Spoiled rich white boys: Sophomore English hasn’t changed in 60 years

I was shocked when we got DC1’s reading list for this quarter.  They are reading:  Into the Wild, Dead Poet’s Society, and the book that I had partly moved DC1 into Honors from Pre-AP to AVOID:  A Separate Peace.

In other words, they are reading books from the 1960s that were outdated then about spoiled rich white boys who create their own problems and a somewhat newer book that is just like them.  Just like we did in Freshmen and Sophomore English so many years ago.

So we emailed hir English teacher to ask for the list of the rest of the books for the semester.  She said that first quarter was about the theme of “Coming of Age” so they had chosen books to fit that theme.  Here are the remaining “books”:

Fiction Choice (students choose from books that meet very loose requirements)
Nonfiction Choice
Serial (the podcast)
Antigone
12 Angry Men
Dystopia Choice

… and this is almost exactly like our Sophomore English class back in the early 90s.  Lots of books that don’t even have any women *in* them, much less as protagonists.  One Greek play where the woman in question comes to a tragic end through Destiny (we read Antigone in middle school, but Oedopus Rex has some soon-to-die women in it… I assume in the South they can’t handle the subject matter like they can in the midwest), and a thing about a young minority in jail for allegedly killing a woman (for us it was Native Son and the woman was white, for DC1 I guess it will be a Muslim man allegedly killing an Asian woman).  We also had a unit on depressing (white) Russian (men) and I guess it isn’t Gregor Samsa’s fault he woke up as a giant cockroach, but it sure as heck was the Crime and Punishment dude’s fault he decided to kill that pawn broker and then to just go on and on and on about it.

Readers, I complained about my sophomore year’s sausage fest.  I complained hard.  And one of the English teachers listened and asked for suggestions of classics that weren’t all men.  And they changed things up a bit.  I know they added Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Thurston, though I don’t remember if they made other changes.  We didn’t get to benefit, but classes after us did.

DC1 is going to have to deal with a year in which 50% of the population doesn’t even show up in the books with a speaking role (TWO are set at boy’s prep boarding schoools!!!  TWO!)  But we also have a DC2.  So here’s what we responded:

Thank you for getting back to us.

Women and minorities also come of age.  Our high school back in the mid-1990s swapped out one of these standard rich white boys come of age books for Zora Neale Thurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God after complaints about lack of gender and race diversity.  We didn’t get to benefit from that change, but students after us did.  Today, of course, we have so many more excellent choices such as The Hate U Give or any number of books about the Hispanic-American coming of age experience (some of which we had thought were on the reading list for this class in the past, but we must have been mistaken).  Hopefully in time there will also be books about the Asian-American and Native American coming of age experience.  The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has so many suggestions complete with lesson plans that we didn’t have 25 years ago.

Please share this perspective with the other Honors English teachers.  We are hoping that by the time our [second child] gets to high school [they] will no longer have to believe that the only coming of age experience worthy of being taught in sophomore English is that of the already privileged.  Several of these books don’t have any female or minority characters at all.  It seems crazy that the only woman that sophomore honors students are studying is a woman from a Greek tragedy who meets a messy end.  And the only (religious) minority person being studied is someone in jail for murder.  Hopefully these are not people that female and minority teens are expected to identify with!  Women are over 50% of the population and the US and [our state] are rich in diversity.  Most kids aren’t wealthy.  Shouldn’t our English classes signal that everyone is worthy, not just white males?

(Also, as much as we love the Princess Bride… it doesn’t actually pass the Bechdel test.  A thought exercise:  How many of the movies shown in sophomore English do?)

That last line is because we had to give permission for a list of movies to be shown in class.  Most of them were movie versions of the above novels, but there were a couple in there that weren’t.

But seriously– in today’s world I want to see more of the teenage years of the Sotomayors and Ginsbergs and far less of the Kavanaughs and Trumps.  We’ve had enough of caring about their petty problems and not enough of showing the real problems that other teens and young adults face and what it takes to triumph in a society that’s set up against you (rather than what it takes to fail in a society that stacks the deck on your behalf).  Though perhaps contrasting those two types of coming of age novels makes the difference all too obvious.

Living in the South, I’m sure that part of the reason for these continued white sausage fests is that they’re afraid of tea-party complaints should they try to add any color.  They need to know that whitewashing also leads to parent concerns.  Even if it just means swapping out Into the Wild with The Joy Luck Club (which is taught in Sophomore Pre-AP this year), our teens deserve better.

