Staff Ed: The stories are stale. Our English curriculum needs new characters.

A heartbroken millionaire throws lavish parties in the 1920s. A prince seeks revenge after a ghostly visit. A gloomy traveling salesman turns into a disgusting insect. A frustrated fireman is stuck with the job of burning books. We all know these characters; they are the stars of our literary classics.

The genre of classic literature is a vast sea where every wave represents a different perspective, a unique voice crashing against the shores of our consciousness. Students navigate through existential questions, seeking relevance and craving narratives that mirror our modern world.

But as we navigate these literary seas, it becomes necessary to reassess our guiding compass. While there is certainly merit in reading the classics, incorporating contemporary literature into English class curricula allows for more accessibility, bringing in new, formerly overshadowed perspectives that older books cannot provide.

It is no secret that classic literature predominantly features the voices of heterosexual white men. Out of the 111 books that SDUHSD approved for English classes, only 27 of them are written by women and 18 are written by people of color, according to the official SDUHSD reading list.

The standard Western canon has imposed itself on the way high schools teach entire generations of students, but who is to say whether Bradbury or Fitzgerald have more literary merit than Bryan Stevenson or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?

Reading contemporary literature exposes high school students to a wider range of perspectives. Moreover, with current reading lists, many students never see themselves represented in the pieces they study. Better representation can result in a higher level of engagement.

Yet, the call for diversity transcends mere representation. Diversity is not just a box to check; it is the cornerstone of empathy and understanding. By weaving a tapestry of experiences, literary education has the potential to foster societal introspection and growth.

Old literature, akin to carbon dating, offers glimpses into past political, social and cultural climates. However, it is crucial not to idealize these works as universally applicable to our contemporary conditions. Instead, let us view them as artifacts, providing invaluable insights into past eras and lasting aspects of the human condition.

A good example of bridging the old and the new is having students read both George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as dystopian literature — something that teachers of multiple AP English Lit classes at TPHS have done. Balancing these works, which were written nearly 36 years apart, offers the insights of past dystopian creations while illuminating contemporary struggles.

While it is undeniable that classic literature holds immense value, it is equally important to recognize that the world is constantly evolving, and literature should reflect this evolution to remain relevant and accessible to contemporary audiences. Adhering strictly to “classic” texts without room for adaptation or reinterpretation can inadvertently perpetuate outdated ideas and exclude marginalized voices.

Books like The Joy Luck Club, in turn, exemplify accessibility and relevance and can resonate with students far more profoundly than its archaic counterparts.

While SDUHSD may be better than other schools and California may uplift more voices compared to states like Texas, only 24% of our reading materials coming from female authors is a concerning statistic, one that many students may not realize as they plod through curricula oversaturated with white male voices.

The true essence of literature lies not only in mirroring ourselves but also in exploring connections and revelations that can be extracted from unfamiliar narratives.

We will never forget the great American dream of Jay Gatsby, the tragedy of Hamlet, the inexplicable metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa or the disillusioned conformism of Guy Montag. But let us be more open- minded to newer characters like the determined An-Mei Hsu from The Joy Luck Club and the perceptive Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale. After all, our classics were once new; it is our responsibility to ensure our literary landscape reflects the richness of our contemporary reality.

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