By, Katie T. ’19
If we were to fill a room with all of the characters from the major literary works we read in Winsor’s Upper School required Class V and Class VI English classes— Holden Caulfield, Romeo and Juliet, Hester Prynne, Nick Carraway—and looked around, we would find a sea of mostly white faces. Though Winsor has a relatively diverse student body, the same representation of people of color does not manifest itself in the pieces we are required to read for English class. Of all of the larger writings that are part of the freshman and sophomore curricula, none feature perspectives of Asian Americans or Latinx Americans, and only a few novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple, feature an African American protagonist. LGBTQ experiences are also greatly underrepresented.
Last year, Izzy T. ’19 wrote and then actually carried out their civil disobedience project on a similar topic: the lack of diversity of authors—of both women authors and authors of color—in the sophomore U.S. Literature course. Izzy believes that it is important to have diversity amongst the literature we read because “if kids don’t see their identities reflected in the major readings they do in class and only in the supplemental readings, such as poetry and short stories, it sends the message that their voices aren’t valuable as writers and as members of our nation.” The same concept can be applied to the value of having a diverse group of protagonists in the works we study. It is important that students witness how characters with whom they connect ask important questions about their identities in order to get exposure to the normality of these thoughts and struggles. Furthermore, it is crucial that all Winsor students have the opportunity to learn and discuss issues pertinent to different groups of people in order to become better aware of the problems that their peers may face. By reading a selection of books which better represent the makeup of the school community, students can both see how their personal identity questions are valid and gain a clearer perspective of those around them.
It is, of course, critical to recognize the difficulties of finding and including all perspectives. Ms. J., the head of the English department, weighed in on these challenges. She stated, “As for our efforts to represent a variety of voices, we do talk about it a lot as a department, and we have made many changes over the years, but we still have work to do. Our goal is always to present a variety of voices in a responsible, thorough, and not tokenistic way. We also want to be sure that the books we choose serve our skills goals. Balancing our many goals in the limited amount of time we have is a challenge; we often can read only a few texts per year due to homework guidelines and the need to spend time on writing skills.”
In addition to having a limited amount of time to read enough books to include protagonists of all backgrounds, it is important to recognize that a lot of the works we read, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, and The Great Gatsby, are often considered must-reads for any English scholar. Despite their lack of diversity, many are staples in the Western canon of literature and thus considered important to study in school. Nevertheless, the non-existent representation of Asian and Latinx Americans in the novels we read is unacceptable.
Furthermore, some defend the current freshman and sophomore curricula by pointing out that Winsor requires all juniors to take a literary Global Studies course, specifically for the purpose of exposing students to different ideas and voices than those about which we typically read. However, the perspective of a Chinese person is vastly different from that of a Chinese-American, and in no way can a book featuring someone from Nigeria fully represent the beliefs, interests, and life of a Nigerian-American. What the curriculum is currently missing are those books written from the perspective of someone to whom a Winsor student can relate—an American protagonist who is influenced by his or her ethnic, racial, or sexual identity.
Recently, however, the English Department has made significant progress in expanding the narratives studied in both the Lower and Upper Schools. For example, for Class III students, a unit on immigration featuring Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and texts that provide insight into Afghan-American, Chinese-American, and Mexican-American experiences replaced the study of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, while for Class V students, short stories from various countries replaced Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Ms. R. added The Color Purple to her Class VI curriculum last year because it deals with African-American and LGBTQ perspectives. This year, some of the other sophomore English teachers also decided to teach it. The Class VI U.S. Literature course was recently retooled, with a new, more diverse curriculum in place for the 2018-2019 school year.
Fortunately, the English department continues to search for ways to add these and more voices to its curricula. “In fact,” Ms. J. pointed out, “we recently created a survey for seniors about their experience of the curriculum and their sense of which voices are underrepresented…As for Latinx, Asian-American, and LGBTQ authors, we are constantly reading and considering new texts.”
She concluded by stating that “it’s true that we have not done as good a job finding and incorporating texts that represent these groups as we have for other groups. We have some, but not enough… We will continue our commitment to providing a well-balanced, skills-based program that exposes students to a variety of voices, genres, and time periods. We are always open to suggestions and critique, so keep it coming!”