School officials in San Francisco want to overhaul required reading lists so that seven of every 10 books used in classes are by minority authors.
"In a district that is nearly 90 percent students of color, the point of education is not to glorify Europe but to (let) students see themselves in the curriculum," said San Francisco School Board member Steve Phillips, a leader of the effort to change the curriculum.This could mean that if a ninth-grade English teacher chose three books by authors such as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Mark Twain, the remaining seven books would have to be by minority authors. Orwell's "Animal Farm" could be edged out by Amy Tan's "The Kitchen God's Wife." Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" could be shelved in favor of Toni Morrison's "Sula."
"We want every ethnic group to be represented, but I really see this as a way to help African-American students," school board member Keith Jackson said.
Although blacks account for fewer than 16 percent of high school students in the San Francisco Unified School District, Jackson thinks it would be reasonable to mandate that 50 percent of all required reading be of books by black authors.
"If students are required to read 10 books a year, why not have five books by black authors?" Jackson said. "They will identify with authors like Terry McMillan and Alice Walker."
The measure, which would dramatically overhaul the high school English curriculum - replacing some of the literary giants with a more multicultural canon - stirred little opposition when it was introduced at a March 5 school board meeting. It will go before the Board of Education for a final vote March 24.
"I think we need to rethink the traditional canon," Phillips said. "It's outdated. There are new authors who should be added."
But the proposed changes are not without opposition.
"Quality literature doesn't glorify Europe or any other geographical place; it explores the human condition," said Danise Chandler, who has taught English at George Washington High School for more than 30 years.
"Nothing has more resonance with students - at least when taught properly - than Shakespeare. You can teach `Macbeth' in the ghetto; `Julius Caesar' to kids concerned about power; `Romeo and Juliet' to those with heartache."
San Francisco is not alone in re-examining its core teaching, according to Pedro Noguera, University of California at Berkeley education professor and a former Berkeley school board member.
"There is a move in many high schools across the country to re-examine the canon and re-examine the kinds of literature kids are being exposed to," Noguera said. "It comes at a time when we're thinking about new ways to connect with kids and make reading and learning more relevant and interesting."
School board member Dan Kelly strongly favors moving to a more diverse curriculum.
"We have to present works that have a broader range of cultural experiences," Kelly said. "Mark Twain's `Huckleberry Finn,' for instance, has a bias against African Americans. And Chaucer's `Canterbury Tales,' while a great work, has an economic bias. It characterizes people based on their class."
But Chandler said her ninth-grade class is enthralled by Dickens' "Great Expectations."
"It's not a book about a white man or about England," she said. "It's about a person desperately in love, trying to make his way in the world. That is a theme that is color-blind."