Staff Stance: Confronting the Canon: The Need to Diversify the Literature We Consume

Beck Williams and Zoe Klein

If a modern high school student were to have a conversation with their parents about the content of their English class curriculum, the student would probably find that the books they  are reading are, by and large, the same that their parents read when they were younger. With a few exceptions, American schools generally teach traditional classics — books like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” all the way through to “The Great Gatsby” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” While these books are foundational to Western culture, many argue that there is a problem — they are almost all authored by one demographic: white men. 

According to book publisher Lee & Low, multicultural content represents only 13% of children’s literature in the last 24 years. Considering 49.7% of Americans are white, a literary canon heavily stemming from white people and white experiences does not accurately encompass the unique perspectives of the nation as a whole. In a time when race and its role in history, as well as the broader concept of demographic diversity, have come to the forefront of the national dialogue, many hope to see a more diverse array of books and authors represented in the American literary canon.

Looking at recommended high school reading lists such as the one provided by the Texas Education Agency, one notices a pattern of white male authors. Works by William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens can be found in almost any classroom. But these works fail to fully represent the men and women who built the America we know today, which, according to World Population Review, is one of the most racially diverse nations in the world. It only makes sense that a literary canon meant to reflect American values and culture should include voices from a wide array of American communities, not just those that have historically been the dominant narrative. 

There is another factor that must be considered when discussing literary diversity. Although most tend to focus on demographic diversity, which is based on factors like race and sex, ideological diversity is also important. If students are to gain a better understanding of the world that formed them, they must read books that reflect a wide range of ideologies, philosophies and viewpoints. A conversation about diversity that does not consider diversity of thought is incomplete, and that extends to the world of literature.

By limiting the canon to primarily works written by a single demographic, school-age children miss out on learning about the unique perspectives that result from a minority American experience. We should introduce these diverse American experiences to students through literature early on in the classroom so the white male perspective is not perceived as the default. Nonwhite children deserve the opportunity to read books in school that feature storylines they can relate to, characters that look like them and lessons that directly apply to their lived experiences, which often are not provided by our current literary canon. 


In a world that no longer avoids diversity but embraces it, it is time that the books we consider to be foundational to Western culture and philosophy start to reflect this. We cannot pretend to fully understand our own cultural heritage if we choose to silence the voices of people of different backgrounds. Ultimately, a diverse literary canon is a gateway to a much-needed diversification of our collective knowledge.