Authors, educators debate the role controversial classics in the classroom

For decades, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been taught as a coming-of-age tale of a young girl’s awakening to the racial inequality that haunts her small town in the Depression-era South, influencing generations of Canadian readers.

But now, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel and other school reading list staples are coming under scrutiny from authors and educators who question whether the cultural values in certain canonized works have withstood the test of time.

Ontario’s Peel District School Board made efforts this year to update its English curriculum to prioritize books by diverse writers, mandating that “To Kill A Mockingbird” not be taught in the district unless instruction was presented through an ”anti-oppression lens.”

In a June document sent to English department heads, the school board said “To Kill A Mockingbird” is one of many white-authored classics that are “violently racist” in their depictions of black people.

“The idea that banning books is about censorship and that censorship limits free speech is often decried as a poor reason to keep the novel on schools’ reading lists as its racist themes make it violent and oppressive for Black students,” the board said.

The board’s move turned up the heat of a debate in writing and educational circles about the role of the classics in the classroom, with some saying these touchstone titles can exist in conversation with more modern texts, while others argue antiquated works should be replaced on school syllabi with books that better represent Canada’s literary diversity.

Victoria-based author Esi Edugyan, who won her second Giller Prize last month for her latest novel “Washington Black,” believes there is still value in studying literature from eras past, but said these works should be taught with an acknowledgment of the racial, social and political changes that have transpired since they were written.

“I think a perfect balance would be this: (still reading) the classics that everybody’s familiar with, that are cultural touchstones, where if you hadn’t read these books, you’re sort of not going to be understanding certain aspects of the conversation… but also reading books by writers of colour and transgender writers, just inviting new work into the classroom that speaks to our modern world and reflects it a lot better.”

Toronto author Thea Lim, who also earned a spot on the Giller shortlist for her debut book “An Ocean of Minutes,” said some works that don’t hold up to today’s moral standards can offer unintended insights when read from a modern perspective.

When the professor at Sheridan College assigned Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” to her creative writing class, she said many of her students were turned off by the noir novelist’s sexist language and portrayal of women as either femme fetales or dead victims.

But when she asked the class whether a novel with retrograde views of women was worth studying in the age of #MeToo, their answer was yes — in fact, of all times in history, we should be reading it now.

“My students started saying if we’re at a point in history where we have these sort of diametrically opposed opinions about gender that we can’t seem to reconcile, then for us to read a work like this and to sort of understand what kind of thinking goes into the dehumanizing of women, that has purpose.”

But there are only a limited number of slots on school reading lists, said Anishinaabe writer Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, the managing editor of Indigenous publishing house Kegedonce Press, and the way they’re allotted sends a message to students about the literature we value — and which perspectives don’t make the cut.

“Some literature … has its time and place, and does it deserve generations and generations of students’ attention? I’m not convinced that it does,” said Akiwenzie-Damm. “Not at the expense of other kinds of literature, other ways of seeing things, other kinds of learning that can happen in the classroom.”

Growing up, Akiwenzie-Damm thought that literature was the domain of “dead white men” based on the books she was assigned in school. She said the absence of Indigenous perspectives from the English curriculum left her feeling like she was on the ”outside looking in,” and it’s vital that Indigenous students recognize their voices as part of the literary conversation.

“I think when not only that you don’t see yourself reflected, but the people around you don’t see you and your culture and your community reflected in what they’re being taught, you become invisible, and it’s dehumanizing in many ways,” she said.

“I’m hoping that we can do better in the future in terms of connecting young people with the literature that’s going to broaden their worlds and help them relate to each other, because this is not just for Indigenous students. It’s also for other students.”

The author of “The Stone Collection,” which features 14 short stories about the Anishinaabe experience, said while some educators are making efforts to add Indigenous literature to their lesson plans, many school systems have proven resistant to change.

This summer, Akiwenzie-Damm was one of a number of Indigenous authors who donated copies of their books to Ontario schools after the province’s Tory government abruptly cancelled curriculum writing sessions designed to fulfil findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But with or without government backing, some schools are making efforts to enhance Indigenous perspectives in the classroom.

In southwestern Ontario, the Lambton Kent District School Board has replaced its general Grade 11 English course with a curriculum focusing on Indigenous works, bumping a Shakespeare reading list in favour of authors like Richard Wagamese, Thomas King and Eden Robinson.

“I’m not going to say that there hasn’t been push back, period, because any time … you make a change district-wide, there’s going to be some sort of reaction,” said Mary Mancini, the school board’s system co-ordinator of secondary student achievement. “I don’t see any harm with that. All of that is encouraging good conversation.”

Nowhere in the curriculum does it state, “Though shalt read Shakespeare,” said Mancini, but boosters of the Bard have nothing to fear — students still have plenty of opportunities to read Hamlet in the three other years of English education needed to earn their high-school diploma.

By making the new Grade 11 English course mandatory, the school board aims to give students an understanding of the history of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples, particularly the legacy of residential schools, and also connect with those lived experiences and their impacts in a different way than reading a textbook.

“The reaction of many of our students has been anger. Not anger that they’re reading this material, but anger that they didn’t know about it before,” said Mancini.

“It’s started us on this journey towards reconciliation. We still have a long way to go.”

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