5 Reasons I’m in Favor of Required (Classic) Reading

Discussion Post

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.

Possible Compromises

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?

Briana

Advertisements

38 thoughts on “5 Reasons I’m in Favor of Required (Classic) Reading

  1. TeacherofYA says:

    Ooh, this is a big one for me, as my thesis was about using contemporary YA lit in the classroom. I think the classics are great, but the YA of today is way different than the YA I grew up with. It’s so much better and has so much available for discussion.
    While I know the time is short, I would agree with the argument to supplement the material with YA lit instead of removing it all together: I want to inspire a love of reading in and out of the classroom. When I was in high school, my love of reading died. The books required for me to read were boring and I didn’t have time to read for fun. As I look back, if I had something fun to read for a class, I might have continued to read those materials outside of class and made time for them.
    There’s never a simple solution: I think graphic novels that illustrate Shakespeare could help students understand it better, but I would never choose one over reading the Bard directly. I also wouldn’t have students read The Hunger Games as it’s been overused. There’s a balance.
    It’s just so hard to contend with the need for quality literature but also the need for passionate student engagement.
    You know what I’m trying to say? Because it’s hard for me to explain it well…

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think that some of the difficulty in choosing books is that we never really know what students will engage with or why. It will vary from student to student and from class to class. So while some have suggested that we do away with the classics because they are “boring,” we have to remember that not all classics are the same (Charles Dickens writes nothing like Virginia Woolf, for instance) and that not every student will hate a book just because it’s been given the label of “classic.” I can’t think of anyone I’ve met, for instance, who didn’t love To Kill a Mockingbird. The other day a teacher told me that her class loves The Great Gatsby. A student I know keeps telling me how much he loves Dante, even though most people I know keep telling me that Dante is too difficult for anyone to read. I’d hate for any of these people to be denied a rich and rewarding reading experience because others determined for them that they should only read contemporary YA.

      The same could be said of YA, however. Most book bloggers seem to read mostly YA so the assumption is that everyone loves YA. But we know that not everyone loves the same books. That’s why we have reviews! We can’t assume classes will love YA just because we love YA! Or that they will love a particular title because we love a particular title!

      And yes to The Hunger Games being overused. I sometimes think it’s ironic that adults trying to be cool and keep up with the youth can’t seem to reference anything beyond The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, and John Green. Most of these books are at least ten years old by now! That’s not to say these works can’t be used in a class (I’m sure students would love to analyze a book they enjoy. They may have read it but not considered the questions a class might raise.) However, let’s stop pretending that these books are current in the market!

      Sometimes I think that perhaps it’s not the books that are more or less interesting, but rather how we present them. I hated Shakespeare for years because my high school teachers didn’t open any room for discussion regarding the works. Then I had a brilliant professor in college and now I love Shakespeare! I think the teacher has to strike a balance between reading books from the literary canon (because students will need to know them to have cultural currency or to go on to careers/degrees in literary studies) and contemporary titles. And I think it would help if the teacher were invested in these titles and had some provocative questions to raise in regards to them. Students know when teachers are disengaged with their material and it’s harder to reach students when you’re projecting dislike instead of excitement.

      Maybe that excitement can be contagious, too. The statistics for the number of people who read for pleasure are incredibly low. 😦

      Like

    • Briana says:

      Yes, I think some people are just put off by the term “classic” and that generally comes with a vague idea that all classics are “old-timey” and written in the nineteenth century or earlier. There are plenty of very approachable classics from the twentieth century, as well as “modern classics.” I don’t think anyone would say, for instance, that John Steinbeck or Harper Lee are “old and hard to read.”

      Like

  2. Pippa Peters says:

    I completely agree with everything you’ve said. So many people in my class whine about having to read large musty texts by old forgotten authors, dismissing it as irrelevant before even giving it a chance. And to top it all off, I’ve often being classified as “stuck-up” or a “prude” for siding with such texts. Glad to find someone who holds them to the same value that I do.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s so funny because I think that readers DO think of classics as “large musty texts” but they don’t have to be! Look at Pride and Prejudice, for instance! It’s relatively short and has a HUGE fan base and tons of modern adaptations! And I know tons of people who love The Great Gatbsy and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both relatively recent and short! In fact, I’ve noticed teachers often choose shorter texts to fit them in the syllabus. There’s a reason we’re all reading Jane Eyre instead of Villette, even though most scholars seem to agree Villette is a superior literary work.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. FranL says:

    I think that part of the problem is that they’re approached differently from contemporary books. People act like “it’s a classic so we can’t criticize it”. Um, no! Criticism makes students better thinkers. They can learn how to support their claims. They can debate.

