It’s that time of month again where I post a discussion and this time around I want to talk about diversity on the school curriculum (or the lack of it.) It baffles me as to why schools and exam boards don’t make more of an effort to include diverse books on the syllabus since the outcomes are clearly positive.
Personally, I didn’t start writing diversely until I started reading diversely, so during creative writing tasks at school I only ever wrote white, cishet, able-bodied characters. When I first started writing as a hobby, I still only wrote these characters because they were the characters I was reading about. In fact, I once wrote 30k words of a romance novel before I realised I was doing something wrong. It just wasn’t what I wanted to write. Needless to say, I never picked up that project again and it’s been sitting untouched for two years and counting. Now, I almost always write POC characters, and include other diverse aspects when it feels appropriate to do so.
So, do I blame the school curriculum for me, a person of colour, thinking I could only write certain characters? During my GCSE and A-Level years, there wasn’t a single book we studied whose main character was a person of colour, and looking back on these books now I’ve come to realise how problematic some of them were. This was never addressed when we studied them. I didn’t even realise books could be problematic, and especially not the ones considered as classics. Crooks from Of Mice and Men is not only discriminated against for being black, but he is also defined by his disability – he is named after his crooked back. Simon from Lord Of The Flies who is likely to have epilepsy is brutally killed by the other boys. Unsurprisingly, Piggy – overweight and asthmatic – is also killed, and just like Crooks he is never referred to by his real name.
It’s unfair to force students to read these books and to teach them that these are the books they should be reading, the ones where they don’t come across any characters who look just like themselves. It’s even more unfair that when they do occasionally come across these characters, they are only written to be dehumanised and/or killed. It isn’t a surprise then, that when we ask children to write a story, they invent white, cishet, able-bodied characters, because otherwise their story clearly won’t be good enough. That is what they have been taught through their mainstream education, and it’s a huge problem that isn’t being addressed.
When I got to university, nothing much had changed. I was made to read Rebecca and Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. The classics. I didn’t expect anything less from a literature degree, but the lack of diverse books on the course is still worrying.
During my first year, I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I later discovered to be banned in the United States. The story is centered around a young girl, Pecola, who struggles with her African-American identity. Aside from addressing racism, the book also touches upon other controversial issues such as rape and incest. It was the book I chose for my assignment, and perhaps this was because I was subconsciously drawn to it being the only diverse book on the list. But, it is still banned in some places. A book about a black girl written by a black author.
I did some research to see if anything has changed on the curriculum because it’s been a while since I did my GCSE’s and the whole specification recently changed, but it seems that a lot of the texts remain the same. That being said, I did notice a very small number of books written by marginalised authors and/or about marginalised people, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Statistically, it’s something like one in seven.
I hope, in future, we see a significant shift and focus on diverse books being taught in schools. It’s the smallest thing but it’ll have the biggest impact. I’m confident in my belief that this change in curriculum will pave the way for a new generation of writers who will have so many important stories to tell. With the increasing number of diverse books being published right now, there is no excuse to exclude them.
What do you think about the inclusion (or exclusion) of diverse books on the school curriculum? Which books did you study at school, or which books are you currently studying? Which books do you hope to see being taught in future?