
Classrooms’ male-centric, racially homogenous understanding of the written word fails to reflect reality, which is populated by diverse readers and writers. This understanding fails the students who must consume these works and internalize the ideas they present. Ultimately, this understanding fails to teach students about literature and its potential to enrich lives.