I’m still really mad.  AND I have to actually buy copies of these @#$ing books.  My work friend offered to loan me A Separate Peace because pre-AP has to read it too, so I think I’m fine there (her son annotated the book for class, but DC1 can annotate with post-it notes instead of writing on the paper itself).

While I was writing this, DC1 walked in and complained that hir English teacher wants them to make presentations using worst practices– bright colors and animations that distract from the presentation itself.  *sigh*  I told hir to think of it as a chance to get all those bad practices out of hir system.

What was your high school English reading selection like in terms of diversity?  If you have kids, what are they being assigned?

65 Responses to “Spoiled rich white boys: Sophomore English hasn’t changed in 60 years”

  1. gwinne Says:

    Yikes.
    I have no idea what our high school’s sophomore curriculum is because my kid opted into a GT option taught at the university. That was a two year program with the first hitting the canon harder than the second. Over the sequence, there was Shakespeare and Dickens but also Margaret Atwood and Alberto Rios. I don’t think they read Hurston, which is too bad….but they didn’t do much early c.20 American that I recall, other than the obligatory Upton Sinclair. I wouldn’t mind teaching our department’s intro course again….

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wow! I wish we had that option. They’re really not hitting any classics very hard. If zie had stayed in Pre-AP they would be doing more. Another thing that really gets me is that they did no classics in middle school.

  2. Michael Nitabach Says:

    Yeah I was in high school in the early 80s & total white dude sausage fest indeed.

  3. delagar Says:

    Ugh. Like you, those are the books *I* read in high school, in my definitely NOT honors English class. I hated English class so much it took me years to realize I should be an English professor.

    Good for you for pushing back.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The world was changing in the 1960s and the elite white males in the publishing industry were pushing for nostalgia from the good old days where the elites were in fancy boarding schools and the hoi poloi experienced the Great Depression. You know, the last time servants were cheap. The good old days for good old boys.

      No wonder we keep electing these people. How can they read these and dystopia novels in the same year? I’m sure they don’t see the irony.

    • Bardiac Says:

      Me, too, Delagar! I really loved reading, but didn’t like the readings for HS English, or the focus on certain kinds of stuff. I never even took an English course during my BS. (I went in with 10 credits from testing, which should have been a sign.)

  4. Steph Says:

    Yikes. I’m glad you’re pushing back against this, though it’s frustrating that it sounds like they may have regressed after a little bit of progress.

    I went to an all-girl’s high school, which made some difference in terms of gender balance, but it was still heavily white. We did read books by non-white authors (The Life of Pi, Things Fall Apart, Black Ice, The Woman Warrior), but they were usually assigned as summer reading and then we barely talked about them in class, if at all. My summer reading before freshman year was Catcher in the Rye, Life of Pi, and Things Fall Apart – the only one we really discussed was Catcher in the Rye. (Although I did write a very bad paper on Life of Pi, so maybe we did discuss it at least a little bit). My senior year I took “world literature”, and while we we read a book by a Japanese Author (Silence by Shusaku Endo) and a collection of Gabriel Garcia Marquez stories, we spent far less time on them than on the white authors that we read.

  5. SP Says:

    How frustrating. Thank you for pushing back on this. I’m trying to remember what we read sophomore year, but I might be getting my years mixed up? Lord of the Flies. To kill a mocking bird. I can’t remember the others. I think I read catcher in the rye on my own volition.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We did to kill a mockingbird in 7th grade and thankfully I missed lord of the flies!

      I have to think that if they added standard coming of age stories for minority teens (teen girl overcomes adversity, teen boy is destroyed by it—these are the standard tropes) to that unit it would become way too obvious how self-indulgent the rich white dudes stories are. (And also how in some of them they get away Scott free with killing someone. An “accident.”). If you have to do a separate peace, that’s a great context to put it in.

