Don’t Let School Shape Your Understanding of the Classics

Don't Let School Shape Your Understanding of the Classics

The classics cannot seem to catch a break these days. Some people argue that the classics are simply too old and boring for anyone to want to read, let alone a student. In fact, I once heard a librarian say that suggesting a child read a classic book would be to “traumatize” them because of the difficulty of the text! Others argue that having a list of “classic” books is naturally oppressive because the list has long included mostly “old, dead white men” and the books do not present an inclusive understanding of the world and humanity.

Such criticisms are valid. Many students in the U.S. are not reading on grade level, so suggesting they read a book with complex text might indeed be overwhelming for them–though I would argue that the problem here lies more with the educational system than with any particular book. And, for many years, society’s understanding of classics has indeed included predominantly old white men.

However, in the past decades, many scholars and other individuals have worked hard to expand our understanding of what a “classic” is. In many cases, this simply means an older work that has been determined to have some sort of literary value that means audiences still are interested in reading it and publishers want to keep it in print. This is a vague concept that could include any number of titles for any number of reasons such as: the book speaks to a specific historical moment, the book exemplifies a particular writing philosophy or movement, the book has beautiful prose, or the book raises interesting questions about the nature of humanity, society, love, or anything else. With such a broad definition, classic books can include titles written for children, genre fiction, prose, poetry, plays, and, yes, diversity!

So why do so many readers continue to associate classics with stuffy old white men with difficult prose (Dickens, Hawthorne, or Shakespeare, for example)? The problem is that many people tend to read classics in school, when they are assigned these books for homework, and never again. Their one encounter with the classics is defined by a handful of teachers who present to them a very small sample of books. And, in many cases, teachers are simply teaching what they themselves were taught. They have not caught up with the times, or realized themselves that the term “classic” is more expansive than the Western canon.

This does a disservice both to readers and to the classics. There are many worthy–and interesting–books out there that might appeal to student who have no idea they could like the classics, if they found the right one. So let’s explore some examples.

Classics include all age ranges.

When people think of “classics,” they often seem to conjure up an image of the Victorian novel or perhaps of the dreaded Shakespeare. However, teachers might be interested in assigning children’s books to students rather than works written for an adult audience. There are plenty of children’s classics that readers continue to enjoy today:

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
  • Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  • Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
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Classics encompass all genres.

People tend to associate classics with literary fiction. However, there are plenty of genre classics that readers continue to enjoy today! Here are some examples, including some authors and titles we might now recognize as “modern classics”:

Fantasy Classics

  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Mystery Classics

  • Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton
  • Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie
  • Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene

Sci-Fi Classics

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Patternist series by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
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Classics cover a wide range of time periods, writing styles, and forms.

Not all classics are Victorian novels like Middlemarch or Bleak House (though both are well worth a read). Readers who do not wish to read a novel might wish to pick up a short story, a novella, a play or even a graphic novel. Likewise, readers who do not enjoy lengthy prose sentences such as Dickens’ may desire to pick up a writer like Ernest Hemingway, who writes in simple, direct sentences. No matter one’s reading preference, someone, somewhere in history probably wrote something that will be appealing. Some examples:

  • “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin (short story)
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin (novella)
  • Corduroy by Don Freeman (picture book)
  • “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison (short story)
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman (graphic novel)
  • Night by Elie Wiesel (memoir)
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Classics can be diverse!

Despite what school curricula might imply, there are plenty of amazing literary works out there that have been written by all kinds of people and that represent a myriad of experiences, expanding our understanding of “what it means to be human.” Here are some titles for your consideration, including some modern classics.

  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker

What titles would you add to the list?

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Classics are so much more than Victorian novels, Shakespeare plays, and books by “old white men,” but, for many of us, high school, the one place where we will be asked to read a classic book, fails to demonstrate this. This does a disservice to readers, who graduate believing that the past has nothing to offer and that any book written more than five years ago must be old, boring, and outdated. So don’t rely only what you learned in a handful of English classes to judge all the classics. Why not pick up a few more and see for yourself?

30 thoughts on “Don’t Let School Shape Your Understanding of the Classics

  1. kat says:

    Wow, I hadn’t realized Alanna was considered a classic! I loved Pierce’s books when I was a kid, but, while I loved the Alanna books, the Circle of Magic quartet has always been my favorite. I do agree high school fails students when it comes to the classics. I remember my friends complaining endlessly about The Grapes of Wrath and how much they hated it, and I’m pretty sure most of them never picked up a classic ever again. It’s a shame because there are a ton of amazing classics out there that never get read in high school.


