JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Jacob SullumJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellWilliam PfaffRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / March 19, 1998 / 21 Adar, 5758

Don Feder

Don Feder Color-coded reading, product of obsessive minds

LAST NOVEMBER, Californians voted to end race and gender-based quotas in state employment and college admissions. Now, die-hard multiculturalists are back with color-coded reading lists. They are the enemies of education and equality.

In San Francisco, a proposal, scheduled to be voted on at a March 24 school-board meeting, would require at least 40 percent Little Miss Muffetof the literature assigned to high-school students be books by "authors of color."

Of 10 assigned books, three would be recognized great works (by honkies like Shakespeare and Chaucer), three would be selected by the teacher and four would have to be by non-white writers.

If the teacher was also race-obsessed, seven of 10 could come from the Lani Guinier classics of world literature.

Noting that whites comprise only 12 percent of San Francisco students, proponents declare that the time has come to make literature "relevant" to non-Caucasian minds.

Affirmative action in reading? Intriguing notion. But there could be complications. Does Cervantes, who was white but wrote the first great European novel in Spanish, make the cut? Would Jane Austen's gender offset her race?

If Alberto Fujimori, the president of Peru, wrote a novel, would it qualify as Hispanic literature? Why is a novel about white characters by a black preferable to a book with black characters by a white (say, "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Huckleberry Finn")?

Steve Phillips, the school-board member who co-authored the mandate, explains: "We recognize that public education has been failing African-American and Latino students. Part of the reason is that the curriculum is not engaging them. Students get more interested in reading and language when they see themselves in the curriculum."

A variant of this theme is the role-model hypothesis -- that unless black children grow up reading books by black authors or about black scientists and statesmen, they won't realize that blacks can write books, be scientists and statesmen, and generally aspire to excellence.

Then how explain the following? In the San Francisco Unified School District, 16 percent of the students are black. Their average grade is "D." But the 30 percent who are Asian have an average grade of "A."

How do the Asian kids get engaged and interested reading books by such distinctly non-Asiatic authors as Mark Twain and Herman Melville?

And if they can somehow overcome this lack of racial affinity and relate to a renaissance play set in Padua or a novel with a backdrop of Victorian England, instead of Tokyo or Canton, why can't blacks?

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York in the 1950s and fell in love with Robert Frost and F. Scott Fitzgerald, even though neither was a Jew. I saw myself in the heroes of American history, notwithstanding that none had grandparents from the Pale of Settlement.

Liberalism of the '40s and '50s (a philosophy totally alien to the creed of today) taught that there was more uniting those of different races, religions and ethnicities than dividing us.

We were told that beneath the skin, behind the accents, outside the houses of worship, we shared a common humanity. We all took the same voyage, from birth to death. We learned, loved, laughed, toiled and experienced the emotional hungers and psychic aches peculiar to our species. And, we were all children of the same Creator.

The civil-rights movement succeeded because men like Martin Luther King Jr. convinced white America of this overriding reality.

King's dream wasn't of a world of mental segregation, where a black child couldn't be touched by the tragedy of star-crossed lovers or recoil at the mad ambition of the wife of a Scottish laird because they were of a different hue.

Danise Chandler, chairwoman of the English department at San Francisco's George Washington High School, calls rainbow required reading "silly, offensive and ridiculous."

Chandler, who has taught English for more than 30 years, observes, "Quality literature explores the human condition." It does so with wit, wisdom, imagery and texture of language that makes Shakespeare and Milton a delight to the hungry minds after half a millennium.

It is questionable whether Amy Tan or Toni Morrison, who Phillips suggests as replacements for the classics, will even be in print 20 years hence.

Phillips' proposal is the product of parochial, angry and obsessive minds, who would mold San Francisco schoolchildren in their image.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.