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The Relationship of Diversity and the Curriculum: It’s Complicated

Xena Wolf, Senior Staff

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Over time, I and many of my classmates have taken increasing notice of a particular trend in the authors we read in English class and the cultures we study in history. In English 9, English 10, and English 11 combined, our core texts consist of 12 male authors (13 if you count the Bible) and three female ones. Broken down another way, that’s 13 white authors, and three of color (one of whom is writing about white men). Yet the issue of diversity in the curriculum is incredibly complex, constrained by core content requirements, painfully limited time, a gradual process of change, and many other factors. And it must be noted that we have come a long way.

A Look at the Current Curriculum, and How We Got Here

Although, according to History Teacher and Department Chair Karen Bradley, “The big picture curriculum hasn’t changed that much,” a few decades before it would have been in some ways unrecognizable to today’s students. For instance, before current Head of School Crystal Land joined the English department, high schoolers did not read a single female author. And the history curriculum sequence from Grades 7 through 11 was, essentially, as follows: US History, Western Europe, Russia and China, US History, Western Europe. As History Teacher Nancy Feidelman noted, “There felt like a glaring lack of geographic diversity.” So when Feidelman became Chair of the History Department, she recalled, “[We] changed the curriculum, and [we] removed Western Europe… from the 8th Grade curriculum… and we created a two-part course, where students would study Africa one semester, and Latin America the other semester. So, that was exciting, that was a top-down move from administration with the support of students and parents and teachers.” But that wasn’t all. She continued, “The 11th Grade Western Civ course became more of an intellectual history, that wasn’t just the history of the white monarchs of Western Europe and the battles that they fought, but looking at the emergence of Western Civilization and its impact on the globe both beneficial and pernicious… And then we added India to the 9th Grade course because… if we were looking at emerging superpowers post Cold War… India needed its place. And we have a large South Asian population, and it just seemed like it was a good fit for an already good course.” Bradley added, “I thought [the curriculum] was good when I got here… but I think it’s better now.”

While major course overhauls are uncommon, innumerable smaller changes have been made to the curriculum. For instance, one comparatively minor but in its own right significant change was the removal of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain from the English 10 curriculum. English Teacher David Enelow recounted, “The decision was made a number of years ago largely because of the heavy and repeated use of the N-word in the text. The tenth grade teachers who made the decision felt that its presence in the text created awkward and even ugly social interactions between white and black students. After trying a number of workarounds, they abandoned the text.” It was a hard text to let go of, because as English Teacher and Assistant Head of Upper School Saya McKenna noted, “We read Mark Twain because when you study American literature, he’s considered… the first who really developed a unique American voice.” In addition, it fit well with the corresponding period in History 10, and features a number of literary devices that were important for English 10 to practice analyzing, such as satire, irony, the use of dialect, and the “juxtaposition of an odyssey type of journey in an American context.” But it was deeply problematic in the classroom because “it’s told through the perspective of Huck Finn, and his perspective is the uneducated, white, dismissive tone of somebody who believed that African Americans were less than white Americans.” McKenna added that “Twain is known for satire, and that’s a very difficult genre to unpack because you have to give the writer the benefit of the doubt that he’s actually undermining what he’s claiming to espouse… So it’s a good intellectual exercise, but it’s a very painful exercise to do in a classroom, because it can be very offensive, and hard to negotiate.” Of course, Mark Twain’s intentions are, as Head of Upper School Carl Thiermann pointed out, “a debate that still actually rages among academics. How enlightened was Twain? … Was he naive about his own views, and should we teach a book like that now?” There is no doubt that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a seminal work in American literature, but the matter came down to whether it was an appropriate text for the classroom, and even whether 10th graders were mature and experienced enough to navigate such tricky (and potentially offensive) waters. McKenna concluded, “We felt like the downsides outweighed the benefits of teaching it in that year.” So Huckleberry Finn was dropped from the curriculum, and eventually replaced by texts such as When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, a novel about Japanese internment camps during World War II.

However, the debate within the faculty over the English 10 curriculum is far from over. English Teacher and Department Chair Stevie Kaplan mentioned that they are continually reexamining the inclusion of The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Beyond Hawthorne’s standing as one of the first great American writers, she noted that “It offers students… a glimpse into Puritan times, and a glimpse into a lot of questions regarding what it meant to be a woman during those times,” and this corresponds perfectly to some major themes and areas of study in History 11. In addition, it “functions in terms of giving complex sentence structure, close reading skills, [and] building up those kinds of skills in advance of eleventh grade.” Yet it is a difficult, complex, and relatively long book, and it takes up a lot of sophomore year, time that could otherwise be used to offer “more diversity of voices.”

