Shakespeare and Sokdae: Reforming Stuyvesant’s Eurocentric Curricula

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Voltaire, Tolstoy, Orwell, Shakespeare, Homer, and Shelley.

Names like these have dominated English curricula in the United States for generations and have driven the conversation surrounding literary norms for millions of Americans. The common thread among these names, however, is abundantly clear from a quick glance: they are all unified by a distinctly European perspective. The similarity doesn’t stop at authors: while Van Gogh, Beethoven, and Monet are certainly pioneers of art and music, and thus worthy of discussion, their prominent place in American education has diminished conversation surrounding their international counterparts.

Stuyvesant administrators and teachers should expand the content of many classes that fall prey to this established European focus. While the curricula of standardized courses are not easy to change, those of Stuyvesant-specific classes like European Literature and Art/Music Appreciation have more flexibility. These curricula should be reformed to include increased coverage and discussion of non-European topics, an absence that has gone largely unaddressed, in order to expose students to a more diverse and balanced worldview.

It should be noted that while Stuyvesant presents students with a Eurocentric education, the decision of what to teach—and what not to teach—is not completely within teachers’ and administrators’ jurisdiction. The fact is that the U.S. is a part of the Western world, and it makes sense that much of what we learn focuses on Europe. Due to the weight of Eurocentrism in American—and our—education, the aforementioned European figures are name-brand authors, artists, historical figures, and scholars, while equally talented creatives from around the world are rarities in most curricula.

Despite these limitations, the social studies department has been fairly successful in covering the nuances of history. Many teachers use textbooks that cover more contemporary or revisionist perspectives of history, while others incorporate articles and texts that demonstrate the complex legacies of significant historical events. Moreover, the department offers several non-European electives, such as Modern China and Geopolitics, that allow students to learn history outside of the Western world.

The social studies department’s inability to more significantly reform its curricula in Advanced Placement (AP) classes can be traced back to constraints posed by the College Board. For example, the AP United States History curriculum condenses the period between 1491-1607, the years before the establishment of Jamestown in Virginia as the first British colony, down to approximately five percent of the total exam weight. This rushed pace only works to diminish our time spent on Native American tribes and how they shaped the country before major European influence. Moreover, the College Board offers an entire exam on European history but fails to extend such offerings to other areas around the world. The College Board’s emphasis on Eurocentrism makes it difficult for Stuyvesant teachers to expand beyond the content of their exams while also preparing their students for the AP tests in May.

Similarly, the European focus of Stuyvesant’s art and music curricula can’t simply be blamed on any individual teachers or policies. Due to the Western world’s undeniable influence on America, European figures have dominated international conversations in both art and music throughout history. While these figures are undoubtedly talented and deserve to be included in the classroom conversation, the sheer amount of class time spent discussing them pushes aside a more diverse and wide-ranging base of artists. For example, in addition to requiring that students be able to identify Mozart’s Symphony No. 7, teachers should expose students to the eight different genres of African music and the function of Native American flutes in indigenous cultures. Similarly, the Art Appreciation curriculum should extend beyond tracing the connection between ancient sculptures to the Renaissance and Impressionist movements in Europe: art classes could also expose students to Chinese silk painting and Mayan stonework.

A problem as expansive as this can’t be resolved overnight. Both Art and Music Appreciation have only a single semester to administer their entire curriculum, and time is of the essence with every lesson. But the effort to rearrange lessons and learning about diverse and inter-continental art forms is imperative to creating a more representative set of required classes.

The English department also faces similar struggles to those of social studies and Art/Music Appreciation. Though there is diversity in the books read in Freshman Composition and the senior English classes and electives (Black Lives in Literature, Asian American Literature, or AP Global Perspectives), there is also opportunity to expand the English curriculum beyond the Eurocentric focus found in sophomore European Literature. We recognize that many traditional classics, such as the literature from Ancient Greece, are dominated by European male authors. An optimal English curriculum, however, would strive to convey the effects of these European influences without minimizing other cultural groups. This objective could be achieved through a required class of Global Essentials, which would enable sophomores to explore classical literature structure without the constraint of the European canon. In addition to classics such as “The Odyssey” and “Pride and Prejudice,” Global Essentials would introduce students to international titles including Confucius’s “Book of Rites” and “One Thousand and One Nights.”

Of course, reforming the entire European Literature curriculum may not be immediately feasible. Still, slowly introducing books by diverse authors, while continuing to incorporate lessons that emphasize the monochromatic trend of the authors and including more diverse texts in other classes into the standard sophomore year English class would be a step forward.

The effort that teachers and administration have shown toward expanding the curricula across the humanities and the arts is undeniably commendable. There is, still, much more to be done: the Eurocentric focus that remains does not fully encompass nor represent the diversity of backgrounds and voices in the world sphere. Many of our most memorable books from the English curriculum—“Things Fall Apart,” “Our Twisted Hero,” “The Namesake”—have been written by non-white authors and are especially resonant for their new cultural perspectives and stories. Looking forward, it is important that Stuyvesant takes initiative to further improve the diversity in our curricula in order to gain a more comprehensive perspective and education.