In recent years, there have been various controversies regarding English curricula in high schools across the US. Some schools have debated dropping To Kill a Mockingbird for its glorification of the “white savior” trope. Some have pushed for a curriculum that is proportionally representative of the racial demographics of the city or state. Still others are adamantly in support of the traditional canon of classics, prominently including writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hemingway that can be spotted in any American high school English syllabus. At the core of these controversies lies the question of whether the so-called “dead white men’s canon” sufficiently engages students in fruitful, representative conversations about the human experience through the lens of literature.
As a student at SIS, I can count just one required text that was not part of the Western canon of literature that we have read in high school—Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. This is a woefully thin sliver of a three-year-long mandatory English track dedicated to studying the narratives of a non-Western context when, in fact, our school is rooted in a Korean context. The classic texts we have in our curriculum right now are, of course, valuable works that do explore relevant questions about the human condition. However, the question is not about the value of these texts—we have already established their importance to the Western canon. Including more works by writers of color does not equate to devaluing Shakespeare or Salinger; rather, to diversify is to acknowledge the value of studying underrepresented writers as well as the traditional canon of white writers. In essence, we need texts from various cultural and racial contexts in order to genuinely examine the human condition, rather than the human condition through the lens of only the most privileged group in society.
One may argue that texts by Shakespeare, Harper Lee, and the like are of the greatest literary works that examine universal questions of humanity that transcend racial or cultural specificities. To that, I would ask: would the same be argued about texts by Zora Neale Hurston, Rushdie, or Amy Tan? We assume that works by white writers are universally applicable to any individual’s life, yet we never assume the same for writers of color. This conflation of white with universal demonstrates the tendency to treat white as the “default” perspective or experience. Race or culture cannot be taken out of the equation when studying literature serving to encourage fuller understandings of the human experience; any work is inherently tinted with the hues of the author’s background, as is evident in how To Kill a Mockingbird arguably depicts racial inequity through an egregious “white gaze.”
The first step in diversifying our curriculum is to incorporate works in the Korean or Korean-American diaspora that reflect and resonate with the Korean cultural context of our school. If we are aiming for an education that cultivates an international mindset, we can begin by encouraging our students to recognize the importance of engaging in their own racial and cultural identities that will inevitably shape their experiences and perspectives moving forward. Especially given the sociopolitical and historical power imbalance the West in relation to Korea, particularly in literature, leaving Korean authors out of the curriculum only allows the Western hegemony to continue to dominate. In studying translated works by Korean authors like Han Kang, we can explore violence and the human condition through the culturally relevant lenses of Korean democratization or gender in contemporary Korean society. In reading works by Korean-American authors like Min Jin Lee, we can have the opportunity to examine bicultural perspectives that are shared by many students here.
Other than Korean or Korean-American authors, too, there are endless shelves of works by writers of various backgrounds and identities not limited to the Western canon. By revising the English curriculum, the school can and should address the inconsistency of pushing for global-mindedness and critical thinking while exposing students to only a homogeneous, hegemonic collection of works. It is about time that we recognize the valuable, culturally nuanced understandings we can derive by exploring the vast realm of works beyond our self-imposed limits.