WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?
Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?
Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!
(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)
THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
Should high school readers be assigned classic books that were originally written for an adult audience?
Classics in the classroom are controversial for a variety of reasons, not least because of the belief some readers hold that classics are just too inherently difficult for anyone to want to read, let alone students. The complexity of the texts and the unfamiliarity of the language is good reason, many argue, for teachers to stop assigning classics altogether. Often unacknowledged in the conversations around reading material, however, is the fact that a large number of students have not acquired the reading skills deemed necessary for their grade level. This means that it is not simply classics that might be too difficult for students to read, but a large number of more recent titles, as well. If teachers were to assign modern adult books to students, many would likely still struggle for the same reasons they struggle to read classics.
Every four years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests U. S. students in grade 12 to see where their reading levels are at. Students may score in four ranges: Below NAEP Basic, NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient, and NAEP Advanced. A Basic score indicates that students have partial mastery of the material, Proficient means they have a solid mastery, and Advanced means they have exceptional mastery. One would hope, then, that most students would at least score on the Proficient level. The 2019 results, however, (the most recent available) show that 30% of 12th graders scored Below Basic, 33% scored at the Basic Level, 31% tested as Proficient, and 6% tested as Advanced. In other words, 63% of 12 graders, about two-thirds, have not mastered all the literary skills they ought.
Students may, at a Basic level, be able to “identify elements of meaning and form,” “make inferences, develop interpretations, make connections between texts, and draw conclusions, and “provide some support for analysis.” But they have not yet mastered “locating and integrating information using sophisticated analyses of the meaning and form of the text” or “providing specific text support for inferences, interpretative statements, and comparisons within and across texts.” 30% of 12th graders have not mastered even the Basic skills. Is it any wonder, then, that they find reading a classic book difficult? They might find reading and interpreting any book difficult.
Some have suggested that teachers replace classics with YA books. The argument made is usually that this will be more “relevant” and “relatable” to students. However, one might also consider that YA books are usually written more simply than adult books, making them easier for struggling readers to access and interpret. Yes, of course, YA books often deal with difficult content–anything from teenage pregnancy to death to the nature of humanity. However, the way YA books are written is actually usually more simplistic than adult books. Typically, sentences are easier to understand and any “message” or “theme” is spelled out for the reader. In fact, spelling out the message is so common in YA, that readers now get upset if an author does not do this, and instead expects readers to interpret something like, “This character said something sexist so he is the villain” rather than explicitly writing, “Bob is a sexist jerk who is imposing the patriarchy upon us by suggesting that we adhere to ideal body image standards, and we intend to stop him because he is wrong.” Because YA books now typically spell out any thematic messages, they actually may require less interpretive work from the reader, making it easier for struggling students to understand the main point of the story and write a paper about it.
This is not to say, of course, that students should not be expected to improve or that we should ultimately lower standards and never expect readers to be able to do the bulk of interpretive work on their own. However, there is a fine line between challenging students and making something so difficult that they simply give up. Every teacher will have to determine where their students are at academically, and what books it makes sense to connect them with. Some classics might actually work well for students who have difficulty interpreting texts and making connections because they do provide clear-cut examples of techniquess like symbolism (think The Great Gatsby) or have the characters reflect out loud on important themes. In other cases, however, YA books might be a more reasonable school assignment.
So should we keep assigning books written for adults to teens? Maybe. Many teen boys actually already read adult books because YA is primarily written by women about girls, and these books do not resonate with them as much. So teens are capable of reading these more difficult texts. On the other hand, we have the statistics showing that many teens are struggling academically. Every school, every class, and every student is going to be different. Some may find that classic books are challenging, but manageable. Others may find that different texts are more appropriate for their needs.