Written by Guy Gagnier
When speaking about inclusion, author and researcher Lee Ann Jung’s name is often mentioned and her group www.leadinclusion.org defines it as learning “that facilitates equitable opportunities for all students, with and without learning differences.” Though I cannot disagree, the English Language Arts teacher in me also sees this manifest itself in other ways.
When I think back to my high school years in Canada, my English teachers offered a very competent and classic selection of texts: we studied Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Sophocles, Orwell; we read To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, and Who Has Seen The Wind. Until recently, this was all standard literary fare for any high school student, but now I think back and wonder: where was the diversity? The representation? Something other than straight old white guys writing stories expressed in their voices that reflected their experiences? Sure, Harper Lee was inspired by her life growing up in the very segregated American South during the Great Depression, but most of what I read throughout high school was a pretty homogeneous--even colonialist--offering. Where were the Elizabeth Acevedos, Haruki Murakamis, David Levithans, and Angie Thomases? Where were the stories from Sri Lanka or Barbados, or tales about young queer love or teenagers living with depression or wallflowers developing their inner strength to speak up against police brutality and racism?
At some point in a person’s life, they should read Hemingway, Salinger, and Kerouac. Throw in Alvarez, Morrison, and Atwood, now you’re including some acclaimed female voices. Add Adichie, Lahiri, or Ishiguro, and you’re adding a more contemporary multicultural lens. Albertalli, Hamid, and Dunn could introduce (young) readers to characters of other orientations, religions, abilities. To me, this is another interpretation of inclusion. If two of literature’s superpowers are to broaden a reader’s mind and challenge their preconceived notions, why not include--in addition to the classics, not instead of--stories that offer greater diversity.
Increasingly, young adult literature is moving in this direction but there is still a reluctance to accept these texts in the curriculum because they’ve not withstood the test of time like Faulkner, Williams, or Dickens. Some will argue that these “other” texts are not necessarily as rigorous or canonical, and in many cases that might be true: will Hosseini or Alexie be studied alongside Euripides and Chekhov in the future? However, by responsibly introducing our students to texts that expose them to issues about mental health, redemption, gender, society, identity, the migrant experience by authors who have walked different paths in life, are we not providing our students with the empathy and curiosity they need to be more inclusive global citizens?