Exploding the Western Canon

San Francisco Adopts Diversity Requirement

By Donn K. Harris

San Francisco students and books at issue in the controversy.

I used to drive my Harley-Davidson on the redwood-lined backroads of Northern California to get to the work camp, where San Francisco’s most hardened juvenile offenders were housed. Their crimes ranged from big-time drug dealing to drive-by murder, and I was one of their teachers. The high school reading list that had been developed by the district’s curriculum department included Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, a first-person account of life on the streets of Harlem in the 1940s. I was a new teacher, willing to try anything, and I figured a juvenile work camp was a good place to experiment. I went to a used book store and bought a ragged copy of Manchild for a dollar. It is a raw, often gut-wrenching work, at once horrific and transcendent; it is filled with profanity, brutality, and the vicious poetry of violence and hatred and embattled brotherhood. It is ultimately a story of greatness and triumph.

It was perfect for my students.

I used to read it aloud in long, dramatic chunks. I would raise and lower my voice for dramatic effect, and at times I would simply stop, teasing the kids, and they would implore me to continue. They would hoot and howl and argue over the meaning of 40s-era slang. When I would read the part in which Claude watches his mother board a bus from the steps of the courthouse where he had just been sentenced to juvenile hall, the quiet in the room could be painful. “I’ve got a problem,” the Head Teacher told me one day. “How are you going to get these kids ready for the SAT? You’ve got to follow the curriculum.” “But the book is on the reading list,” I said.

“I don’t know about that list,” the Head Teacher said. “They don’t ask about that book on the SAT.”

A few days later, the book turned up missing. I had just finished reading it to my third period class. The passage had been about Claude’s first experience with heroin — a fantastic stream-of-consciousness raving; a wild, sensual crescendo of ecstasy and fear. I had laid the book down somewhere at the end of the period, and then it was gone.

“Probably just as well,” the Head Teacher told me. “I don’t know how it got on that reading list anyway.”

The above incident took place in 1992.

Now, in 1998, I have some idea how that book, and others, get to be on a reading list. It could not have been an easy process; change rarely is.

On March 10, two members of the San Francisco school board proposed to alter the high school reading requirements. Their proposal included a provision that 70% the literature assigned in a given high school classroom be authored by people of color. Controversy exploded.

The board passed a resolution a few weeks later that dropped the strict percentages but kept the spirit of the proposal — that authors of color will be read in grades nine through eleven. But it took a while to get there — and too often, the process was analyzed only through the harsh, often distorted, magnifying glass of the national media.

Although the San Francisco district has over 200 recommended readings, the only required works had been Romeo and Juliet, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Canterbury Tales. The inclusion of other works was left to the discretion of individual English departments and, in some cases, individual teachers.

After the initial proposal, the public debate soon reached a fever-pitch. The media painted the story in broad, sensationalist strokes that highlighted the racial and ethnic divisions that would seem to separate the camps. It would be inaccurate to deny that these factors were part of the mix. But it would be worse than inaccurate to see the debate as nothing more than a racial struggle over educational turf. The battle, in actuality, was over the sacredness and relevance of the “Western Canon” — the classics — and their place in the upcoming millennium.

The first in-depth article following the March 10 board meeting was printed in the San Francisco Examiner on March 15. Teachers from throughout the school district were interviewed and their response to the proposal was overwhelmingly negative. “The criteria for choosing literature should be … nothing but excellence,” one veteran teacher said. The reporter summarized that “teachers at nearly every public high school said there is scant need for a more multicultural book list.”

Columnist Ken Garcia of the San Francisco Chronicle, in his March 19 column, treated the entire issue as a bad joke, wondering if “minority authors who happen to be gay will count as a ‘two-fer’ on the list.” Garcia also clouded the debate with his clever sarcasm and his comments that Hamlet is now about “a posse coming to town” and that The Scarlet Letter must be reinterpreted as “an un-planned teen pregnancy forces a young woman to fly her colors.”

At the school where I serve as an Assistant Principal, teachers came to me with armloads full of multicultural books, upset that I had written an opinion piece which criticized the high school course divisions and literary offerings. A colleague took the time to write a passionate defense of Huck Finn. A retired English Department Head read my opinion and sent me an angry, almost incoherent letter, insisting that I go back to buying pencils and leave the work of curriculum and literature to real teachers.

