Jason Courtmanche

Recently, GOP legislators around the county have proposed various laws and policies banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory and its associated ideas. Eight states – Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, and Florida – have banned CRT, and an additional 16 additional states have considered bans. Florida expressly banned the teaching of the New York Times‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project. A school board in Tennessee just banned Maus.

As Barth Keck recently pointed out, these efforts to ban the teaching of our nation’s racial history have not been limited to red states or southern and midwestern states. Even in deep-blue Connecticut we have had challenges in towns like Greenwich and Guilford.

In June, legislation was introduced into the Connecticut General Assembly by Republican lawmaker Rob Sampson that would ban any approach to teaching about race that makes students feel “discomfort.”

Sen. Sampson and others are concerned that white students might feel guilty or ashamed of being white because their English or Social Studies teachers teach them historical facts about African slavery, US military interventions throughout Latin America, indigenous genocide, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, or discrimination against women and the LGBTQ+ population. A typical counter narrative is that America is the greatest country on earth where anyone who works hard enough and plays by the rules can achieve anything, that there are no impediments to progress unless we create them by talking about them. But this is the equivalent of Laura Ingraham telling LeBron James to “Shut up and dribble.”

The irony about this argument is that not only are we not indoctrinating our students into CRT, but we’re actually not doing a great job of teaching about race, equity, or representation. Even though we have allegedly been striving to improve diversity, multiculturalism, and pluralism in school curricula since at least my undergraduate years in the 1980s, curricula have actually not changed much at all. The literary canon is still mostly white, mostly male, and mostly dead.

My colleague and former graduate student, Danielle Pieratti, conducted a comprehensive audit of 160 syllabi from UConn Early College Experience (ECE) courses, the high school version of UConn’s First-Year Writing class. Danielle discovered that white male authors accounted for the majority of the texts. Including female authors, white authors accounted for over 75% of the texts taught in our dual enrollment courses.

The top 10 texts taught in ECE classes did include two novels by authors of color – Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner – but the top 100 only included 10 more works by African Americans and Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. The only other voice from Asia or the Middle East besides Hosseini’s is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is offered in exactly eight schools. The top 100 includes NO works by Asian American or Latinx American authors. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Gabriel García Márquez’ 100 Years of Solitude are the only representative texts for their respective continents, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray pretty much stands as the lone representative of LGBTQ+ authors.

Danielle and I do not intend to demean the high school teachers, who are handcuffed by school boards and book-buying budgets. However, if Senator Sampson is scared that we educators are indoctrinating our students to embrace the diversity of cultures found within our borders, I can assure him he has nothing to fear.

Syllabi from 160 high schools and in the top 100 texts there’s no Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, NK Jemisin, or Gwendolyn Brooks (Hint: she was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, in 1950); no Julia Alvarez, Isabel Allende, Junot Díaz, or Cristina Garcia; no Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Min Jin Lee, or Chang Rae Lee; no Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Nadia Hashimi; no Ocean Vuong or Thich Nhat Hanh; no Sherman Alexie or Louise Erdrich? I haven’t even gotten started on LGBTQ+ representation (or the lack thereof).

Even though we have allegedly been striving to improve diversity, multiculturalism, and pluralism in school curricula since at least my undergraduate years in the 1980s, curricula have actually not changed much at all. The literary canon is still mostly white, mostly male, and mostly dead.

In 2019, the Connecticut legislature became the first in the country to require the teaching of Black, African American, Latino, and Puerto Rican Studies. This year, the legislature passed a bill requiring the teaching of Asian American Pacific Islander Studies, Native American Studies, Gender Studies, and LGBTQ Studies.

I’m proud of our legislature for passing these bills, but much more work needs to be done. For one thing, students can still graduate from a Connecticut high school without learning about African American or Latinx history and culture because schools are only required to offer the courses; students are not required to take them. And we must also make sure that curricula in schools are revised to be truly representative. We don’t want mere tokenism where our students maybe read one novel by an author from each “group.” It’s bad enough that nationalities as diverse as Indian, Japanese, and Samoan are all lumped together under the aegis of “Asian American Pacific Islander,” or all indigenous tribes and nations are lumped together as “Native Americans.”

There is hope to be found when we go beyond the top 100. Authors such as Marjane Satrapi, José Antonio Vargas, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Baldwin, Naomi Shahib Nye, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, Richard Rodriguez, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche make appearances – albeit often in only a school or two, but it’s a start.

The United States grows more diverse each day. This is not a divisive, dangerous, or distressing fact; this is a good fact, a healthy fact, and a fact to be celebrated. Our students need to see their different histories and cultures as part of our collective history and culture.

We must fight back against those who would ban the teaching of race, diversity, equity, or social justice. We must say no to those who would ban books. And we must work with boards of education and administrators to advocate for curricula and pedagogy that are truly representative, sustaining, and liberatory.

This is critical.

Jason Courtmanche

Jason Courtmanche

Jason Courtmanche is a former high school English teacher and a current English professor at UConn, where he teaches teachers. His blog on education can be followed at jasoncourtmanche.blogspot.com.

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