Mandating A Colorful Canon
SAN FRANCISCO — A decade ago, black author Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" was not part of standard course work at Garner Senior High School in North Carolina, though it is now.
The same is true of Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" at the public schools in greater Pittsburgh.
In fact, stick your finger on a map of the United States and chances are good that a community's public schools have walked a similar path, giving children more exposure to literature by minority authors.
But the San Francisco Unified School District ignited a firestorm last week when two of its board members suggested imposing quotas for authors, based on race. In an effort to reshape the literary curriculum to more accurately reflect local diversity, the plan would require that at least 4 of the 10 books students must read in English class each year be by nonwhite authors.
Though the proposal's prospects are dim, it's stirring a national dialogue about quotas as a means of achieving a balance between multiculturalism and the classics in high schools.
While most educators have long accepted the idea that high schools need more works by authors of greater ethnic and gender diversity, the pace of change has been slow and has plenty of opponents on philosophical grounds.
Also, there are practical limitations, like the cost and availability of a wider selection of books, in addition to questions about the willingness and ability of teachers to use nontraditional material effectively.
Steve Phillips, one of the co-authors of the San Francisco proposal to be voted on March 24, offered this assessment of the literature now being used to teach a student population that is 87 percent nonwhite: "There is more [multicultural] material, but it's used sporadically and inconsistently. It has a tangential character. We need to get to the core of what's the appropriate canon for this day and age."
A broader canon
Nationally, the push for a broader selection of literature in high schools has been under way for more than a decade. It's an accepted path among professional educators.
"If you look at the professional journals, teachers' writings, research centers and conferences, it's all about multiculturalism," says Michael Moore, director of the commission on literature for the National Council of Teachers of English. He says that during the past decade, the desire for more multicultural material has been codified into the accreditation requirements for schools that turn out English teachers. "The only current debate is about finding the right balance."
San Francisco Superintendent of Schools Bill Rojas predicted flatly in an interview that "quotas won't happen" in his district, though he said there will be dramatic broadening of its literary requirements, "without losing any of the classics," when a new curriculum is adopted this spring.
There is little data that quantifies just what books are being used in English classes currently. But research done in 1991 and published in 1993 by Arthur Applebee, director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University of New York, Albany, found that in American high schools more than 95 percent of the authors were white and over 80 percent were male.
Today, Mr. Applebee says there has been modest change. Use in the classroom of "the shorter works of poetry and short stories has broadened considerably. There's been some broadening in novels and plays, too. " But widespread adoption of a more diverse literary canon? "It hasn't happened yet. Actually, I think there is less support for that than there was five years ago." He worries that a more hostile environment is leading some teachers to self-censor and avoid changing the literature they use for fear of criticism.
Any diminished support is fine with Sally Pipes, an education analyst with the conservative Pacific Research Institute. "I see the whole issue as not about education and broadening. It's an example of political correctness." Literature brought into the classroom should be based on its content, not its author, she says.
Robert Calfee, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., says the goal is to connect teenagers to literature in an age when they have so many competing interests. That requires better teacher skills at making the classics of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain relevant, as well as the use of a broader range of material that speaks more directly to teens. Mr. Calfee says there is research evidence that children, particularly poorly motivated ones, respond more strongly when a literary character is of their race or gender.
Those favoring more literary diversity say there have been major strides in the anthologies publishers are turning out. "If districts have purchased anthologies of short stories over the past 10 years, those anthologies are definitely more representative of a range of cultures and authors," says Mary Lee Barton, senior associate of the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory in Denver. But she adds that while broader materials are available, that doesn't mean school districts can necessarily afford them.
Mr. Rojas says the debate raging in San Francisco has focused on a number of important issues, but will soon have to grapple with another one. "This is California, land of cheapskates in education, so who is going to pay for these added books?"