Sunday, March 15, 1998
A goofy plan for literary racial quotas

The Cincinnati Enquirer

If I hadn't already been a lover of books by the time I got to high school, some of the required reading would have cured me.

Beowulf, for instance, is boring and incomprehensible, which always kind of ruins an epic poem for me. Some of my friends still rave about the ''insights'' they've learned from reading it.

I think they are lying.

And when I picture Silas Marner, I see it as a 22-volume set.

We also had to study The Scarlet Letter, but we assumed that our elders viewed this as a cautionary tale, not great literature. I was convinced our teachers made us read it because they hated us and were repressed sexually and probably got their jollies by watching us try to figure out what Hester Prynne saw in Dimmesdale in the first place.

Reading overhaul

But I survived. And I even managed to read some good books that were not on the assigned list. For one thing, there was no MTV, no Nintendo. In short, there weren't so many choices. So I kept reading.

As did most of my generation.

Meanwhile, a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds that 66 percent of 17-year-olds in this country cannot read very well. You can bet they don't read very often.

So, when I heard that the San Francisco city school board was thinking about overhauling the reading requirements, I thought it sounded like a good idea. I was wrong.

''What we are trying to do is to provide the best writers from the culture of the students as a way to engage their attention in some sort of creative way,'' board member Steve Phillips says. Nothing wrong with that. Except that he is looking at literature in black and white terms.

He wants racial quotas. Mr. Phillips suggests that four of the seven books students are required to read must be by nonwhite authors. And this being California, another board member, Juanita Owens, says she'll vote with Mr. Phillips if he expands his formula to require gay and lesbian authors.

This is just crazy. A formula? For literature? And it's a lot more dangerous than the last nutty idea that came out of California aimed at our children. Most people, after they thought about it for a millisecond, rejected ebonics.

But this one, at first, sounds harmless. Don't we all want kids to love to read? And don't we want to provide the most attractive and inclusive literary lures? And don't we remember Beowulf?

The brick wall

Book lists from area schools include Shakespeare. But they also include Amy Tan and Maya Angelou. Richard Jackson, an English teacher at Princeton High School, says, ''We've been sensitive to this for a long time. It helps to pique interest.''

In other words, teachers have no desire to beat their heads against a brick wall. There's really no reason why it would be fun for them to try to bore their students' socks off.

Mr. Jackson, who has taught school for 29 years, has seen lots of book lists. He says while he admires some contemporary literature, ''I don't think we should give up those old ones. They allow us to travel to the past, see what we might have in common. We should make these choices carefully.''

A spokesman for a national organization representing 100,000 English teachers says politely that he knows of no district in the United States that has established a percentage of nonwhite authors on its required reading list.

''I applaud their desire to expand the canon and to have students read a wider range of authors,'' says Sheridan Blau, president of the National Council of Teachers of English. ''But setting a quota seems to me just what you get when you have people who are fundamentally politicians interfering with curriculum.''

Nicely put, Mr. Blau.

And a cautionary tale for us all.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at