Looking back a year, the English 9 curriculum debatably has an even greater dearth of diversity, and it too is constantly examined and updated. English Teacher Tory Mathieson explained, “I’ve noticed that we do a really good job with short stories, an okay job with poetry, but our major texts are all white men, except Moises Kaufman… but his story is about white men.” This is not to say that any of the English 9 texts are not important – 1984, Maus, Macbeth, and The Laramie Project are all critical and varied works that each play an important role in the learning goals of English 9 and connect well to the overall theme of identity. But Feidelman, who has also taught English 9, added, “I think that often, teachers love to use poetry and short stories for packing in ‘voices of difference’– voices of color, voices from different experiences – but here is our challenge as a department: what about having a main text – a full-fledged book – embody an experience that isn’t typically represented by our authors?”

Of course, compared to the 11th Grade curriculum in both English and History, 9th and 10th Grades contain a plethora of diversity. But this is inherent, and almost unavoidable, when the topics of these classes are Western Literature and Western Civilization. The major texts for English 11 are the Odyssey by Homer, poems by Sappho, Oedipus Rex and/or Antigone by Sophocles, excerpts from the Bible, The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, and Hamlet by Shakespeare. These works are inarguably an excellent foundation of Western Literature, with the specific focus on classical and Biblical traditions. Yet the very genre of classical Western Literature does not allow for many voices other than those of white men. “There are several challenges” to incorporating more diversity, Enelow explained. “The first is the commitment of the teachers to developing reading skills, which requires that we go over fewer texts more slowly. At the same time, we want to teach some of the most influential texts in Western and World Literature… Once you commit to teaching Homer, Sophocles, parts of the Bible, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, you have relatively little space for more.” Only two years ago, the ancient Greek, female, bisexual poet Sappho was added to the curriculum, and Enelow pointed out that “the course has focused increasingly over the years on the representation of women in major works of Western and English literature. In teaching the Odyssey, Antigone, and Genesis, students have been asked to write essays about the portrayal of women in these texts.” The English 11 teachers work to make the course as diverse as possible within the constraints of the topic, but frankly, it seems that there is only so much they can do.

Similar problems are encountered in History 11, a course more commonly known as Western Civ. Senior Carolyn Cheng, one of two students on Curriculum Committee, commented, “I feel like my base problem in the curriculum is probably the Western Civ curriculum… in terms of English and History, in terms of feeling a palpable lack of diversity. I mean, obviously, because it’s white males. But… Sappho was great,” she added, as was the emphasis in Western Civ on the role of ancient Greek women and their subjugation, which was the main reason there are so few female writers in the course. Though the majority of the School has accepted that this is an inherent limitation of the subject, on both the History and English sides, Feidelman remarked, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the 11th Grade curriculum, and that’s a place where I believe we could offer a more diverse perspective or voice… It’s looking at the development of the Western tradition, and part of the Western tradition is a relatively evil impact on other cultures, so a voice from another culture that has received the rough hand of Western imperialism could be a beautiful coda to the course… What if the final text of the year was a colonized voice responding to being forced to imbibe the Western tradition?” Feidelman further explained that in her college studies, English majors such as herself were required to take a course much like English 11, but that “every professor ended the sweep of the Western tradition with a strong non-Western voice that suffered because of the Western tradition. It was powerful, and I’ve never forgotten that.” She conceded that this change would likely require dropping one of the other texts, but believed that it was a worthwhile trade-off.

