Rethinking Representation: Diversity in high school English curricula

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Anyone who has gone through a general high school English class can account for classics-focused curricula. These classics, written by dead white men, are undoubtedly worthy of study and can express parts of human nature in contemporary life, but not nearly enough facets of it.  Photo by Pexels

Anyone who has gone through a general high school English class can account for classics-focused curricula. These classics, written by dead white men, are undoubtedly worthy of study and can express parts of human nature in contemporary life, but not nearly enough facets of it. Photo by Pexels

“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941,” Toni Morrison begins “The Bluest Eye.” The novel is a true reflection of the African American experience, written by a black person about black people for black people — the phrase “quiet as it’s kept” is even a part of African American vernacular. 

Over the past several decades, interest in reading for pleasure has fallen. The 2018 American Time Use Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the portion of Americans who read for pleasure daily had decreased by over 30%  since 2004. This decline has been documented since at least the 1980s. Most attribute this lack of interest to social media, cell phones and television. While pinpointing the cause to reverse the trend is undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavor, there is also value in adjusting educational curricula to fit society’s new priorities. Given the decrease in pleasure reading, the books that people read, especially in high school, have increased importance.  

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Lack of diversity in high school English curricula hurts everyone, so it must be everyone’s responsibility to promote inclusivity and tap into the tremendous potential for positive change. 

The high school reading curricula’s newfound importance makes its diversity important as well. Anyone who has gone through a general high school English class can account for classics-focused curricula. These classics, written by dead white men, are undoubtedly worthy of study and can express parts of human nature in contemporary life, but not nearly enough facets of it. For example, even the most generous reading of the racialized language in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” written by Mark Twain, a white man, can only portray a one-dimensional reality of living as a black person in Dred Scott’s America.  

By contrast, Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” draws upon her own experiences growing up in Lorain, Ohio, with critical analysis of the colorism, beauty standards, sexual abuse, and inter-generational cycles of violence that uniquely and disproportionally affects black women. Thus, diversity in books is critical to understanding the people and world around us, and given today’s polarized and divisive political atmosphere, we could all use a little more awareness.  

The push to add diverse and inclusive literature to English curricula is not new. In the early 1990s, literary scholar Harold Bloom and Morrison butted heads on the role of the canon of traditional Western literature. To Bloom, the classics offered a timeless representation of universal experiences and values. But to Morrison, the classics revealed the historical oppression of certain groups by erasure. Both arguments have merit and movement towards diversifying curricula attempts to create a balance between both. While progress has been made over the past few decades, the campaign has plateaued.  


Toni Morrison  speaking at "A Tribute to  Chinua Achebe  - 50 Years Anniversary of 'Things Fall Apart'". Morrison’s novel ‘The Bluest Eye’ is a prime example of a canonical novel written by a person of color.  Photo by Angela Radulescu in the public domain

Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart'”. Morrison’s novel ‘The Bluest Eye’ is a prime example of a canonical novel written by a person of color. Photo by Angela Radulescu in the public domain

Now, half a year after Toni Morrison’s death, we should consider her legacy. When do we reach the optimum “diversity?” When do we stop diversifying? 

Perhaps diversity is the wrong word to address the issue. A diverse curriculum should be the outcome of the movement rather than the founding principle of action. Fixating on creating diverse curriculums runs the risk of superficial diversity. For example, choosing a book with a person of color is not nearly enough; the person’s agency and role in the greater narrative of the book must also be considered. Creating curricula dominated with books by dead white male authors and with only one book by a person of color suggests that the latter book has little value other than its diversity. Instead, the focus should be on promoting inclusivity with diversity as the measure of success. Everyone should grow up seeing themselves represented in literature. 

“The Bluest Eye” was a gateway novel toward understanding the importance of diverse curricula and texts, and it changed my life in unmeasurable ways. Many of the books I read for leisure in high school came from themes I recognized in class, and until senior year when I read “The Bluest Eye,” I did not even realize there was a whole part of literature that I was not exposed to.   

“You are confined by your own repression,” Morrison warned. Lack of diversity in high school English curricula hurts everyone, so it must be everyone’s responsibility to promote inclusivity and tap into the tremendous potential for positive change. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.


Aarushi Nohria is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at aarushi.nohria@uconn.edu. 

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