I have written about this before, but the periodic occurrence of blog posts advocating less required reading in schools compels me to offer again my argument in favor of keeping the classics in the classroom. I agree that students should be offered the opportunity to read what they like for school. I agree that a book does not have to have been sanctioned by the academy or designated a classic for it to be a worthwhile read. And I agree that students are often more motivated in the classroom when they are allowed to pursue their own interests. Even so, I argue that this does not mean we should abandon the classics.
The argument against required reading in schools rests primarily on the assumption that English is equivalent with literacy and often with composition. However, English also encompasses literary studies, a professional discipline that some students may desire to enter later in life. English courses should go beyond teaching reading and writing and acknowledge the existence of literary studies. After all, history, chemistry, biology, philosophy, etc. all require writing (and different types of writing than the English class–try writing a lab report like an English essay and see what happens), but no one reduces those classes to only composition. Literary studies should also be given a space in schools.
Literary studies, like art history or film studies or music history or many other disciplines, encompasses a body of works that are seen as influential. It is divided into periods, maybe historical, maybe more thematic, that make it possible to see trends and their influences. Try teaching art history by telling students that the works by Monet, Picasso, Giotto, etc. are optional because people find those things boring. Students can simply bring in artwork they enjoy. Now imagine what that course would lack: an understanding of Impressionism, modernism, realism, etc. A lack of knowledge about the names art historians regard as influential.
Or imagine teaching a history course and telling students they need only focus on the past twenty years, because stuff before that is boring. Students are only really invested in this modern stuff that affects their lives in more direct and obvious ways. What would those students be missing? Background, a sense of scope, an understanding of how the past reaches into the present.
By not teaching classic works, we are withholding the values and knowledge of literary studies from students. We are telling them it does not matter if they read Shakespeare or Dickens or Austen as long as they read. This is disingenuous. It does matter if they have read the big names, especially if they plan on majoring in English in college or going on to grad school. They will need to be familiar with a good chunk of the Western canon just to pass the GRE to get into grad school. These books still matter, rightly or wrongly, to a lot of people and a lot of institutions. And students will need to know that if they hope for a career in literary studies.
While it’s desirable for students to find a love of reading through reading what they love, it’s also important that we do not obscure the values of literary studies from them because we believe that the classics just do not speak to students. This is a rather condescending attitude–many students are capable of reading classics and enjoying them. It also ignores the fact that you could assign The Hunger Games in school and people would still hate it because it was assigned–student reactions to books are not always directed at the books themselves.
It’s also an attitude that we do not tend to see in other courses. How many people have you heard say, “Oh, no, we can’t teach students about Bach–it’s Beyonce they want to hear!” or “Goodness, no! Teach Newtonian physics to students? They find that stuff boring! I’d rather let them imagine for themselves what physics as a discipline looks like. They’ll find it much more interesting to just bring stuff in and play around with learning what happens. But teach them how physicists think and what they value? No, they can figure out who Newton is and why he’s important later.”
There is a middle ground here, one where we keep required reading in schools and also offer students the opportunity to read what they love and to pursue their own interests. Opening the doors to student interests does not mean forsaking literary studies. But to do this, we might first have to re-imagine what the English class is and what it does. Are English classes only to teach literacy and how to write an English paper? Or can English classes also introduce literary studies to their students?