As you may have noticed, there has so far been a major gap in this examination of the curriculum: 12th Grade. Seniors at the School are offered the incredible opportunity of Senior Electives, which are English and history (and science) courses on a huge variety of subjects, usually much more specialized than any of the 9th through 11th Grade courses. Many of these courses add a great deal of diversity – both racial and otherwise – to the curriculum, such as History courses on Islam, Comparative Politics, and Cultural Anthropology, and English courses such as Lift Every Voice and Women’s Literature. Other courses, such as Shakespeare and Economics (which is counted as a history course), inherently offer less diversity in their curricula. Senior Electives are where each student’s path truly diverges, and the result is that some graduates from the School will have received far more diverse educations than others. The question arises of whether students can be trusted with this choice. Dean of Academics and Community Shahana Sarkar stated, “Our goal at Head-Royce, our values are to value diversity. So if we can’t find other ways to sort of imbue that value even in a Shakespeare class, then… we’re not doing our work… the way in which Dr. Enelow teaches the class brings in diversity in the ways in which he can, and it’s part of what he’s teaching even though you’re reading a white man.” In addition, Feidelman argued that “The senior electives try to address topics that are not part of the foundational courses, but the deeper goal is to pull such rich and diversified offerings into the foundational courses themselves. Hopefully, we can plant nuggets of senior elective topics within our 9th, 10th, and 11th Grade courses so that diverse exposure is not just left up to senior electives.” McKenna agreed, stating, “I think it’s incumbent then upon us to look at our core curriculum outside of the electives and say, ‘Is there enough diversity within those lineups?’ – because every kid will have exposure to that – and then allow people to specialize.” She added, “I think one of the real gifts of the Head-Royce electives program is choice, and that students actually do really, really well in their senior year… because they’ve opted in to a topic that hopefully speaks to them in some way.” Many of the teachers I spoke with agreed that the potential trade-off of diversity in the 12th Grade curriculum for increased student engagement through choice was worth it, so long as enough diversity was built into the foundational courses.

And as for those foundational courses, we’ve come a long way, and have a long way yet to go. Change in the curriculum tends to be incredibly gradual. Feidelman admitted, “I think that we’re good at identifying areas where we need to diversify, and sometimes slow in actually diversifying in those areas.” And this is for good reason, as there are innumerable small factors and a few large ones to take into account, especially concerning more drastic changes. “But all the big things we want to shift,” Bradley said, “it takes several years, to first develop the knowledge base, then think about it, then work with your grade level team about how you can work this into the curriculum, and so on so forth.”

How Curricular Change Occurs: Roadblocks and Driving Forces

Indeed, one of the greatest challenges diversifying the curriculum is the areas of expertise and even comfort of the teachers themselves. Sarkar explained, “I ask the department chairs to do some kind of analysis of what are the offerings and what are the holes, and… we usually can fill in some of the holes, [though] we’re never going to fill in all the holes… Sometimes, though, the personnel and the holes aren’t a good match, and that leads to a worse experience than… to leave a hole vacant.” For instance, she recounted the history course called Race Relations that was abandoned when past History Teacher Peter Reinke, one of two African American teachers at the time, left the School. When a history elective slot opened up last year, she tried to find someone to offer the Race Relations class again, but “We didn’t have anybody who was comfortable with that topic.” She added, “We’ve diversified our faculty, we’ve brought in different voices, and by diversifying not only gender, or sexual orientation, or race, but also life experiences, led to a different sense of what’s reality.” But as Bradley reminds us, “We still have work to do. And I think part of why we still have work to do is there’s still enough teachers who come to the teaching profession not having had great education on diversity themselves… and so we need to keep getting… nudged to open our knowledge base more, and become more deeply informed… and think about, ‘How can I weave that back into our curriculum?’”

Change is inevitable, but there are things we can do to help it along. Feidelman stated, “I think the drivers for curricular change are usually two-fold: students who say, ‘I can’t find something I can relate to in your course, it’s too narrow and I’m feeling left out of the discussion,’ that has a profound impact on teachers. And I think teachers who look at the material and think, ‘Well maybe this worked two decades ago, but this doesn’t reflect my America… this doesn’t reflect my student body in this classroom.’” And nothing fuels change like discussion, which is an area in which the School’s community is quite adept. “What’s important to me,” Thiermann insisted, “is that I know that the departments and the department chairs care about this issue, and are willing to discuss it, analyze it, and debate it.”

There was one thing that every faculty member I spoke to seemed to agree on: that there is no “perfect balance” of diversity, and that the process of diversifying the curriculum will never end. There is “always more work,” Feidelman said, “It’s never good enough, and the day that we say it’s good enough means that we’ve to a certain extent become complacent.” Thiermann agreed, “It’s always evolving, and it all depends on one’s point of view and how they measure diversity… Who can say, really, with confidence, when some kind of perfect diversity of voices is achieved?” Bradley added, “And that’s also, frankly, why it’s fun to be a teacher, because it’s always a work in progress… you’re always reinventing.”

I, for one, am grateful that I attend the School today rather than twenty years ago. And I’m jealous of the students who will take my place twenty years from now.

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The Relationship of Diversity and the Curriculum: It’s Complicated