Education in Colour: Is There Enough Diversity of Literature in the Irish Education System?

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Max Keating discusses the need for greater diversity of literature in the Irish Education System.

As Ireland has become a more culturally diverse country in recent years, the debate surrounding diversity in our education system has increased. Should students read more diverse forms of literature for the Junior and Leaving cycle curriculums? Without a doubt, the answer is yes. 

The stale texts mandated by secondary schools are predominantly by famous English writers from Shakespeare to Dickens, and a variety of prominent Irish writers ranging from Yeats and Joyce to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Literature classes are also an appropriate setting to ask philosophical questions.  As such, in a global world, and most especially as a member of the European community, Ireland would do better to educate its students in literature more relevant to modern times. 

Encouraging teachers to introduce a broader range of books to the Junior and Leaving Certificate courses is a valuable idea, not only for the sake of greater inclusion of minorities, but also because it actually makes literature an interesting subject to students. It is more likely to engage their critical thinking faculties if they understand different people and the experiences of their cultures. Breaking from the rigid curriculum of basic English plays and pre-modern literary texts would introduce a breath of fresh air to the Irish education system, and make the subject more enjoyable for students. 

Breaking from the rigid curriculum of basic English plays and pre-modern literary texts would introduce a breath of fresh air to the Irish education system. 

The representation of minorities in the Irish secondary school English curriculum is lacking. Though Black characters are present in basic texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird, or Of Mice and Men, these American texts inform Irish students more about American society than it does their own. 

A remedy to broadening the representation of minorities is the teaching of global literature. Specifically, teaching literature in translation from different countries would expose Irish students to more ideas, and greatly inform them of the world they live in. Post-colonial literature from Africa and India written in the English language would too be of educational value to Irish students. 

While Purple Hibiscus, a book by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is on the Irish education curriculum, more can be done to introduce foreign writers to Irish students. Though other authors such as Arundhati Roy, who wrote The God of Small Things, have been known to be included on the curriculum along with Chinua Achebe, Maya Angelou, Zadie Smith, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Irish students are well educated about African, Indian, and African-American issues through our education system as a result of the presence of these authors on the curriculum. The successes of teaching these texts could be copied to give greater representation to authors from all around the world – giving Irish students a more well rounded understanding of contemporary issues in our society. 

However, we find that other foreign writers are not as well read by secondary school students, whether it be the famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, or Latin American authors in general. Authors such as Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges, could be included to educate Irish students about different people and societies, and have themselves receive global acclaim for their works. Latin American literature is renowned for its exceptionally high quality, just as the writings of Japanese and Chinese authors. 

These authors all tackle themes relating to the cultural context and social issues present within their respective societies, and if only solely for the sake of creating students with impressive critical thinking qualities, the secondary school English course could be expanded to benefit the intellectual development of its students.

It is not just non-white characters and writers absent from the Irish education system, but even European writers. For a European state this is shocking. On the continent, European literature is studied in depth, from all corners of the globe, with a natural specialisation in continental writers, and it is something worth mimicking in our own education system.

Take the most famous authors of continental European literature, whether it be the works of France’s greatest modern writer, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, or the writings of other notable figures. European authors, ranging from Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, Émile Zola, Cervantes, or even Goethe, are household names throughout Europe, and students are exposed to their works through all manners of cultural education. That we lack the diverse representation of authors from around the world in the Irish education system is a sign that it needs updating. 

A modernisation of Ireland’s education curriculum is needed, yes, but that does not necessarily mean it would be a good idea to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Classical education in the English literary canon is essential for students. Students need to be taught international texts in addition to the existing selection of English literary texts. The English literary canon should not be stripped from English classrooms around the country, but expanded to include famous authors from all around the world. Similarly, certain styles of teaching literature to students have been developed from the theoretical and practical ideas of teachers for hundreds of years, and no matter how boring some things may seem to the average student, they are essential for their education.

The English literary canon shouldn’t be stripped from English classrooms around the country, but expanded to include famous authors from all around the world. 

Greater diversity can be brought to the Irish Leaving and Junior cert curriculums, not just in relation to more Black characters, but Asian writers and continental European authors, who for the most part are sidelined in favour of teaching the same English curriculum in the same generic way. Instead of teaching students several Shakespeare plays, in repetitive classes, they can be introduced to far more interesting authors from different cultural backgrounds. If continental European education standards are anything to go by, such a policy would substantially increase the quality of Irish schools.