The Freshman English Curriculum and the Diversity Debate

Zarya Hubbard and Mollie Kuritzky, Grade 9, Staff Writers

 

Beowulf, The Odyssey, and Julius Caesar. These are a few of the books read in the High School of American Studies’ ninth-grade English class. They are considered some of the most important classics in literature, but have they held up the test of time? Some believe that the ancient classics do not reflect the diverse society we live in today, while others think it would be difficult to incorporate this diversity into a classics-oriented curriculum.


A study from the Economic Policy Institute found that 70 percent of Black students attend segregated schools. With this separation, it is difficult for students to be exposed to people of different backgrounds. Many feel that books with representation are a mode of connection between these otherwise divided groups, and can help students empathize with one another. In New York City, home to the most segregated school system in the country, this is an especially prominent issue.


Ms. Pamela Ridge, the ninth grade English teacher, is responsible for choosing the books on the syllabus, with approval from Principal Weiss. When the topic of gender roles arose, Ms. Ridge feels that the curriculum is male-centered, though she does believe there are areas in these books where strong female characters are featured. “The heroes are male. There are powerful women in Julius Caesar, so you shouldn’t think there is no feminism in these books,” she said. “But if you want a modern feminist track, that’s not what this course is about … this is not a feminist literature course.”


The fact that freshman English class is not a specialized course is something to keep in mind when using a critical lens on the chosen texts. However, students had additional concerns about the lack of racial diversity, which Ridge felt was not a clear-cut issue. Ridge also mentioned that, while there are no specific texts read in class that address these issues, students are assigned opinionated writing about such topics during an editorial writing unit in the spring—one way to add diversity. When it comes to literature, it must be recognized that the time period of the books is a big factor, one that might cause Ms. Ridge to feel that her hands are tied.


With these valid difficulties in mind, Ms. Rockfeld, the senior AP English Literature teacher at HSAS, has made efforts to combat this issue, as she feels there is value in being represented by books. “Everyone likes to see themselves in literature,” she said. “There are many ways to see yourself in the literature, but one way, of course, is to have a character who speaks the same language you do, or eats the same food that you do, or has the same cultural norms as you.” Finding novels that tackle these topics can be difficult in a classics-oriented syllabus, but Ms. Rockfeld suggested “supplement[ing classics] with poetry that is related to the themes that are discussed in the text and then to find a way to create diversity that way.”


Jay May Fox, a freshman at HSAS, is unsatisfied with the current curriculum. “As a[n] … openly queer, Jewish person, I feel like it isn’t inclusive enough for me,” he said. “I just feel like all throughout history there have been amazing queer authors, authors of color, etc., who have written other epic poems and stories we can tell.” When asked for suggestions on how to potentially improve the curriculum while still focusing on classics, he said, “Think about Sappho, she wrote classic poems and she was very openly gay in all of her poems that were centered around queerness. And I think poems about minorities are more relevant to this time period when people are being more open about their identities and tolerating racism less, and it might take some extra research, but I think that we can make it happen.”


However, not all students think the HSAS English syllabus is missing much in regards to representation. Jenny Ly, a freshman, feels that the absence of oppressive tropes may make up for the shortage of minority presence. “Representation doesn’t really come up but nor is it really going against. She [Ms. Ridge] really isn’t going against anything in the curriculum about diversity nor is anyone in the class,” she said. Even though Ly is satisfied with the current reading list, she still sees room for improvement. “It might be possible to include diversity like … people of color authors, … gay authors, LGBTQ, stuff like that, but I am satisfied with the books we’re reading now.”


HSAS students and teachers consider the diversity of the English curriculum.