By Crystal Earl
Literature often reflects the values and thoughts we find most important in our society. Courses that teach literature should aim to integrate these issues into their syllabi. However, these thoughts and values are often limited by focusing on the traditional canon of literature, generally white, male, and dead authors. Courses that offer mainly authors like William Shakespeare and Mark Twain do not adequately represent the complete diversity of the current body of literature or the students studying it.
Required readings for English courses at both high school and college levels should include works from writers with diverse racial and economic backgrounds. As we are living in a more globalized society accompanied by an unstable political climate, it is important to teach students to be able to confront an array of voices and ideas. Students of all backgrounds take English courses, so it is important that they be exposed to a more comprehensive range of works.
Especially today, diversifying syllabi is important because current literary dialogue emphasizes the experiences of people from different walks of life. This can be seen in the rising popularity of contemporary authors such as Ta-Nehesi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, and Junot Diaz.
By expanding the canon to include new and more diverse works, we would offer students the freedom to see the difference between what we say America is and what it really is. While teaching about the 19th century with writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, it would be beneficial to the curriculum to include Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs as core texts as well. We would then be able to see voices of dissent and protest as well as those representing social norms. This would give a more complete picture of the history as well as welcoming students with diverse backgrounds into the discussion.
That does not mean we should do away with those works of the traditional canon like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Huckleberry Finn.” Works like these offer students a form of cultural capital that will benefit them in further studies. Furthermore, these literary works serve as staples for their respective genres. Leaving them out of the curriculum would be a disservice to students nationwide.
However, we should teach other works alongside these canonical texts. This would allow students of various backgrounds to see themselves in the literature and in the discussion of literature.
The specialities of the English faculty may not lie in these diverse literary areas. So, English departments should make efforts to offer professional development with professors or authors who specialize in works from different cultures.
Overall, diversifying the English curriculum in all levels of education can be beneficial to both teachers and students, and society overall. We are limiting ourselves as scholars by not including voices of all backgrounds. By allowing more voices to be heard, different and unfamiliar perspectives can be better understood and thus, better accepted. This would contribute to a more equal and respectful environment where new generations will have a greater understanding of all cultures and backgrounds. Students who are exposed to more diverse voices can also have different and more personal understandings of history.