“Arose by any other name would smell as sweet,” my ninth grade English class read, turning the well-worn pages of Romeo and Juliet. A few years later, my classmates and I would read Toni Morrison offer a much starker perspective on identity in her book Beloved:
“Definitions belonged to the definers, not the defined.”
Among the majority of my classmates, Beloved was the first book we read in school by a black author. It got many of us thinking about how lacking our education has been, particularly in Social Studies and English, in the perspectives of marginalized people.
Bill A11321, or the Culturally Responsive Curriculum and Standards Bill, was introduced to the New York State Assembly by Assembly Member Diana Richardson in September 2018 and has remained under review by the education committee since. This bill would mandate that all New York public schools offer new courses that include a comprehensive discussion of one or more marginalized groups. One of these courses would be enforced as a graduation requirement. The bill offers examples of courses that could include the history and achievement of black people, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.
“Culturally responsive” guidelines utilize critical curricula to empower students when seeing themselves represented. The standards also offer opportunities to identify one’s implicit biases and understanding how those biases became present in the first place.
My home — Long Island, NY — has high levels of de facto racial and socioeconomic segregation. Many towns are predominantly white with very few people of color and other towns display the opposite.
My high school’s continued use of and lack of action against the Native American mascot appropriated in 1956 is evidence of unintended ignorance. While many in my school are opposed to this old-fashioned figurehead, there are still those who see no issue, and in fact celebrate the mascot, maintaining that “no one is really offended.” Others see this as honoring Native Americans and do not see much merit in the “cultural appropriation” argument. But who’s really being honored when the mascot represents a mostly white and Asian school population?
A more serious incident, still fresh in my community’s memory, occurred in August 2017 when five seniors graffiti-ed swastikas and racial slurs over the school’s exterior.
Will one high school course will be enough to eliminate prejudice? Probably not. Is prejudice exclusively caused by a lack of exposure to other races? That is also unlikely. But constructing standards for culturally responsive education will set a positive precedent for the future, that culture is a crucial component to education, not merely an extra appendage.
Perhaps the answer isn’t to create separate classes. Another culturally responsive option would be to integrate diverse voices into the curricula of pre-existing courses. More books like Beloved by Toni Morrison could be taught in everyday English classes. Separate classes may lead to the sense that these voices are, themselves, separate — which is clearly not the goal. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of diversity in education: how it affirms marginalized communities, combats the formation of prejudice, and prepares students for life in a diverse world.
According to an English teacher at my school, the College Board has taken some initiative to bring new voices to the fore in the restructured AP English Language and AP English Literature exams for the 2019–2020 school year, requiring more reading passages to be written by writers of marginalized backgrounds. While it is uncertain how much the new passages on the test will affect teachers’ reading lists in the course, this move points those English classes in a more culturally responsive direction.
However, the College Board isn’t necessarily the best organization to look at as a paragon of culturally responsive education especially considering the backlash it received for its recent changes to the AP World History curriculum. The College Board decided to truncate the course curriculum to cover only history from 1200 (CE) to the present. This shortened time period still includes the African trading empires, Mongols, and Aztecs as it is still world history. However, the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Shang Dynasty, Zhou Dynasty, Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, Bantu migration, Maurya Empire, Gupta Empire, and pre-Columbus Native Americans (all non-European) are sacrificed for a curriculum that heavily focuses on Europe’s waves of colonization.
The cuts to the AP World History curriculum demonstrate an important concern among educators: saving time. Some teachers may be completely supportive of the intentions behind the New York bill, but don’t find it possible to include a wider variety of voices in one school year without sacrificing other crucial works. For instance, an English teacher trying to expose students to the Western canon wouldn’t want to be pressured to sacrifice Romeo and Juliet for Beloved. Well, perhaps it is time that we start considering Toni Morrison and other minority writers as part of the Western canon. And perhaps it is time we venture beyond the bounds of our predominant white culture to explore what can be offered by other parts of the world.
At the end of the day, all Bill A11321 intends to do is include just one more course in the list of graduation requirements. The perceived inconveniences when first adopting this new policy are overshadowed by the potential a rich and diverse education to reshape our collective thought for the better. We can be further guided down a path of inclusivity, preventing explicit acts of hatred. We can also halt the growth of prejudices that go unnoticed, lying dormant in our mind as a result of unintended ignorance of diverse voices.