  6. FF Says:

    I graduated from a public high school in the early ’80s in NYC (Queens). What I remember reading (very incomplete):
    12th grade, AP English: The Iliad, plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles, Don Quixote, Hamlet and Macbeth, Crime and Punishment, Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
    11th grade: one semester was The Bible as Literature–selections from the Bible + Moby Dick
    Other semester: The Great Gatsby (I remember the teacher explaining what all of the places are today since we were local), some stories from In Our Time, The Scarlet Letter (or was that 10th grade?).
    I don’t remember much else. As you can see, all the authors I do remember were male, but there may have been some women writers who aren’t coming to mind.
    I think that assigned reading may be chosen, in part, based on the idea that boys will only want to read books with male protagonists (and will not read books with female protagonists) but girls don’t discriminate in this way.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I hate that assumption. Women and minorities HAVE to spend their lives reading about white men. No need to pander even more. No need to perpetuate it. No need to firm up these systems of power. No need to punish girls for following rules. White boys need to learn that we are people too and it’s not always about them or we end up with more kavanaughs.

  7. Lisa Says:

    I think it was freshman rather than sophomore year, but Kid 2’s class spent *10 weeks* on Romeo and Juliet. That’s all they read for an entire quarter. Fortunately, she loved reading before that, but it’s frustrating and disappointing that high school English works this way, because it could be so much better.

  8. Natka Says:

    Oh no, don’t throw Dostoyevskiy to the wolves :) He may have been an unpleasant human being, and his books may be “sausage fest” – love that expression, by the way – but his writing is amazing. The characters in his books – they are so real.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We understand he’s an acquired taste.

      And individually each book likely has merits (except a separate peace which is not high quality but has the benefit of heavy handed symbolism making it easy to teach). It’s just problematic when women don’t even approach 50% of the characters much less 50% of the protagonists or authors. Similarly people who aren’t white.

      • Natka Says:

        It’s very interesting to hear about the books you read in school… I was in the former USSR through 10th grade and had a very… shall we say… old-school teacher. I don’t think we ever read anything written by women in class. It was all Russian (male) classics or Russian male writers from the 50-60’s. Ah, Pushkin’s grandfather was from Africa, so that’s sort of diversity, I guess. (Pushkin is like the Mozart of poetry – amazingly talented and fun to read… and he seemed to love writing about women).

        Our teacher (a woman) had very definite ideas of what women should be like – and I still shudder when I think about that (why do I remember this stuff?)

        After coming to the US, I remember having to read a severely truncated version of “Les Miserables” in school for a (non-AP) literature class. It was a shock to the system when I was NOT told what to think and it was permitted to have an opinion. That was great – even though “abridged” version of books is a travesty :)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Sadly, no Pushkin– our Russia unit emphasized what a cold dirty grey place Russia is to live and how that influenced depressing writing. (No word on how it also produced beautiful music that wasn’t all sad.)

  9. accm Says:

    Same here. Mid-late 80s. Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth. A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Lost Horizon, Brave New World, 1984. I think my kids will get to read more diverse things; we’re in a pretty progressive place. (And the place I grew up would undoubtedly be better by now.)

  10. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    If making your own problems and not getting external punishment is the white boy coming of age trope (along with hiring a prostitute, having your dog die, and doing a survival trip), and triumphing over adversity is the black woman coming of age YA trope and not triumphing over adversity is the black man coming of age trope, what is the white woman coming of age trope?

    All I’m coming up with is getting your period and coming into magical powers that allow you to destroy an enemy army. I guess there’s something of an overcoming adversity through inherent goodness trope (Ann of green gables, Jayne eyre, Pollyanna ), so maybe that? (Though Harry Potter and Charlie and the chocolate factory kind of have that too.)

    • FF Says:

      Traditionally, wouldn’t it be falling in love/getting married?

      • teresa Says:

        This. Or being punished/a social outcast for rejecting your proper falling in love/getting married role.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, maybe getting dumped or refusing an arranged marriage? They generally seem to get married in the end as a HEA though. :/ And I love happy marriages, but that’s why I read romances, not coming of age novels where there’s so much life ahead.

        I like how marrying Rochester was only an afterthought after Jayne Eyre had come into her own. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler for anyone!) With Elizabeth Bennet, we don’t really get to know her– it’s a romance, but how much does she really grow? (Some, but only in relationship to men!)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        So white women come of age as adults rather than as teens? And only in relationship to white men seeing them as worthy? That’s depressing…

        I think I like the YA suddenly getting magical powers in the middle of a battle and taking out the opposing army version better. Or maybe even winning a horse race like in National Velvet…

        Maybe we all need better coming of age novels (except maybe black women who just need more of them! since the ones that made it to publication are all around excellent).

