Well, we’re knee deep in summer, and if you’re in school or a teacher, the past school year is nothing but a distant, fuzzy memory, and next year is so far away it doesn’t even exist.
So, I argue, now would be a great time to start your summer reading.
Wait! Don’t close the tab! I know, I know, that isn’t a popular suggestion. I, for one, always hated summer reading. Don’t get me wrong – I love reading. In fact, in high school, I worked at the library every summer just so I could come home every day with stacks of books to read in the comfort of air conditioning.
But the thing is, summer reading choices are often kind of uninspiring. The books I remember having to read for summer reading include The Loneliness of the Long Distance runner (a boy changes his life through running), The Natural (a man plays baseball), The Power of One (a boy changes his life through boxing), and Mr. Vertigo (a book that I remember nothing about except for the scene where the male protagonist masturbates into a sock).
I remember disparagingly referring to these books as being in the genre of “a boy and his sport” (yes, even the last one). Because while these books do address a variety of themes and topics, they are, at their hearts, about straight white guys.
Not that I have a problem with straight white guys, per se; it’s just that books about straight white guys or by straight white guys make up the majority, if not the entirety, of many high school reading lists. And I DO have a problem with that.
There have been tons of studies done that show that students learn better when they see themselves reflected in their educational materials. I don’t know about you, but I remember how my math workbooks at school always self-consciously used names that reflected a variety of ethnic backgrounds in their word problems: “Paolo, Sumika, and Jameel are baking a cake…” The reasoning behind that was that kids would connect better to the material if they saw it connecting to them.
However, while educational companies made an effort to put that kind of diversity into their math problems, many English departments neglected to put it into their curriculum.
Now, this is a sensitive topic for me to write on because I used to teach high school English. I know how difficult it can be for a teacher to diversify an existing curriculum. I want to point out that while many of the articles I read in researching this post talk about teachers choosing not to include any kind of diversity in their reading lists, often the teacher herself has very little choice in the matter; between increasingly stringent standards, limited book-buying budgets, and schools that are so scared of falling behind that they would rather stick with the tried-and-true rather than branch out into something new and different, challenging the status quo can seem near impossible. But it’s painfully necessary.
See, it’s a pretty common perception in the English classroom that girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t want to read books about girls. I remember when “The Lovely Bones” was introduced as a potential summer reading book, our department head was concerned that it was a “girl book” and that the boys wouldn’t be interested in it. However, as far as I know, the same concern was never raised about “boy books”.
And as teachers, a large priority is getting the kids to actually read the book assigned. It made sense to choose a book that more kids would read. And if this meant pandering a bit to groups that wouldn’t normally read, so be it.
But that kind of mindset is insidiously problematic.
Think about it – what kind of message does that attitude send? That boy stories are important enough that everyone should read them? That girls should have to read about a male experience because it’s a human experience, but boys should be allowed to dismiss a female experience because they can’t relate to it?
At a very simplified level, that’s teaching boys that they shouldn’t have to pay attention to or understand female stories or experiences at all and that those stories are somehow less important or less worthy of attention. It’s also instilling the sense of entitlement that comes with being told that your particular story is the important one.
Furthermore, male-centric stories relegate women to the sidelines; women are important only as they relate to the protagonist. They’re only important as idealized love interests, evil temptresses, sexless carers, or innocent children. As supporting characters, they’re two-dimensional, lacking the depth and emotion of the main character.
In this kind of story, who are we all taught to empathize with? To understand? Who do we see as a whole person, flawed but fundamentally good?
I’m going to argue that these patterns spill over into our everyday lives. For instance, think about how these dynamics have played out in recent news events in high schools, where the town-hero football players rape girls, or where boys being boys share naked pictures of their female classmates. In the narratives created by the media, who are the multi-dimensional protagonists whose suffering is lamented? Who are the flat, stereotyped characters whose emotions are tossed aside, whose existence is a plot device for the main characters?
Obviously these themes also apply when you’re teaching stories that feature only white protagonists. You’re teaching students of color that their stories are less important and less a part of the mainstream culture – a message that they’ve already gleaned from the media, but is even more poignant in a place that claims to be committed to their well-being and development. And if an aim of education is to prepare students for “real life”, you’re setting the stage for a culture that ignores and/or devalues the lives and stories of black people.
These patterns emerge across all types of diversity. Students with learning disabilities or physical impairments don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum (unless it’s as the occasional inspirational tale of triumph over adversity). Students see over and over that heterosexual relationships are the norm, and are more likely to respond with fear, confusion, or hate when encountering their own or others’ queerness.
The benefits of a more diverse curriculum are simple but powerful. It would let every student, regardless of race, sexuality, gender, or ability, see him or herself reflected in what is deemed worthy of study. Equally, it would make it very clear to white, straight, and able-bodied students that these lives and stories are as important as any other.
This is why I’m constantly updating my feminist reading list with lists of diverse books and films.
What are your favorite books that feature protagonists that aren’t straight white men?