Breaking Glass: Curriculum “Diversity” and Its Discontents

On teaching literature and the limits of representation.

Between the first time I read Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie and my current round of teaching it in Hungary, some 40 years and scores of readings have gone by, but I still look forward to its language and atmosphere. This dreamlike memory-play has no heroes or villains; its four characters weave through bravery and folly, through obsession and practicality.

Set during the Great Depression in St. Louis, it shows a private side of an era of mass destitution, uncertainty, and despair. It can be read for its poetry, its indeterminate genre, its directorial challenges, its subtle characters, its context, and more. Yet if evaluated according to a “culturally responsive curriculum checklist”—an increasingly common item in teachers’ toolkits—Williams’s play would be flagged as problematic (at best).

In recent years, the call for greater curricular diversity has grown louder and more urgent. Schools and districts around the United States have been rewriting their English curricula to reflect students’ backgrounds—partly to increase student motivation and, with it, achievement. From the California Department of Education’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum to the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard, a tool created by the NYU Metro Center “to help parents, teachers, students, and community members determine the extent to which their schools’ English Language Arts curricula are (or are not) culturally responsive,” teachers face a barrage of calls for a curriculum that reflects the students’ diverse demographic characteristics. The idea can make sense if implemented thoughtfully—that is, with good judgment rather than a prescriptive checklist, which will only encourage mediocre literature and discussion.

For example, the NYU Metro Center’s Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard invites the user to evaluate K–8 curricula strictly on the basis of demographic representation, social justice messages, and inclusive classroom practices. On the first page of the scorecard, the user is instructed to take a “diversity of characters tally”—that is, to count the numbers of characters described as Middle Eastern, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black/African, Latinx, Native American, white, racially ambiguous, multiracial, people with disabilities, or animals, and then to tally authors similarly. On the following pages, users are asked to evaluate the truth of statements like “The curriculum features visually diverse characters, and the characters of color do not all look alike”; “Characters with disabilities are represented”; “Social situations and problems are not seen as individual problems but are situated within a societal context”; “Gender is not central to the storyline. Female characters are in a variety of roles that could also be filled by a male character”; and “The curriculum communicates an asset-based perspective by representing people of diverse races, classes, genders, abilities and sexual orientations through their strengths, talents and knowledge rather than their perceived flaws or deficiencies.” While the checklist is intended primarily for K–8 English curricula, its authors recommend trying it with other grades or subjects as well. They make no disclaimers; for instance, they do not suggest that the scorecard’s criteria should be weighed alongside other considerations. The scorecard has the last word.

This extreme prescriptiveness pushes works like The Glass Menagerie into the corner. Granted, the checklist is meant to evaluate entire curricula, not individual works, but works with low scores would have dubious status at best. Williams’s play would receive a low score on both the “diversity of characters” tally and the “diversity of authors” tally. When it comes to content, it might gain a point for featuring a character with a disability, and another for representing a single-parent family—but in other listed respects, it would fail.

Does the work situate social situations and problems within a societal context? Yes, but the individuals’ own choices do not disappear. Can it be said that “problems faced by people of color or females are not resolved through the benevolent intervention of a white person or a male”? Yes, but throughout the play, the hope for a “gentleman caller” looms large. The characters’ dreams and fantasies have flaws; that’s part of what makes them interesting.

If The Glass Menagerie were rewritten to satisfy the checklist criteria, or at least to score a few more points, Laura, to combat her shyness, would be taking public speaking courses. There she would meet Jim, who would appear here as a successful, relatively prosperous Black man, and invite him to dinner. Tom, Laura’s brother, would be openly gay and would bring home his new Italian-American romantic interest (let’s call him Mario) on the same night. (Tom would specify the characters’ races, ethnic origins, gender identities, and sexual orientations in his opening monologue.) Tom and Mario would take care of the meal, albeit clumsily; Amanda, a former amateur wrestler, would entertain Laura and Jim with tales of glory. The evening would be merry and dull—as would the classroom lesson. The play would be read and then tossed.

Good literature does not begin or end where we tell it to. It does not make the points we want it to make. If it did, you wouldn’t need literature at all; you could generate stories by drawing from a deck of social justice cards. Literature takes you on a path that you didn’t entirely choose and rattles your thoughts and emotions along the way. It shows you troubling things about the world and yourself—things you might not have seen otherwise. This is true no matter what the author’s racial or cultural background. Alice Walker’s story The Welcome Table would do just as poorly on the scorecard as The Glass Menagerie, since it shows an old Black woman getting kicked out of a white people’s church and then, dazed with grief, spotting Jesus on the road and walking alongside him. Gender is central to the story line here, as is male intervention. The woman does not have superpowers, but rather quiet strength and suffering. The story has profound irony; while the white characters do treat the old woman as the problem, the narrator subtly offers a different perspective.

Some might protest at this point that the checklist was designed for children’s literature, which is often more didactic than works read in high school and beyond. Yes, but not all children’s literature is didactic, and not all didactic literature has the kind of message that the checklist’s authors would like to see. Moreover, the underlying problem persists: The checklist attempts to specify what literature should say, whereas literature needs freedom from such exhortations.

Instead of relying on the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard and similar tools, schools can weigh a number of considerations, including literary quality, when evaluating their curricula. Yes, students may well become more motivated when recognizing themselves in the curriculum. But motivation does not come from self-recognition alone. It also comes from encountering something unfamiliar, finding your way into it, and changing slightly as a result. There is no need to deprive students of such encounters—and no lack of works that offer them. Instead of filling out checklists, let us seek out good literature from around the world, keeping in mind that the good does not always make everyone happy—or end the way we hope.

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