Our district reading lists read like it’s 1950

Carrie Gaffney is the managing editor of The Educational Forum. She spent 12 years as a secondary English teacher and is still active in The National Writing Project and Second Story, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit devoted to bringing creativity to underserved schools. 

During my years in the classroom, I spent a lot of time and energy pushing back against the expectation that I fill my classes teaching the Western Canon. I know, I know. Harold Bloom said these were the works our children needed to read to be educated citizens. And yes, a lot of what’s included in the Canon is terrific.

But it still bugs me.

You see, as Bloom wrote it in 1994, the Canon included an embarrassingly low number of writers who were either women or people of color. Don’t get me wrong, Don DeLillo is great. But why does he get four books on the list, while Margaret Atwood gets only one and Alice Walker gets zero?

Moreover, with so few female authors on the list, the number of complex female characters also suffers. It’s not that male writers can’t create believable females, but still…why do Canon readers trip over characters in eight Thomas Hardy books only to find Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical Esther Greenwood not represented at all?

It wasn’t fair when the book published in 1994, and it isn’t fair today, when sadly, our district reading lists still read like it’s 1950. But that’s changing slowly, thanks to trailblazers like Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins. Because of them—and women like them—there’s  a new generation of powerful female characters for girls to enjoy, and sometimes they even get to do it during class time. While you won’t find the Hunger Games trilogy on my home state of Indiana’s suggested reading list for schools, teachers everywhere are beginning to understand that strong characters, and the women who create them, make the world a more interesting place.

As educators, we have the responsibility to provide our students opportunities to read about all types of people, written from the perspectives of all types of people. Tell me, as March passes and we reflect on Women’s History Month, how are we doing?

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