    Also, there’s an idea that contemporary books are more relevant to the world today. Again, no. Race relations (as seen in everything from To Kill A Mockingbird, to The Color Purple, to Huck Finn) are still making headlines now. Scientific ethics (which Frankenstein dealt with) are also a contemporary issue.

    That’s not to say that contemporary YA should be ignored in the classroom either. I love classics. I love contemporary. Why not read both?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Yes, I think that’s true. I’ve seen people in the blogosphere reluctant to criticize classics because, well, they’ve lasted so long and so many people like them that they feel like it’s “wrong” to say they don’t like them, or that it looks like they’re just not smart enough to appreciate them. But there are definitely classics I don’t like! I think some are boring, and some are irritating, and some have other flaws. For me, it’s about being able to say “Well, personally I thought this book was horrible, but it does address issues x, y, and z, and I can see how other people find that interesting or meaningful.”

      Agreed! I didn’t mention that in-depth in my post, but I also think that current book does not automatically equal relateable. I had someone give me a lot of reasons they wanted to read YA instead of classics in high school literature class suggest John Green because “it’s about stuff teens deal with” and then sort of trail off in an argument of “Well, we’re not all dealing with death and cancer…but still! It’s still more relateable than Romeo and Juliet!” But I think it’s possible to find old books that speak to you and new books that don’t. And that sometimes reading is about learning about people who don’t have much in common with you at all, and that’s fine, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • FranL says:

        Well a lot depends on your experience. I mean some teens (sadly) deal with death and cancer ( a la John Green) and some deal with insular societies that condemn people who are “other in some way” ( like in Romeo and Juliet). I would imagine (and hope!) that very few teens have been selected to appear on a reality TV show in which they kill other teens in order to be the last one standing at the end. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t enjoy The Hunger Games. Sometimes reading things outside of our immediate experience is enjoyable. I think that we should expose kids in school to all kinds of different literature. They don’t have to love it all, but they can learn to appreciate things even when they don’t LOVE them. And they can learn what they do love!

        Like

        • Briana says:

          Right. I think this one person was taking “relatable”too literally because her argument was “No one is seriously going to kill themselves over love.” But I think you can find other things to relate to Romeo and Juliet, just as she apparently found things to relate to in The Fault in Our Stars despite her lack of personal experience with cancer.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Keira says:

    I’d say if the teacher doesn’t love the book then the students won’t either. Give students a list – tell them to read x number – and do presentations/discussion/papers only on the ones they choose.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s true! Students know when the teacher is not invested!

      I did have one class where the class would read common texts–because we needed to be able to discuss them together as a class–but were also assigned additional reading so people would present on works and the class could get a feel on what else “was out there.” The problem, I guess, would be that this class had far more assigned reading than most.

      I do like students choosing from a list of texts, though, because that means the teacher will have read the books in question. It’s very difficult to offer meaningful feedback on a text you haven’t read.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I think this is true. My high school teacher didn’t like poetry and made a point of saying so frequently and I came away with the idea that poetry is difficult to deal with and not fun.

      I do like the idea of a reading list with choices, and I think I would try to incorporate something like that if I did teach. While I do think the class should read *some* of the same texts so they can have a conversation, I think giving students more control over picking what they read can be very helpful and encouraging. Sometimes I think one of the problems people have with reading is not the text itself but “I was forced to read this and that makes it not fun.” I think people (some at least) would actually hate books like Harry Potter and Divergent if they were “forced” to read them in school, so saying “We should just read x book instead” is not going to be a solution for every student.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bionic Book Worm says:

    I’m very much a fan of required school reading. There are so many books I never would have read that I loved! Great Gatsby, 1984, and Lord of the Flies just to name a few. But I do like it when teachers give students options. Say three books and they have to pick one. Not every book works for everyone and there were times where I swore off reading for a while because I hated a book that much!

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Me, too! I like classics, but there are ones I read in school that I would have never picked out for myself, and sometimes I discovered I actually liked them!