The “excellence” argument, echoed throughout the controversy, goes like this: What has been considered first-rate will be replaced by the “culturally appropriate” second-rate. Yet no one is doubting the “excellence,” for example, of Ralph Ellison’s TheInvisibleMan. There is clearly enough excellence to go around. The question is: whose “excellence” gets chosen?

Calls for “excellence” and jokes about political correctness were not the only two responses. Another involved the competitive nature of university admissions. If San Francisco replaces Chaucer with James Baldwin, this line of thinking went, how would our students compete on standardized tests which refer to the classics?

These positions are difficult to combat. The nature of this type of conservatism — the world is this way and we must prepare our children to succeed in it — is to judge change not on its merits but on its inability to fall into preordained categories. By this measure, growth and progress become impossible.

Interestingly, at the emergency school board meeting called to get input on the proposal, students from the Ethnic Studies Department at San Francisco State University told the board that they had felt unprepared because of the authors of color they had not read in high school. The world, it turns out, is not quite so easy to define as some might have us believe.

A look at the English curriculum in San Francisco offers some insight into the nature of the debate. Freshmen take a course called World Literature, where the adopted text is dominated by Dickens, Shakespeare and Homer. Teachers may supplement this with other works, and most do an admirable job. But there are restrictions on using state textbook funds for non-adopted materials. Sophomores are enrolled in Ethnic Experience, which has no adopted text. The junior course is American Lit, with an adopted text that allots 12% of its space to authors of color. Seniors study Chaucer and Shakespeare in English (i.e., from England) and European Lit. The original proposal sought to alter this structure by offering two years of World Literature and two years of American Literature, with authors of color included throughout rather than marginalized into the “Ethnic” category.

This analysis of the English curriculum in San Francisco is not a criticism of teachers, the great majority of whom work extremely hard, and at great personal expense, to build meaningful multicultural libraries and to include diverse works in their lessons. But this is exactly the point: they have to work very hard to do this. As it had been designed, the course structure did not support them as fully as it could have. Financial resources were committed to adopted texts that explore only portions of the rich literature created by people of color. In fact, some have argued that there was a de facto quota system in effect, because there was an entire year devoted to English and European Literature.

With this backdrop, the school board called an emergency meeting for Thursday, March 19 to make a decision on the proposal.


The meeting began at 7 p.m. and did not conclude until near midnight. The microphones were turned on and interested parties were allowed to speak to the board in two-minute segments.

Speakers included current and former students, teachers, parents, community members, the owner of an African-American bookstore, three middle schoolers who recited Langston Hughes poetry, and the president of the teachers’ union. It was contentious and wonderful, democratic in the messy, chaotic way that only democracy can be. There were glaring floodlights and imposing video cameras,

reporters with hand-held tape recorders, concerned and vocal audience members, shouting accusatory speakers, pickets with their colorful signs and slogans (Ethnic Lit IS American Lit), the stern parliamentarian with her “30 seconds,” and “Time is Up” cards that few heeded.

The result was a unanimous vote by the board in favor of diversifying the curriculum. The quota was dropped but the adopted resolution included the provision that in grades nine through eleven, authors of color will be incorporated into the curriculum (see listing). Other provisions insured that works referenced on the SAT will be part of the required reading, and that authors who are known to be gay, bisexual or transgendered will be appropriately identified.

The press coverage, however, continued to be sensationalistic and simplistic. Ken Garcia’s March 21 column is titled, “School Board Kowtows to S.F. Mob.” I was there, and that was no “mob” at the board meeting. It was a group of concerned citizens of all ages and colors, impassioned and eloquent, debating in fiery and raucous glory for progress and justice.

The results are a beginning: the “Western Canon” is evolving. If we can get the university admissions staffs and the authors of the SAT to listen, then real change can flourish.

I ran into Tavarez on the street in 1995 and he approached me enthusiastically. He had been one of the most hardened, if one of the most academically gifted, of the work camp kids. At the age of 18 he was now working as a carpenter and attending school at night.

“I’ve got a confession to make,” he told me. “I’m the one who stole Manchild from you.”

“You ruined a whole day’s worth of teaching,” I said.

“I had to have that book,” he told me. “It’s the first whole book I ever read. It was, like, it was talking to me directly.”

“You owe me a dollar,” I said to him.

“I owe you a lot more,” he countered.