    • Omdg Says:

      Being unpopular and finding your own passion. And then the hot popular boy decides you’re cool, but only after you get a makeover, which involves getting contact lenses, wearing makeup, and putting on a dress. :-)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Ah yes! That’s definitely the coming of age movie trope for women!!! And probably in books that I didn’t read… (because I was busy reading the “girl discovers magical powers and saves country” variety of coming of age novel instead)

  11. teresa Says:

    In the mid-90s, maybe getting some of the years mixed up. My school tended heavily toward short stories and excerpts that were in our anthology text and tried to minimize full length books.
    9th grade: Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, Great Expectations (abridged version with a number of chapters summarized)
    10th (British Literature): Macbeth, Beowulf, I swear there was another Dickens but I can’t think what. Possibly a Bronte or an Austen (I know I read them but I can’t remember if they were school-assigned or things my mother made me read).
    11th (American Literature): Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies. The Scarlet Letter was nominally in the honors curriculum but the teachers decided it was too difficult for HS and showed the movie instead.
    12th (AP Lit): Hamlet, The Stranger, all the Oedipus cycle, Antigone, I think something else greek, Portrait of the Artist. Definitely a few others I can’t remember. I know I wrote a paper about Their Eyes Were Watching God which I think was on a choose-x-of-these to read over the summer list. And now I remember a unit on the Harlem Renaissance and its later influences which included some Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Maya Angelou. Also, now that I think about it, my AP lit teacher was the only non-white teacher I had in HS in any subject.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I WISH we’d been assigned a Bronte or an Austen. Those are bonafide classics, yet have never appeared on a curriculum for me, and they’re STILL GOOD BOOKS. Like, I have reread many of them for fun! (And I didn’t *like* Wuthering Heights, but it’s still better quality than A Separate Peace.) We read Beowulf in 8th grade! I made Grendal’s mother’s arm out of brownie and frosting as a class project. :)

      There sure are a lot of white high school English teachers out there… and they do seem to have an outsize influence on the curriculum. I would have loved to learn about the Harlem Renaissance in English (we did cover it in one or more of my history classes, but only really briefly, and probably only in February…).

      Gatsby is another one of those rich white people making their own problems things that I could have lived without. If we’re going to choose one, sure, that one, but we don’t need so many!

  12. middle_class Says:

    I was in a school where Asians were at least 50% of the student body. In honors english, it was all white male perspective ( except Wuthering Heights).

    I was totally brainwashed and believed that white male angst was universal. I had no idea how privileged most of the characters were. Now I know better. While I still love many of the white male centered classics (due to brainwashing), I now often get annoyed by this perspective.

    Recently, I started was reading a classic novel with a white male protagoinist. The writing was superb and the story was right up my alley. But at one point I stopped reading because I got tired of his whining. What I perceived as the deep existential angst of many classics now seem like trivial self-made problems and incessant self-pitying whining.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I have to wonder how much of this curriculum is responsible for the US government and the justice system now. It’s unthinkable that rich white men should pay for their crimes. It is unthinkable that they shouldn’t be allowed to just take what they want from everybody else. It’s unthinkable that women should be represented in gaming or super-hero movies or or or…

      EXACTLY re the deep existential angst actually being trivial whining about self-made problems. If there were more books about women and minorities, that would be whole lot clearer. I’ve often felt that one of Jane Austen’s big teachings is that idle hands make for the devil’s playground. Those angsty men (and women!) are comical side characters, not protagonists in her books. (To be fair, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens have their share as well, but we never read THOSE books in English! Only their depressing books if at all.)

  13. CG Says:

    In my English classes in the late 90s, in addition to the usual white male stuff, we read The Awakening, which is a total bummer of a book. The books we read by men with female protagonists tended to have them be adulteresses who were punished by ostracism or death (Anna Karenina, The Crucible, Madame Bovary). We did read The Good Earth and Antigone (also death). A friend who had a different English teacher remembers reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the Joy Luck Club. I’ve read both of those but I don’t think it was in high school. Oh and my friends say that we read Pride and Prejudice senior year–I had forgotten. I can’t believe this isn’t better yet.

