A common complaint among readers ande bloggers is that classics are “too hard” for people to read and thus should not be taught in school. I am not in favor of removing items from the curriculum solely because they are difficult. Being challenged, after all, is how people learn. If students were only assigned works with which they are already intimately familiar and comfortable, they arguably might not need to be in school at all–they already know what is being taught. Why would they need to sit in class to have a trained professional guide them through the material? However, I think there is an argument to be made that perhaps some teachers are teaching some books too soon.
Classics are admittedly difficult for many students to read. Usually readers ascribe this to the fact that the books are classics. “Classic” is synonymous with “difficult.” No more need be said. Some might elaborate and suggest that it is because classics are older and the old timey language is indecipherable to the average modern reader. This can be true in some cases, though it is important to remember that classics actually encompass multiple time periods and genres. Reading Hemingway is different from reading Shakespeare. Reading Hurston is different from reading Austen.
One reason classics may be particularly difficult for students, however, is a reason I have yet to see anyone acknowledge. And that is that the classic books typically assigned in U.S. high schools (and middle schools) are typically books that were written for adults. Those who argue that the answer to student struggles is replacing classics with modern writers overlook the fact that, if teachers were to continue to choose adult books, students might be see F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced with Toni Morrison. Morrison is a wonderful, beloved, and celebrated author whose books have already found their way onto university syllabi; she will likely be one of the “classic” authors of the future. However, Morrison’s books are arguably not easy for the average high schooler to understand and digest, either. Those who want the classics thrown out are, implicitly, asking that the classics be thrown out in favor of children’s and YA authors–writers who are writing with a younger audience in mind.
Teachers are well aware that students need to be challenged enough to learn, but not enough that they simply give up. There is some evidence suggesting that reading just above one’s level promotes more learning. A 2010 study with second graders indicated that those reading books two levels above learned more than those students who read only on their designated reading level.
Choosing books “on grade level” or just above to teach may not be so simple, however. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that, in 2017, only 32% of eighth graders were proficient in reading. In 2015, 31% of twelfth graders were proficient in reading. If only about one third of students are proficient in reading, then, yes, asking them to read adult books might actually be too much of a challenge. But asking them to read a book for eighth graders or twelfth graders might be a challenge, too.
I read and learned to love many classic books in school. However, I think that there are some teachers who are introducing some books too soon. To Kill a Mockingbird is not a book for sixth graders. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a book for eighth graders. If teachers want to introduce a few of the classics into the curriculum, we might ask ourselves why more do not turn to children’s classics–books like The Watsons Go to Birmingham or Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables? Why do they turn to adult books?
Classics were some of my favorite books growing up and classics are still some of the books I most enjoy today. However, I think we need to take a hard look at the nation’s reading scores. A student who is not proficient in reading on grade level is likely going to struggle with most books. Assigning adult classics to students will indeed result in frustration. Maybe the problem is not really the classics. Maybe it is the assumption that students are reading at grade level and thus ready to be challenged with more difficult books. Maybe it is time to reevaluate why reading scores are so low and time to be proactive about changing them.