Untold Stories: My Issue with the American Literature Curriculum
Updated: Feb 19
After examining the novels and poetry that most American students are mandated to read throughout their years of schooling, it is extremely troubling, while painfully apparent, that there is nothing “classic” about educational American literature. The word “classic” has no significance in defining white-washed literature that fails to represent the diversity and history of American society—today and centuries ago. Since elementary school, my favorite hobby was reading all kinds of books: fiction, nonfiction, and everything in between. However, my least favorite subject in school was always English; I dreaded the start of the class and always looked forward to its end. Yet, the majority of the period was usually spent in reading time, so the obvious question is: Why did I despise English class to such a great extent?
The simple answer is that we students were forced to read literature that we could not relate to or identify ourselves with. In my South Asian home, we grew up reading R.K. Narayan and Rabindranath Tagore, Indian authors who have written several staples that are shared widely and adored in my culture. In my school, I have to leave behind my cultural identity to read passages upon passages of European colonization in North America, many of which framed gentrification in a positive light for young, impressionable minds to perceive as acceptable. Authors whose literature was not about European pilgrimages, like Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare, were also overread in the classroom. During the poetry unit that annually reoccurs, Poe constantly dominates throughout a student’s career; the countless times that my class has analyzed “The Raven” has reached the extent to which the poem has lost all novelty and meaning to me.
Although these authors produced works that shaped the literature following their publications, they only make up a slight portion of an ever-evolving global history. Some may argue that the reason why the English class curriculum is filled with literature written by white men is that these works specifically represented the birth of the United States of America (also known as Turtle Island before the Indigenous land was colonized by Europeans). This argument paints the U.S. in a light that it is a “white” country, which is wholly different from the truth as the U.S. was born from immigrants, many of whom are not white.
Additionally, the school-mandated texts written by women and people of color are exactly that: texts written by women and people of color. There are constant themes of oppression and struggles for liberation whenever we read literature from non-white and non-male authors, and although these works are monumental in describing the growth of the U.S., it is all students ever read of. It is disappointing to see that the white male authors we read from had the license to produce literature that discussed philosophy, science, and any topic that sparked creativity, while the pieces produced from all other demographics mainly centered on being free from white men’s standards. A way that this can be amended is if the American education system introduces more minority-written texts into classrooms that discuss American cultural movements, like the Harlem Renaissance, but not when a student is about to graduate high school, rather in their elementary and middle school years too. On the other hand, an effort should be pursued by classrooms to evaluate different cultures and not just repeatedly focus on one specific cultural movement at every grade level; otherwise, this would seem like forced diversity and a lack of sincerity for enriching students’ educations.
Alluded to previously, there is also a high amount of ostracization that the American school curriculum provides in English classes. In the above paragraph, when I mentioned the term “people of color,” I mean mainly black people. In a country that has a population of over 18.5 million Asian Americans, it does not do a student’s (Asian-American or not) education justice to not learn about Asian American cultures and their literary impacts on American society. While Asian Americans immigrated to the U.S. decades after the country’s founding, this does not mean they had no responsibility in the birth of U.S.. If students are instructed to read W. B. Yeats, an Irish poet, in English class, they should also read his contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet whose works have been translated to English decades ago. In order for students of all cultures to thrive in their education, it is important that European literature is not a staple in classrooms because it promotes harmful standards both inside and outside a school environment. For example, it took me up until two years ago to realize that all the stories I wrote were always set in the U.S. and never had characters with ethnic names in them. Even though in the majority of my schooling, I’ve been surrounded by peers who share my Asian ethnicity, I never once thought anything of naming all my fictitious characters John or Emma or Sophia or Elizabeth. Although this matter seems trivial, when put into perspective, it reveals how normalized American society has made Eurocentrism to the point where students of color feel like they do not belong in the U.S. nor the country of their ethnic background.
Dear The United States Department of Education,
As a daughter of immigrants, I do not want to just belong in the country of my birth, I want to feel as if I belong as well. I am sure a myriad of students across the U.S. share my sentiment and would appreciate it if our predecessors’ voices were heard through the literature we read in our English classes.
Editors: Nikki J., Emily X., Claudia L.
Cover Photo Source: The Beachcomber