  14. jjiraffe Says:

    Jane Austen definitely covers the inequalities women faced during her time. “Pride & Prejudice” and “Sense & Sensibility” both show daughters not inheriting their rightful money or property and having to marry well or be in major financial difficulties. Lizzie Bennett et all weren’t able to gain their rightful inheritance as it was “entailed” to some random male relative — usually a selfish jerk. We were required to read “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” in high school in my day, and they are good too, but never Austen and that is stupid as I consider her as genre-defining as Shakespeare. (I said what I said!)

    Then there’s lots of wonderful books with diverse characters that most would consider high literature, teachers just need to check the Booker prize/nominees list in the last 40 years. Someone mentioned “Life of Pi”, I’d add “White Teeth” and “Midnight Children”. (I guess I lean more British than American literature as I am looking at my list.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I love austen to pieces and took a class on her in college that even got me to like Mansfield park! (Northanger abbey maybe is a coming of age story?)

      Booker prize list is a great idea.

      • jjiraffe Says:

        A Jane Austen class! I am so jealous. I don’t love Mansfield Park, I must confess…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, but it is much more interesting in terms of social commentary and historical context than it is a love story about protagonists you can’t really identify with and don’t really care about.

        One of the things that irritated me in college was that all the humanities people got to satisfy their math and science requirements with variations on rocks for jocks, but us STEM people had to take actual real English major classes. But Jane Austen was good. (I wrote a paper on Emma in the Middle of an Agricultural Revolution that my prof said was new information to him and he might use it professionally.) There were some really terrible English classes with super sexist profs that I am so glad I was able to avoid.

  15. xykademiqz Says:

    My main issue is that so far the choice of books at school has done nothing but convince my kids they hate reading. Even supposedly good books, like The Tale of Desperaux in elementary school, are simply not interesting to them and when I read those, I often agree. I feel like there should be some care given to what actually truly interests kids (hint: they don’t go for sanctimonious or archaic) rather than what hand-wringing adults think interests them. All my kids consistently read several levels above their grade and they all reported hating reading. The eldest has always read a lot for pleasure, mostly fantasy, but he’s an agreeable kid and didn’t object too much to reading for school. But middle and youngest kid actively say that reading is stupid. What that means is middle boy devours science writing, nonfiction, and manga. Youngest loves comic books and scary novels (like Goosebumps). They both associate school with boredom and pointless busy work, whose saving grace are friends and an occasional non-boring class. I wish schools weren’t so stupid for kids so much of the time.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think these white dude coming of age books are trying to be that, but only for white male reluctant readers.

      TBH I think by middle and high school they can read things that aren’t fun because they’re classics that illustrate something about history or culture or literature. I actually dislike reading books I really enjoy in English classes and prefer reading books that are high quality that are not my taste. There’s something about the dissection process that helps me enjoy books I wouldn’t read for pleasure but turns me off from books I love. (See Mansfield park vs pride and prejudice which I haven’t read since the last century.)

      But for elementary school we read a book a week and spanned all the genres so I was able to find things I didn’t know I would like (The Blue Sword!) and other people found things they loved but I wasn’t crazy about (horror, sad stories about dogs and/or best friends dying, etc.)

      • xykademiqz Says:

        My own experiences were different because I didn’t grow up in the US. I don’t remember what we read in elementary and middle school, but in HS we read and analyzed only the classics (almost exclusively European), never anything contemporary: from ancient works (like The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) through European Renaissance (Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Boccaccio), to the works of so, so many French (Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal) and Russians (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev). We often read multiple books by an author. I remember at least two books by Dostoevsky in high school (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, both of which I loved) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina and War and Peace, both of which I hated). I cannot remember any female authors at all, and I don’t remember it struck me as odd. Then again, I was pretty steeped in the patriarchy and clueless about its inner workings until I was well into my twenties. I did read a lot on my own, for example I did read all of Jane Austen that was available at a nearby public library. I remember reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but cannot remember if it was for school or not. Probably not. I am happy to have been exposed to all this, but I was generally super into school and just devoured everything. I think most of these were considered a chore by most of my cohort.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We read the odyssey but not the Iliad and we read excerpts of Gilgamesh for history (but not English!). I think we also read excerpts of inferno for history, but my memory is hazy.

  16. Debbie M Says:

    I also thank you for pushing back. The diversity in my high school (which was a good school–except for the English department) was just chronological diversity. Everything from Greek tragedies, Purgatorio, and the Canterbury Tales to, uh, Billy Budd (Herman Melville). Mostly a sausage fest, though The Scarlett Letter certainly had a strong female character (in a very alien-to-me world), and I suppose McBeth isn’t a complete sausage fest.