      Yes, I think giving students some control over the reading they do could be a good compromise. Possibly it’s slightly more work for the teacher this way, having to grade essays on different texts and such, but if they curate the list, hopefully all the options will be books the teacher is familiar with.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jillian says:

    I like the idea of mixing up required classics with more modern works. I think it takes a really good teacher to make a classic work seem relevant to a student. But that is a challenge that should be accepted. 🙂

    I was reading a biography of C.S. Lewis this morning, & I paused at a passage where he says (in The Abolition of Man, I think) that we must read works from a former age in order to locate truth. Our own era (“own” being whatever the current era happens to be) believes itself to be enlightened, but that is actually the death of rational thinking, according to Lewis. Older books may seem different to us, but they can actually show us how we have fallen from the values of that era, or the truths that era discovered. Too often we look for what is wrong with the prior era’s literature (unenlightened ideas about women, for example) rather than looking for what it can say that might reflect us back at ourselves. The people who wrote the classics were just people — like any of us. Not so different. And they can tell us something about who we are, what we stand for, what we believe in and fight for. Some era a hundred or a thousand years from now is going to look at us and wonder why we are so unenlightened. Best to not stop our exploration at 2017. 🙂

    If students only hear what we have to say in this era, that starts to become (I would think) a bit of an echo chamber.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I do think mixing up modern and classic books is what most people would advocate, but I have seen people who basically want to eliminate classics entirely, and it makes me sad. (Not that I think this is likely to happen, so I don’t have any fear about that, just sadness they see no value in classics and apparently think “I don’t like this book” equals “Obviously no one likes this book.”) As I mentioned in the post, I think the one obstacle is that combining classics and contemporary would probably mean assigning more reading in English classes, and I know that some English classes actually read very little. If you go over only four novels a year, it’s tough.

      I also agree that there are things we have learned from our past. I think many people–particularly if they don’t read widely–aren’t fully aware of how much literature has influenced our society. And not just other writers. There’s a quote from Vigil’s Aeneid on the US $1 bill. Classic literature is at the foundation of much of our society, influencing politicians, philosophers, etc. I’m not sure you can even fully understand some of the US Founding Fathers without knowing something about Greek and Latin literature, for instance.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Adam says:

    I definitely believe in teaching classic literature in classes. While I didn’t always enjoy them, I think they offer a fresh path to understanding different cultures and times in history. I agree that the instructor’s method is a critical role. When we were studying Shakespeare my professor was very fond of offering a modern translation of the conflict, and liked to show us modern adaptations of the plays.
    I’d be inclined to offer optional English Lit courses that discuss genres like horror, fantasy, or YA. Perhaps encourage libraries to run summer/winter reading programs. When I was growing up my town library frequently ran a summer program where each book you read translated into a certain number of moves in a fictional castle or maze. Scattered about were random treasures, which translated into a variety of modest prizes. Of course I was already a voracious reader.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Yes, I think the instructor’s enthusiasm is important. Otherwise students might sit there and think, “Wow, the English teacher, the person who likes classics enough to dedicate their life to teaching them, thinks this is boring. It must really be a horrible book.” And it’s downhill from there.

      My local library has a summer reading program, and I think it does fairly well, but I’m never sure how much it attracts people who already like to read anyway and how much it encourages kids to try reading. I think encouraging reading in general is great, but it’s just a question I’ve always had.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. nualacharlie says:

    I remember being turned off some authors with having to study and therefore over analyse the work, but that was just English lit, but I cant remember being encouraged to read anything the for pleasure alone. I have come to appreciate the classics more as an adult and am glad of that Cider with Rosie has been forever spoilt by study.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      This is why I think that even reading YA books, or modern books, or just different books wouldn’t solve the problem for some people. For some students, it’s less about the book and more that they’re being forced to read the book; there’s negativity because it’s a school assignment, and there are people who would hate reading Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc. in school.

      Like

      • Krysta says:

        I think in the end it’s difficult to encourage students to read for pleasure in the context of a class because they will always see it as assigned reading. I was in a course where we had to read books outside of the ones we were discussing as a class. We then did little presentations on these others books or just informally talked about the books. They were ungraded presentations and the books were “for fun” but they were still things I had to spend time reading for the class and this meant the class had much more reading than other classes, which is something students will be very aware of.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Such an important post!!! I really agree that reading classics is a great way to challenge young people and encourage them to step outside their comfort zone. And I agree that if there is to be any compromise, it cannot be to the detriment of the classics. I think one thing that public legislators do when they suggest these ideas is forget that there are students who, no matter what, will be examining complex literature at a young age. It would put students at a tremendous disadvantage to switch out classics for a popular YA. There are other ways to try and encourage reading outside of the classroom (library initiatives for one thing) but, despite what some people think, reading classics is not a chore, it is a privilege.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I included the “classics are too hard” argument because I’ve heard this from a lot of high schoolers and first year college students. I see it less in the blogosphere, but it’s still there, and I think a common frustration with classics. But, yes, of course it’s hard. There’s a reason high school teachers might take an entire month go over just one Shakespeare play. They know it’s hard! That’s why they’re teaching you, and you’re only going to be able to read the plays on your own if you practice them. It’s not like you reach the age of 22 or something and, suddenly, you’re good at reading Shakespeare. It will always be hard the first time you do it, and I don’t think that putting it off till college or grad school or whatever would even make it much easier.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        I think that challenging assignments are often something students realize the value of later, probably after they’ve safely completed them and know they’ve made it through! Students are, I think, ultimately willing to take on difficult tasks and to recognize that they’ve grown through completing them. But it’s easier to feel grateful for a challenge once it’s over and not while you are stressed out about it!

        Like

  10. Anj @ seaweed books says:

    I’M SO GLAD THAT I STUMBLED HERE. I love reading, in general, but I also feel that classics need to be given the importance and recognition they deserve. Yes, classics are dense, but look at the enchanting world the author has created. Classics also present you with a lot of new ideas and as you said, it’s definitely eye-opening. I’ve been trying to read more of these to accomplish my goal of reading 8-10 classics this year and so far, I’ve been doing pretty good. All in all, I feel that classics really enhance your perception of the world and you also get many wonderful quotes, which I’m not complaining about it. GIVE ME ALL THE QUOTES. 💛

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I also find reading classics very rewarding. I’m current reading The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and it’s going to take me a while, but it’s so fascinating. I also think there’s a great variety in classics, so people can probably find something very short and engaging if they want to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anj @ seaweed books says:

        Totally. People seem to be obsessed with calling classics too hard to understand. They often forget that children’s classics are adorable and at the same time, are not ‘tough’ to read. And there is good old Agatha Christie, whose works are stil enjoyed by people today. People indeed forget to look at the variety that classics offer.

        Like

  11. Michelle @ Pink Polka Dot Books says:

    I agree and disagree to an extent. I hated reading the “classics” in high school, and frankly think many of them are overrated. But I do see the value in everyone reading the same books and discussing it. I think a fair compromise would be having one year of English be classics and the next year have it be a contemporary class with more modern books. That way everyone gets to read both at some point in their high school careers.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I think the issue is that (in the US at least), English classes are by country: world literature, then American literature, then English literature. And fourth year I guess people do AP English or some other option. There’s really no reason one can’t read a more recent American book in tenth grade, though.

      Like

  12. Musings of a Muslimah says:

    Love this post! I agree that there should be more variety in the syllabus but I actually loved reading the classics at school and came across books I may not have normally read but really enjoyed. I live in the UK where most of the syllabus is classics or plays etc but I think it would help to have some YA books as it may encourage a lot more students to read.

    Like

  13. Fleur @ Frankly Books says:

    Point four is extremely valid, I hadn’t really thought of it that way before! However, I do think that required reading can be a little bit of a drag sometimes. I’m currently trying to get into reading the classics on my own, but I keep getting held up by my previous high school experiences. I refuse to pick up Macbeth, because we ‘skimmed’ over it in class and it was the most boring experience I have ever encountered in English. Now I wont pick it up, even though I know that it sounds like my kind of thing.

    Fleur @ Fleur Henley

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I won’t claim I enjoyed everything I ever read in school either. :p For me, it often depended on the conversation. My high school experiences were not always interesting because the conversation was so often about simply summarizing the story or recalling what happened in the book, which was probably useful to other students but was boring to me because I generally understood the surface level of the text just fine. Conversations in college were often much interesting, and when people who really liked the book made points, it was incredibly helpful.

      Like

  14. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I agree that reading classics is important, because they form such a big part of our culture and common knowledge. But I think the canon needs to become more diverse, and if teachers are making teenagers study Shakespeare, they should try to make it relatable and fun, not tedious. I think reading should always be enjoyable, even if it’s difficult.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think that good teachers use a variety of formats to teach Shakespeare including read-alouds, performance, film, and graphic novels. It’s pretty standard practice to present Shakespeare in a variety of ways to make reading it more accessible to students.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s