Over the course of my entire high school career, the number of women authors on my long lists of assigned readings came to a grand total of four. For a while, I thought this might just be one more way that my school was behind the times; I lived in a small, Midwestern, mostly white, mostly Christian town that can sometimes seem stuck in the past. But now, as I have conversations with students from all around the United States, I realize that most schools in the country have similarly limited reading lists.
In fact, of the five students I’ve spoken with about this issue, only one student had read more than four books by women authors in high school, and one student had read zero. And, of all of these male authors, almost all of them were white. This isn’t a problem that’s limited to high schools, either; last year, Yale University received attention for a student petition to “decolonize” a core class. It’s impossible to deny that reading assignments at all grade levels are often far from representative: White men make up roughly 31 percent of the population of the United States, but they made up 72 percent of the literature I was assigned to read in high school. The simple truth of the matter is that certain voices are being excluded from many school curriculums, and the result is a great loss to the student body.
Ellie Bennett, an incoming freshman at Barnard College, described her similar experience in her high school English classes; she read three books by women in her four years of high school. When I asked her if she felt represented by the texts she was asked to read in school, she laughed. “I’ve never been assigned a book with a black female protagonist,” she explained. “I don’t know what it feels like to be a part of the literature I study. It has taught me to step into white men’s shoes and relate, which is why the reading lists should be broadened — so white men and different people can step into, for example, a black queer woman’s shoes.”
Bennett’s words echo the concerns of many high school students. When we only elevate literature written by white men, we are ignoring the experiences of the great majority of the world’s — and the United States' — population. We are refusing to recognize voices that are crucial to comprehending our history, and this can leave a gap in understanding between people of different backgrounds, cultures and genders. Art can spread empathy, but only if students are exposed to works that describe experiences outside of their own. For every William Faulkner, there is a Flannery O'Connor; for every F. Scott Fitzgerald, there is a Zora Neale Hurston; for every Arthur Miller, there is an Adrienne Kennedy. When students only read work by white men in class, they are being presented with a false reality in which there exist only white male perspectives.
Equally importantly, students who are members of underrepresented groups deserve to see themselves thriving, both in literature and as writers. When a young woman goes years without being introduced in school to a novel written by a women, what does that tell her about her own ability to pursue the arts and have her work respected? When a young woman of color graduates high school without reading a book in which she seems herself reflected as a protagonist, what does that tell her about society’s attitude toward her experiences and worth? Being able to recognize oneself in literature and media is incredibly powerful, and it's often a necessary component of self-acceptance.
Some fear that changing school reading lists to be more inclusive would de-emphasize the work of major, historically significant white male authors. It’s true that many of the most celebrated American classics were written by white men, and these novels have their own literary merit. But it's worth examining why the most talked-about literature is typically written by white men. The fact that a novel is universally renowned doesn’t prove that it is inherently superior to less-discussed works. White men did not historically write better novels; they were historically given better access and appreciation for what they wrote. Recognizing this fact and making a deliberate attempt to seek out equally deserving work by historically undervalued authors can absolutely coexist with appreciating literature by established household names.
The people I encounter each day are varied. I’m surrounded by women who are fierce, distinct, and totally unlike the two-dimensional characters portrayed in many novels written by men. Every day, I meet vibrant, talented, important people whose origins and experiences are diverse in countless ways. Our lives are not all lived as — or exclusively alongside — white men, so there is no reason that the literature we share with each other should be written solely from their lens. It is high time that our schools allow us to read about the world as it really exists.
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