The topic of required reading in high schools often comes up for criticism and intense debate. Why must students all read the same books? Why must they all read those books (those old, musty classics by dead white men?) Isn’t reading supposed to be about enjoyment? the critics ask. Shouldn’t we be simply encouraging students to read anything, rather than dictating what they must read and killing their joy? After all, the classics are hard, boring, and completely unrelatable to students. They simply have to go.
I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that reading should be about pleasure, and I believe that the last thing a school should accomplish is making students dislike reading. However, I disagree with the assertions that reading classic literature—old literature, challenging literature—is pointless and has no place in our schools at all. Below I list five reasons in favor of required (classic) reading.
1. The Classics Are Not Irrelevant to “the Real World”
Although the classics are often dismissed as irrelevant to everyday life, as knowledge one will never actually use, the truth is that literary knowledge is fundamental to many fields—and many careers. Literary allusions makes their way into art, theatre, history, and other literature. A knowledge of Shakespeare or Virgil or Plato may, in fact, be useful. Students should be given a foundational literary education so they can apply it other fields, if they choose. It’s simply not true that the only people who need to know about literature are people who end up being literature teachers.
2. Reading Classics Enhances Your Complexity of Thought and Writing Style
While I believe in the value of reading in general (any type of reading, of any genre or any text), studies keep suggesting that there is distinct difference between reading complex literary fiction (like the classics) over other books or other writing. Studies have, shown, for instance, that people who read literary fiction are more empathetic than those who do not. They have shown that people who read “good” writing are better writers than people who read primarily content on the Internet (like Buzzfeed, Reddit, etc.)The fact is that there’s a difference between just reading anything and reading something “good.”
3. Required Reading Introduces Students to New Things
When people argue against reading classics in the classroom, they often point out that teenagers simply aren’t interested in classics. The books are too old. They’re not about teens. They’re about unrelateable situations. And so on. The proposed solution: Schools should assign books like YA novels, things teens like to read.
The problem with this solution is that it suggests schools should spend valuable class time teaching books that…teens are already reading by themselves. If everyone at High School X is reading The Hunger Games, that’s great. But then the school doesn’t need to assign it. One of the goals of required reading is to introduce students to texts they are not already familiar with. Hopefully, some students will discover that, even if they don’t like all classics, they really like Renaissance drama or Romantic lyrics or twentieth century naturalism. “Classics” come in many genres and styles, after all.
4. Required Reading Challenges Students and Helps Them Grow
Reading classics, it is true, can be difficult. The writing can seem foreign and the situations portrayed totally removed from the present-day. However, this is exactly why classics need to be taught in schools. Teachers know that Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton may be new and challenging to students, that students may have to struggle and take hours to slog their way through the text. But that’s the point: they are teaching students to read Shakespeare so that, next time, getting through an early modern play won’t be so hard. The books are assigned because they are difficult, not in spite of that.
One’s “reading level” (often a loaded term in education, I know) only improves when one reads challenging texts, texts above one’s current ability. To argue we should assign only books in high schools that are easily comprehensible to students is to do high schoolers a disservice. By assigning difficult texts, we teach people to be better readers.
5. Required Reading Is a Practical Classroom Tool
Finally, there is one practicality surrounding required reading that is frequently overlooked: Literature classes work best when all the students and the teacher have read the same book(s). Imagine how difficult it would be to hold a class discussion when everyone in the room had read a different novel. Or how challenging it would be for a teacher to lecture on several difficult books at once. Or how impossible it would be for that teacher to fairly grade 100 essays about 100 different books. Literature classes function on the assumption that the students and teachers have something in common, which means there will probably always be some sort of required reading in schools, even if the assigned texts are not all classics.
Despite my belief in the value of classic literature as required reading, I do recognize that reading the classics isn’t everyone’s “thing” and that expanding the curriculum to include a variety of genres and categories of books could be beneficial to help students learn that they probably don’t “hate reading;” they only hate reading certain types of books. I think that high school classrooms could expand to incorporate, for instance, YA books alongside classic literature. (Maybe the class could read a classic and then a YA adaptation.) Alternatively, teachers could assign an independent reading project where students can choose their own book(s) to read.
The only complication I see with this compromise is that it requires students to read more than they do currently. The amount of assigned reading high school students are asked to complete for one literature class can vary widely by school, or even by teacher within one school. However, I know that it is not uncommon for high schoolers to read four or fewer novels per year in a literature class. They may take a few months to read one Shakespeare play. If this is the case—that a high school student will read only three novels in their junior year English literature class—I don’t think we should remove one of those classic texts and replace it with a John Green or Marissa Meyer book. The goal should be to read YA (or graphic novels, or memoirs, or whatever genre) alongside the classics, rather than replacing the classics.
What are your thoughts? Are you in favor of required reading? Was it ever beneficial to you? Did you ever come across an assigned book you actually enjoyed?