    For coming-of-age stories, something modern would be good. But I also really like Pride and Prejudice for a close look at how women had to walk a fine line between grabbing up the first, possibly terrible, opportunity, and holding out and possibly never getting married at all, even worse for most people back then. In America, I like to think we no longer have any situation where this is relevant–we are all about second chances here. And if you’re about to give me a bunch of examples of how I’m wrong, thank you, I like to learn things!

    I love “Twelve Angry Men.” Even with Henry Fonda, though it’s even better when the star is someone you don’t already like: It’s super powerful when you start off annoyed with that guy. And it would probably be super effective in an outdoor performance in the dead of summer. [This is also why the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice is not my favorite–he is too good looking for me to want to hate him right away like I should. The Matthew Macfadyen (and Keira Knightley) version worked much better for me because I had never noticed that actor before.]

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great insights on Twelve Angry Men.

      I think the Scarlet Letter follows the woman punished for adultery (while nothing happens to the man) trope, Which… not great? (#2 really loved Anna Karenina back in the day, but fortunately we never had to read that for class.)

      I suspect women’s current ability to not have to accept the first man who offers is a major part of why the Republican platform is what it is.

  17. Alice Says:

    Oh, we read female authors as well as male ones (mid-80s/very early 90s), though I think it was much more heavily weighted towards males. Some diversity, not much. But honestly, what I mostly remember is that they were mostly grim. Do you like a character and wish that person well? Then he or she will die or be miserable at the end. Can you absolutely not stand some malicious spreader of misery? Hey, that’s the person who will end with wealth, happiness, and the ability to spread their obnoxiousness near and far.

    Most of the people I knew back then said that they hated to read because all they read were assigned books from English class. I loved reading, but what I loved was not Great Literature. Still true, if I’m being strictly honest.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah the 80s were all about dogs and best friends and horses dying so that the (generally white male) protagonist could experience growth. And then all the ancient tragedies where everyone dies at the end, but one generally knew to expect that.

      In high school one of my worse English teachers (one of two English teachers who kicked me out of their class and sent me to some other poor sap) said that all great literature is either about sex or death. Now, that’s not actually true, but it is true for that kind of English teacher. So when one of my friends in college innocently took a poetry class from the sexist douchebag my other friend later reported for harassment) I was able to tell her that poem about a flower was actually about a woman’s genitalia (she thought I had a dirty mind, but I was right). And anything that isn’t sex symbolizes death. (Poor female English teacher the next year trying to explain to brainwashed students that sometimes an Emily dickens writes about other things!)

  18. C Says:

    Oh my gosh Crime and Punishment was so boring! We had a small AP English class and I remember all of us thinking he was a tool. Raskolnikov, I mean. Dude, if you’re going to murder someone GET OVER IT. Don’t just go on and on…. And I remember being irritated by Catcher in the Rye even as a teen. But I’m also pretty sure I avoided Wuthering Heights… maybe got away with just reading Cliff Notes? Possibly the only book written by a woman I encountered in high school, now that I think of it. Oh no — actually, we did read A Wizard of Earthsea as well, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which is as diverse as I recall things being. We did also read A Scarlet Letter which, again, irritated me. But see, I already loved reading, having found The Blue Sword and Tamora Pierce’s Alana series on my own. I can’t remember which grades I read what too much, but it was a total white male sausage fest. UGH.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wizard of earth sea on the k-12 curriculum! We read parts of the invisible man in 7th grade as part of junior great books but not the whole thing.

  19. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I’m really enjoying this discussion! After dinner I mentioned what folks have been saying to DH and DC1 and DC1 (who has just taken a pre-quiz about opinions about teen introspection before they start into the woods tomorrow) noted that zie would not mind at all if we spoiled hir more and zie didn’t have to do chores and so on. Zie promised zie wouldn’t go on a stupid wilderness journey. DH also dug up the tvtropes page on coming of age which was entertaining.

    “Mom, they’re asking if material possessions are important. Who would think they’re not?”
    “Only people who have never actually had to go without.”