    • Krysta says:

      I’m counting Alanna as a modern fantasy classic, but there’s no strict definition of classic, so I suppose someone else could disagree with me there!

      *whispers* I have never read The Grapes of Wrath.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kat says:

        I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing! I’ve read several accounts from women and women authors who point to Alanna as being a source of inspiration not just for writing but just living. She’s an amazing character with a wonderful story that has inspired so many, and so many readers are still talking about her.

        Shh! I haven’t, either! From the way my friends talked about it, I probably never will.


  2. femaleinferno says:

    It’s interesting reading this post, because as a teacher and living in Australia we have to adhere to a curriculum that we can interpret how we see fit (within reason) and our interpretation (as a nation) of Classic reads is slightly different. The goal is to develop critical thinking through reading, get a sense of the history of writing, and develop language and grammatical skills in the application of the task of writing, reading, and dissertation. Are teachers in American held to a set syllabus and reading list? Is it different from state to state? What are the core objectives in assigning those books? I’m just interested because it seems we have a lot more freedom in Australia and teachers are required to apply and contrast classic novels with current everyday life and the mechanics of storytelling. We can even give students a list of 100 novels that they are able to choose 5 from for the year. It hurts my heart to hear of the rigid experience you’re describing through English Literature in schools. I guess it’s something that needs to be petitioned at higher levels of government, and schools congruently… my hope is that the subject becomes more malleable with its application of the curriculum so it is accessible to all students.

    An interesting topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    • Krysta says:

      My current understanding of the U.S. curriculum is that we have the Common Core standards, but each state can change a certain percentage of them, and private schools can then change an additional percentage. So what people will read is very different from school to school. I have friends who are teaching in private schools and their specific schools often tend to favor the “dead white male” definition of a classic, and I get the impression they just teach the same books every year because it’s always been that way? But some of the public schools in my area are clearly trying to diversify the reading lists. I don’t know exactly what the end goals are for everyone, however. I am pretty certain, however, that the Common Core suggests skills to be learned, not specific titles to be read, which is why the reading lists vary so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. jawahirthebookworm says:

    The only classic I remember thoroughly enjoying during school was Fahrenheit 451. It was such an impactful read that irrevocably shaped many aspects of me as a reader. Shakespeare on the other hand was a nightmare honestly 😂 Personally I don’t think I’ll ever fully read his works.

    Nancy Drew was so much fun too! I really hope English Literature gets revamped at some point because it is a shame to see so many people are put off by reading from having such a boring experience with classics.


    • Elspeth says:

      I felt the same way about Shakespeare until we enrolled our kids in a classical school with a drama program. The drama teacher, who had extensive theater experience prior to teaching, made one thing clear: “Shakespeare was written to be appreciated through performance, not independent reading. That’s why you hated it as a kid.” Changed my whole perspective.

      However, there is a way to read and appreciate Shakespeare, one that I happen to love. In 1807, a brother/sister writing duo, Charles and Mary Lamb, reworked Shakespeare’s stories into a compilation “intended for the use of younger persons”. Of course, this was 1807, so young readers then is probably equivalent to many high schoolers today.

      The volume is titled ‘Tales from Shakespeare” and while I have read a couple of the originals since high school, I have found this volume to be a more than adequate way to appreciate Shakespeare’s story telling prowess without having to read a 5-act long play.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I remember hating Shakespeare passionately and thinking he was way overrated until I had a wonderful Shakespeare professor in college. But my teachers in high school made Shakespeare so dry and boring! I think a lot of how students understand and approach a work is determined by the teacher. If I hadn’t had that one college experience, I might still hate Shakespeare today!

      I do like the classes where they recommend a list of potential books and students can choose a few. That way, the teacher is presumably familiar with the books, the students can discuss their read with other people who are reading along, and they feel some empowerment–they’re not just “being told what to do.” (Well, they are, but it feels less that way, I think.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lory says:

    Pushing a classic on someone too early, or one that does not connect to their interests, is a sure way to turn them off to anything labelled “classic.” The tragedy is that there would surely be classics more suitable to their reading level and interest that they could absolutely love, and it’s closing doors for them. You do a good job of exploring some of the ways to expand our definition and keep those doors open. I would just add that Dickens, Shakespeare and Hawthorne are still wonderful and may be some readers’ cup of tea, too! The important thing is to match the right book to the right reader at the right time.


