Originally created 03/12/98

Required reading



SAN FRANCISCO -- In a proposal that could have Angelou and Morrison joining Chaucer and Shakespeare, two black leaders of the San Francisco school system want students to be required to read at least four books by minority writers.

The district now requires high school students to read only three books, all by white authors: Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," and "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain.

But school board trustees Keith Jackson and Steve Phillips say that in a district which is only 10 percent white, students should be required to read 10 books, and four of them should be by minority authors.

Their proposal has drawn criticism from teachers, conservative groups, radio talk show hosts and gay rights advocates who are calling for equal time.

"You've got to rock the boat sometimes," Jackson said Wednesday. "But I really didn't think it would hit the fan the way it has."

Jackson and Phillips say seven of the 10 required books should come from a list drawn up by the district, while students and teachers can choose the other three.

Despite criticism reminiscent of the controversy over the Oakland school district's ill-fated proposal to teach ebonics, or black English, Jackson and Phillips say they're confident the proposal will be adopted with few modifications on March 24.

The current reading list needs to be reconsidered from top to bottom, said Phillips, a Stanford University English literature graduate.

'Why do we start with that `Huckleberry Finn' had to be on the list? How did it get there in the first place?" Phillips said. "How did the book get published in the first place?"

Under their proposal, the classics might stay. But Jackson and Phillips said students should also be required to read authors such as Frederick Douglass, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Black students especially are deprived of literary role models, Jackson said.

Denise Chandler, chair of the English Department at George Washington High School, called the proposal offensive.

"Quality literature doesn't glorify Europe or any other geographical place, it explores the human condition," she said. "You can teach `Macbeth' in the ghetto; `Julius Caesar' to kids concerned about power; `Romeo and Juliet' to those with heartache."

Lance Izumi, a fellow at the conservative San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, called the proposal "political correctness run amok."

He said the measure will shortchange San Francisco students who must compete on Scholastic Aptitude Tests and in college admissions with teen-agers from other districts who have had a more traditional literary education.

School board member Juanita Owens said she favored the quota measure -- as long as gay and lesbian authors are added to the list.

"I'd expect to see individuals on that list such as Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather," Owens said.

In a World Literature class at Ida B. Wells High School, students had a mixed reaction.

Jonathan Chapman, 16, was worried that changes in the required reading may affect his performance in college.

"When they ask if you read Shakespeare and all that, what are you going to say?" said Chapman, who is of Chinese, Filipino and European descent. "`Oh well, I didn't read that because I was busy reading minority books.' "

Carl Bernard, a 15-year-old black student, said blacks just want more "reality books."

"In the white people's books there's no cussing. You can go out and throw some slang in there," Bernard said.