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  21. wally Says:

    I was a voracious reader and even in kindergarten refused to read books about boys. In second grade we had a bookcase that we were supposed to read through – starting at the top with the easiest books and working our way down to the hardest. I still would not read books about boys (I remember specifically Around the World in 80 days and 10,000 leagues under the sea – would not read them) and had to do special outside reading to make up for it.

    I went to schools where whites were in the minority – and yet our readings were primarily about and by white men.
    Jr high: seventh grade: Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello), Canterbury Tales, Beowulf (weirdly our english teacher had a PhD – he was also a member of the KKK, but that is another story). 8th grade (KKK english teacher had been fired, so we had a diff teacher): I remember reading the Outsiders but nothing else.

    High school (memory for these is spotty): Huck Finn, Red Badge of Courage, Brave New World, Heart of Darkness, and then in senior year humanities we were allowed to choose a book from a list of options and I chose My Antonía (Mill on the Floss was one of the other options I remember).

    In college I took a humanities course taught by a theatre professor who introduced me to Margaret Atwood and Zora Neale Hurston – among others.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      !! The KKK!!!!

      I chose My Antonia off a list too. I vaguely remember writing an essay on it. (But did not remember the casual racism …). We did Much ado about nothing in 7th grade and Taming of the Shrew in 8th grade. At some point we had excerpted Canterbury Tales (only the weird ones without sex in them), but I don’t remember when. I think DC1 had to read the Outsiders at some point. We did Huck Finn sophomore year and one of the classes I got kicked out of (this one with the female deconstructionist, not the awful dude) did the heart of darkness but I was gone long before then. We also read red badge of courage… but I can’t remember when… maybe 8th grade? We also read some john steinback that year.

  22. Matthew D Healy Says:

    My High School in the 1970s was more diverse than that, though I don’t recall details. Maybe Wisconsin Jesuits were a little ahead of the curve?

    And freshman year in College we did Panshin’s Rite of Passage.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Just read the Wikipedia description…why do so many of these dudes think 14 year old girls are ready for sex? I still prefer girl gets magical powers and destroys invading armies. Much better trope.

    • wally Says:

      I feel like the 70s was a time when, if the momentum had been continued, we really could have achieved a far more equitable society in terms of racism. There were so many great attempts in children’s programming especially to have diverse casts (think the Electric Company, Zoom, Free to be you and me) – then the stupid 80s ruined everything.

      • Matthew D Healy Says:

        Much of the blame for the stupid 80s rests on two individuals and their toxic relationship: Tip O’Neill and Jimmy Carter. Neither of these otherwise-admirable people made much of an effort (1) to understand where the other was coming from or (2) to see beyond personal animosities and get things done to their mutual benefit. Despite a very promising post-Watergate start, very little was accomplished in Carter’s Presidency, so we got Reagan.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Carter gets a bad rap. He was terrible at propaganda but actually did accomplish things. Of course, Nixon did some pretty great things for civil rights despite being pretty vile in those White House recordings (even ignoring watergate). Carter didn’t bring us Reagan. Republican corruption and savvy understanding of how to make low SES white people vote against their best interests got us Reagan.

  23. Bardiac Says:

    When I teach intro courses in lit, I always ask my students what they read in HS and put a list on the board, and then talk about the list. The only drama they read is usually Shakespeare, and usually R&J and maybe another tragedy. Students usually read ONE book by a woman in HS, and ONE by a person of color (maybe the same book, even). Then we use that discussion to talk about the canon, canon formation, and why we’re reading what we’re reading in my class (almost all writers of color, and at least 50% women). There are SO many stellar writers!
    HS choices are often limited by the books they have in storage, which are old, often, and very white, male canon. Find a way to get new books into the mix, and the teachers will happily choose them, i bet. (That I get from talking to HS teachers and ed students).
    All people should learn to read about other perspectives and different voices.
    And while I’m at it, students should read more verse than they do now! And more non-Shakespearean drama! (Shakespeare’s great, of course, but there’s so much great drama!!)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We *already* have to purchase our own copies. (In protest I have borrowed from the uni library instead.)

      We read a TON of verse when I was in middle and high school. From Beowulf to Alfred prufrock. DC1 not so much. And sooo many Greek tragedies.

  24. Grumpy Rumblings 2020 year in Blogging | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] most commented post was Spoiled rich white boys:  Sophomore English hasn’t changed in 60 years (note to self for next year:  this stat is now hidden under “insights” and is no longer on […]


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