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Why Classic Literature Needs to be Refocused

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Removing shelters of sexist thoughts in the classroom

We do not need to look very closely at classic literature to see the sexism inherent in a majority of it. In Plato’s Symposium seven men discuss their ideas on love. Socrates presents the ideas of Diotima, a woman, and yet, most will remember Socrates and Plato as the authors of these thoughts. The term Platonic love springs forth from this discussion. Diotimatic love is not a term. Women have had great ideas since the beginning of recorded history, but those ideas have needed a male champion for them to be heard and often all glory and attribution is bestowed upon a man instead. How can we ensure that students understand that this is wrong and should no longer be tolerated? Another example is the exclusion of women from texts altogether: John Locke uses the word ‘man’ 432 times in the Second Treatise of Government. He uses the word ‘woman’ 4 times (twice to discuss marriage, and twice to discuss her having children). As a woman, it can be distracting to read and reflect on government and not feel specifically excluded from the conversation. The sexism is not only directed at women either. Men are punished for showing vulnerability, being nice, displaying empathy, expressing sadness, exhibiting modesty, believing in gender equality, being too smart, and appearing nonathletic.

For most of us, we do not require a bright shining spotlight turned onto these discrepancies in gender equality. We notice, we justify, we rationalize, and we move on believing others also understand that the world has changed. But for some, this presentation, this wording, not only shelters their sexist beliefs, but reinforces them. They smile silently to themselves, that, of course, when it says men it only means men in the strictest and most literal use of the word – women are rightly excluded. When male characters are ridiculed for being kind, they nod believing it to be just. What if our classrooms did not allow these shelters?

Show, don't just tell students that men and women are equal

As a society, we must show students that men and women are equal and adjust the literature that will be used in our classrooms to do this. Currently, we teach the texts then give an explanation that seems like a rationalization to explain why women are allowed in the classroom; why good men are admired and not scorned today. And although many students are able to understand this explanation, some will be confused, and others who are explicitly taught the opposite at home or through other avenues of society will find this explanation ridiculous as the text matches their world view perfectly. Students need to see the sexism through other gender’s eyes to understand how harmful it is themselves and their peers. We can not just tell them it is there; we must show them.

We must be willing to make changes that promote Gender Equality

One way to flush out these dark corners of sexist thought is to disassemble their shelters. Teachers and parents should present material updated to reflect our current classrooms. This will not be the first time America has undertaken such an initiative. In fact, at America’s birth, Noah Webster (also known as The Father of American Scholarship and Education) believed the first step was to change British text books and the British language to fit American classrooms. It seemed ludicrous that teachers would relay the importance of monarchy with a caveat that democracy was better. He even adjusted words like the British ‘colour’ to the American ‘color’ and finally produced the American Dictionary of the English Language (we all know the updated version as Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Webster did not set-out to create an entire new language, but rather one that would work for Democratic Americans. We must do the same and embrace change where it is needed for a gender equal America.

Refocused Literature

Using refocused literature is an acknowledgement of the inequalities perpetuated against the genders and emphasizes our willingness to address and change them. Refocusing literature is a simple and easy change to enact. New material does not need to be generated from scratch. Teaching aids do not need to be recreated. The cost per classroom is pennies per book. If we as a society will not embrace simple, easy, low cost changes to make the world more equal for both genders, how will we ever do the expensive and hard societal changes that are needed such as parental leave and equal pay?

Finally, it eases the burden on teachers to highlight and address these complex issues. Our brilliant, hard-working teachers already do so much for our children, we hope refocused literature makes it easier to expose these issues and gives them solutions to resolving them.

Take this small step with Change the materials in your classroom or that you read with your children and as we eliminate safe havens for sexist thoughts and belief, we will find a society more willing to take on the challenges we face towards true equality.

Check out to see how we are updating classic literature to fit a gender equal society.


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