A Place for the Classics in the Classroom

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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?

Krysta 64

 

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22 thoughts on “A Place for the Classics in the Classroom

  1. Briana says:

    Agreed. I think it’s often overlooked that literary studies is a field and while, of course, many (most?) students won’t go on to major in English literature in college, part of the point of grade school and high school is to provide students with a foundation in a variety of subjects so they can see what interests them and have a base knowledge in case they do want to study the field more in depth in college. Most people won’t necessary use calculus either, but we teach it to students so they can see if they’re good at it or like it and so, if they want to pursue a career that requires calculus, they can. Also, more fields than straight-up English literature require a knowledge of classics. Having a literary background can also help you with theatre, art, history, etc.

    Also, while I also believe that giving students a variety of books and helping them find what types of books they love to read is important, I totally agree that suggestions that “Oh, why don’t we just teach [John Green/J.K. Rowling/insert whatever]?” are oversimplified. Plenty of people hate John Green books. There’s no guarantee this is going to be wildly more engaging in the classroom than teaching Charles Dickens.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I don’t quite understand why we would deny students a basic foundation in literary studies. Some will want to go on in that discipline. Others may not, but that doesn’t mean that being familiar with what we consider cultural touchstones would not be valuable to them. It could be in other disciplines as you note or maybe it could just be rewarding personally to students to be familiar with the titles that everyone else seems to be talking about.

      And, yes, it’s an odd blanket statement to say classics are boring and other books are not. Plenty of students seem to like To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre, for instance, despite the fact that they are considered classics.

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      • Briana says:

        Also, statements like “Teens love Harry Potter!” are great as generalizations, but in practical terms, you are always dealing with a specific group of students. If I have a class of 25 students, I have no guarantee that any of them like HP, or that more than half of them like HP. I could teach it and have it be a dud with this specific group. You never know what’s going to appeal to people or not. And, yeah, some students actually do enjoy classics, which I think we should not discount.

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        • Krysta says:

          I sometimes wonder if people would react differently to books if they didn’t know the labels associated with the book. Maybe Charles Dickens would be super popular if no one knew his books were classics.

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  2. errinkrystal says:

    I love this post! Reading is important for so many reasons. When I was school, we had our required reading as well as certain projects that involved us choosing our own novels. But learning about the classics is something I loved and I still love reading classic novels now. Between English and English Literature, I had to read like 12 books for my final year of high school, yet still found time to read mt favorites.
    I mean, we actually read Bram Stokers Dracula as required reading in year 8, so i was like 13. By 16 I was reading the Count of Monte Christo and Wuthering Heights for the pure pleasure of it. Among my favorites are Austen, Bronte, Wilde and so many others. They even studied Shakespeare in Drama and wrote school plays based on Frankenstein and Don Quixote at school.
    It make me really sad to think that there will be generations of students who will not be exposed to classical literature. These writers and playwrights are important, as you said, you wouldn’t teach the foundations of classical music without introducing students to bach, or physics to Newton, so why would you not teach literary students about the classic novel?

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    • Krysta says:

      I’m not sure that there’s been a huge push for cutting the classics among educators, unless it’s more among elementary schools where they are primarily concerned with teaching literacy. Usually I see disgruntled students–former and current–suggesting that the classics need to go because they are boring, but the fact is that the classics aren’t necessarily randomly chosen or placed in the curriculum without thought. Some people genuinely see value in the classics, as I do and as you seem to, so it’s not blind worship of the canon or outdated rules that keeps classics in the classroom.

      And I love that you point out that you enjoyed the classics! I did, too! And I even loved Shakespeare, once I had a good teacher to show me how wonderful he is. Shakespeare is often used as shorthand for boring and too incomprehensible for the average student, but this is a disservice to students. They are intelligent and they are certainly up to the challenge, especially when we keep in mind that students are learning! They are being guided through the works because teachers KNOW they are challenging. Typically you are not handed Shakespeare and told, “Good luck with that. You’ll be tested later without any class discussion of this.” 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Reading Bug says:

    I think it is wonderful that you are such passionate advocates for the classics, literature, and reading. Just one thought on Shakespeare, which as someone says is almost a synonym for ‘boring’ for some people – isn’t this because of the way it is taught. We shouldn’t teach kids to read WS, we should get them performing it. It was written for performance, not to be read, so of course it doesn’t automatically or easily come alive on the page in the way a good novel can.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think a good teacher can make all the difference in how students perceive and receive texts. When I first was taught Shakespeare, I had an instructor who was frankly disinterested in her own material, who refused to consider students’ interpretations if they conflicted with her own, and who generally projected an air of contempt for her own students. I didn’t like Shakespeare. Then I had an instructor who clearly found the material engaging and shared that enthusiasm with the class. We also watched filmed versions and had access to some audio productions. That made a world of difference. I never really loved Shakespeare until I saw him performed. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. DaniellaWrites says:

    With the exception of Shakespeare (and Lord of the Flies) no classics were introduced in my high school English classes.

    I love to read, and I’m curious about the classics but I really have no idea where to start or what I’ll enjoy of them! Dracula or Frankenstein because I enjoy genre fiction? Austen because she was so prolific?

    I feel that I missed out on what would have been a great opportunity in learning to choose, read, and analyse the classics. I definitely think there should be a place for the classics in the classroom.

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    • Krysta says:

      I had to read Lord of the Flies, too! But I am not sure that would have inspired me to like classics. It’s rather depressing. 😉

      I do think you have a unique perspective, though. I haven’t heard from anyone before who hadn’t been forced to read classics throughout school and I think you bring up a valuable point, which is that students would often appreciate some guidance in finding and selecting books they might enjoy. Exposing students to a wide variety of titles can help them realize that maybe they aren’t really into stream-of-consciousness but Jane Austen’s witty social commentaries keep them engaged for hours.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I loved reading the classics when I was in high school. I think you make some really good points in this post. One thing I especially agree with—we need to teach classics so that people have a “collective” understanding of literature. Those classics have been taught and retaught thousands of times, and I think there’s value in having a common language when it comes to literature. Like you say, there’s room to include more modern books as well, but I wouldn’t avoid the classics!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. pavedwithbooks says:

    I speak and studied English as a second language, so I had to go out and read the classics myself once I have the language skills to be able to do it. In a way this probably shaped my views of the classics to be more favourable, because no one ever forced me to read them. However, I think in places where English is the mother tongue, the English classes should be about literature as much as literacy itself, and classics would still have a place in that — if only for the students to have more thought-out criticism of them than ‘boring’!

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    • Krysta says:

      Wow! I am so impressed that you know more than one language! That takes such hard work and commitment!

      Yes, a good teacher can often help students find something interesting about texts, even if the students are initially skeptical.

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  7. nycrusalka says:

    I hated required reading at school – just because it had the stain of “required” in it. However, I read absolutely voluntarily and with great joy hundreds of books once I left school. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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