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The Prevalent Lack Of Diversity In The Bishop’s English Curriculum

What Honors American Literature Reveals About The Bishop’s School English Curriculum

Homogeneity: The Problem With High School English Classes 

Standard high school English curriculums are homogenous in nature. In the English canon, women, people of color, and the poor fail to establish a meaningful presence. This happens to be the case at my high school, The Bishop’s School, in La Jolla, California. Throughout this website, I am going to be exploring the state of current high school English curriculums through the lense of Honors American Literature, the English course I am currently enrolled in at my school.  By dissecting this particular course, many truths will be revealed that determine just how homogeneous our literature really is. To begin, I would like for my audience to get a preview of the problem by reading an article written by Cindy Sharra of The Prospect. 

The Benefits: How Diversity Affects Student Involvement 

As Ms. Sharra pointed out, people tend to enjoy readings that include some facet of their identity. But the way in which many high school English curriculums are constructed, they would have you believing otherwise. In this video, Kathleen Nalty, a former civil right attorney, advocates for diversity and inclusion in all environments because of its proven benefits and advantages. 


Take A Gander: A Glimpse At Honors American Literature

As taken from The Bishop’s School Website:

This accelerated, college-level, year-long course provides students with a survey of 19th century (fall semester) and 20th century (spring semester) American literature beginning with romanticism followed by transcendentalism, realism, naturalism, modernism and postmodernism. We will read, dialogue and write about a variety of literary works − poems, novels, short stories, essays − well suited for academic interrogation and analysis. Class time will be devoted to a close textual analysis of both content and structure, learning techniques and language that help us understand each work’s complexity and position in the larger historical milieu. Although the assigned writing both in and outside of class is primarily analytical, students will write in a variety of forms that emphasize voice, creativity, clarity and vision.

Below is the data that breaks down the race and gender of the authors studied in the fall and spring semester of this course. Since the experiences of the authors tend to inform the experiences of their characters, the data for the race/gender of the protagonists is similar. And while I understand that diversity encompasses more than just race and gender, I thought it was necessary that these identifiers be focused on the most. 

                   

From An Expert: Ms. Allen’s Take

Ms. Allen is a high school English teacher at The Bishop’s School. She is one two who teaches Honors American Literature and therefore has a unique take on this issue. During our interview, I pressed Ms. Allen on these numbers. As the data illustrates, Honors American Literature is lacking in gender and racial diversity. Below are select quotes from Ms. Allen. 

“19th century is not very diverse because groups of people were limited from writing.” 

“The traditional canon is very white and very male.”

“It’s hard to find a contemporary novel not written by a white male.”

“We can’t have books that represent everyone, unforntanely.” 

“I love Toni Morrison because she said she wrote the books she couldn’t find.”

“People can still relate to characters who are different from them.”

“We need to experience something other than our own experience.”

“My white students can still connect to manumitted slaves.”

The Takeaway 

After our interview, I left with a better understanding of how Honors American Literature is structured. I learned of Ms. Allen’s attempt to diversify the course. Over the summer, she searched for books that weren’t written by white men in order to teach the course through a diverse lense. During her search, she realized that Honors American Literature and other English courses of its ilk naturally defer to white male content. In addition, she mentioned how necessary diversity is to an English curriculum. She believes a curriculum with different perspectives, unconventional characters, and nuanced text push students to new levels. I think most importantly she taught me how students can still see themselves in other characters’ plights even if it’s not their own personal experience. 

The Holdup: Why Some Aren’t Pushing For Diversity 

While it’s clear that Honors American Literature and an abundance of English courses nationwide are bereft of diversity, some would argue against a more just curriculum for a number of rational reasons. Emily Deruy of The Atlantic enumerates these reasons in her recently published article.

A Greater Burden On Students

Many teachers and professors alike, argue that the addition of a diversity requirement would impose a greater burden on their already stressed-out and sleep-deprived students. 

The Rising Multiculturalism Of The United States 

Critics say that given the multicultural nature of America’s citizens and the continued rise of pluralism, the need for classes that incorporate diversity are unnecessary.

A Left-Leaning Affront To Academic Freedom

Right-wing and conservative thinkers believe that forcefully adding diversity classes to curriculums represents a leftist agenda and an invasion of academic freedom. 

The Solution: How To Add Diversity To Current English Curriculums

Because of these criticisms, adding diversity to English curriculums is a laborious but worthwhile task. There are many ways teachers, educators, and administrators can incorporate a more varied course offering for their students. This video produced by King’s College in London, England pertains to college education, however, its content is useful in the fight against homogeneous curriculums.  

What You Can Do: The Various Steps To A More Inclusive Curriculum

The Department Of Education 

The Department of Education is integral in setting, implementing, and executing educational policy throughout the nation. Betsy DeVos, recently appointed head of The Department of Education, oversees educational policy in the country. Given her influence, it’s important to make DeVos a vital resource in this fight. The Department can be reached at 1-800-872-5327 and 400 Maryland Avenue, SW Washington, D.C. 20202

State Agencies

If The Department of Education seems too big, start small. Each state has its own separate education department. As extensions of The Department of Education, these agencies work on polices and practices that affect their respective states. The information pertaining to your specific state can be found online. 

Start An Initiative

There are few to none national initiatives to make English curriculums more representative. But as citizens with tremendous potential, it’s important that we don’t rely to heavily on the government. Get several friends, peers, administrators, and faculty members together and work on launching an initiative in your local community.

Bibliography

Deruy, Emily. “The Complicated Process of Adding Diversity to the College

    Syllabus.” The Atlantic, 29 July 2016, www.theatlantic.com/education/

    archive/2016/07/

    the-complicated-process-of-adding-diversity-to-the-college-syllabus/493643/.

 

He, Ye, et al. “Reframing Literacy Practices for Culturally and Linguistically

    Diverse Students in U.S. Schools.” English Education Journal, digital ed.,

    vol. 46, no. 4, July 2014, pp. 327-44.

 

Jaekle, Ann M. “Safe for Diversity: Another Approach to the English Curriculum.”

    The English Journal, digital ed., vol. 56, no. 2, p. 222.

 

Rekrut, Martha D. “Inquiry-Based English Instruction: Engaging Students in Life

    and Literature.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, digital ed., vol.

    46, no. 4, Dec. 2002, p. 369.

 

Sharra, Cindy. “We Need More Diversity In English Class Curriculum.” The

    Prospect, 10 Feb. 2015, www.theprospect.net/

    op-ed-we-need-more-diversity-in-english-class-curriculum-38235.

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COMMENTS: 2
  1. April 26, 2018 by Eric Hudson Reply

    As a former English teacher myself, this is an incredibly important topic. The idea of a “canon” is antiquated (I mean, even the word feels old), and I appreciate your argument that the literature we study in high school should be more representative of the world we live in.

  2. April 29, 2018 by Ava Reply

    Thank you so much. I appreciate your comment. I also hate the word, “canon.” I think more schools should definitely look into changing the traditional canon in favor of a more inclusive and diverse curriculum.

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