    • Krysta says:

      Very true! I personally love Dickens and Shakespeare (Hawthorne I can take or leave!), but everyone’s reading preferences are different and that is definitely something to take into account. As is, of course, their reading level.

      I tried to read Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was about 11 because I loved classic books so much. I didn’t understand it. But, I wasn’t scarred for life, either. I just moved on to other books that were more suitable for me at the time. Now, I’d love to go back to Hunchback and see what I think!


  5. mphtheatregirl says:

    That didn’t happen to me in that way exactly.

    I was raised on some of the classics- A Christmas Carol, Chronicles of Narnia, and I believe it was high school when I read Lord of the Rings The only books that I really struggled with were the required reads- especially if it was a tragedy. It actually technically is a combo of A Christmas Carol and Les Misérables that made me the classic fan I am today


  6. BookerTalk says:

    That librarian’s comment is so depressing and disheartening. We seem to live in a society where everything has to be dumbed down because heaven forbid that youngsters have to put some effort into a task.


    • Krysta says:

      I do think it sounds overly dramatic. To me, “trauma” isn’t something you necessarily experience from reading a book you find difficult. That’s just…encountering difficulty. Something we all do!


  7. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    Agree! I think giving a classic to a child at the wrong time could turn them off classics, but if they’re given a wide variety of books to read, they’ll probably stumble across one sooner or later (and perhaps not even know it’s considered a classic!)

    For the diversity list, I would add:
    – Three Kingdoms
    – Tale of Genji
    – I am a Cat (modern Japanese classic)
    – Dream of the Red Chamber (not for kids tho)
    – Legend of the Condor Heroes (not sure if it’s considered a classic in the academic sense but it’s so influential as a wuxia novel)
    – The Pillow Book

    There are probably a lot more, but these are off the top of my head for anyone who wants to look at East Asian classics (:


    • Krysta says:

      Okay, you had me at I am a Cat. This clearly sounds like the best book ever. I hope it’s actually about cats. Though the summary makes it sound like it isn’t. 😦

      And I love that you added East Asian classics! I wanted to add some more non-Western classics, but…we don’t talk about them too much in the U.S. so it was difficult to think of many off the top of my head.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

        If I remember correctly, it’s told from the viewpoint of the cat! I remember enjoying the start, though the middle and ending is a bit hazy (still, the first few chapters were definitely worth it)! I think Peter Mayle did something similar with a book from the point of view from a dog, but his was a lot shorter!


  8. onceuponanelderberry says:

    Such a good point! I personally love classics, particularly the old ones, and I got that love from school. But people do forget that classics aren’t all dense, anachronistic texts written by old white men. There are some awesome books on your lists, I feel like I need to go back and re-read a lot of these!


  9. Charvi says:

    This is such a well written post! I absolutely agree with everything you said. A while back I also wrote a post on how schools need to change the classics they’re using, oof. They just spoil classics and books for everyone in general and we honestly need better classics that won’t bore children to death.


  10. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Oh wow classics are “traumatising” now. I’m sorry, but that’s so absurdly hyperbolic, it actually lessens the meaning of “trauma”. Do people even consider what they’re saying when they say things like that?
    Yeah I agree that there’s a problem with reading levels among children, but the idea should be to get them up to a standard where they can read complex texts, not dismissing said complex texts! (and also going at a reasonable pace for children at different levels).
    I also think there’s a lot of laziness in not acknowledging how the Western canon has expanded!
    Great post!


    • Krysta says:

      I do think it’s a bit of a disservice to equate difficulty with actual trauma. Learning how to approach a difficult text or acquire a new skill is always going to require some effort and some guidance. But I don’t see anyone equating learning the Pythagorean theorem with “trauma,” even though some people struggle with math, too. Should we all stop learning math??

      Yes, I am bit tired of people not acknowledging that diverse classics exist. I don’t think it’s quite fair to suggest that no one in the past wrote a diverse book when this simply isn’t the case and there are many wonderful titles out there that we could be enjoying.


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