The Importance of Classic Literature

After the discussions that we have been having in class, I have decided to shift the focus of my blogs from No Child Left Behind legislation to that of literature. More specifically, I want to study the debate concerning literature taught in school, whether middle and high schools should focus on young adult literature or classic literature. There are those who believe that YA literature should be the canon, as its language is easily accessible to students and it covers topics that are interesting and useful to adolescents. On the other hand, there are those who believe that classic literature should be the canon, as its messages and merits are timeless and have been taught for so long. I tend to align myself with the latter group, although I understand the position of the former.

There is a reason that classic pieces of literature from such authors as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Austen and Dickens continue to be taught in high schools, and not simply because teachers have a fascination with boring their students. Classic literature has been able to stand the test of time and has been revered by many for its greatness – that is why classic literature is taught. Why, then, do people want to disregard it completely and to remove it from the high school classroom? It is true that many of the events, characters, and settings are no longer applicable to students today, but the messages gleaned from these works are timeless.

In his article “The tale’s the thing, for every generation,” William Rees-Mogg talks about a good story being the basis for children wanting to learn. He says that students will find interest in literature if the story and content are interesting to them, not necessarily if the work is deemed classic literature. However, he does not believe that students should not have to read classic literature, but should rather use these other pieces as segues into the classics.

“Great literature, even apart from the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer, teaches lessons…Great literature is an instructor to the young and a comfort to the bereaved.”

The great writers of the classics were masters in their craft. They knew how to write well and effectively, and how to compose pieces that would continue to instill wisdom centuries into the future. In other subjects, such as chemistry, calculus, and history, students study those people who were masters in these fields. They concentrate on gleaning knowledge from those who were the most accomplished and had the most to offer. Why should literature study be any different? Although YA literature is a good device to get children interested in reading, it should not be the main focus of study in the classroom. In general, YA literature does not have the universal appeal or level of skill that classic literature does. That would be equivalent to history teachers teaching their students only about the lives of ordinary people rather than those of people like Napoleon, Washington, or King, Jr. That would be equivalent to chemistry teachers teaching their students only about experiments conducted in high school labs, and not about scientists and discoveries that have changed the world. Classic literature has a place in the classroom, one that should be revered and never substitued with work that is simply mediocre.

“The tale’s the thing, for every generation”

William Rees-Mogg

February 19, 2007

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8 Comments »

  1. wdok Said:

    Though I am still a little confused about what constitutes a YA story, I do follow your logic as to why it probably would not be ideal to have books of the YA variety supplant classic literature as the primary mediums of instruction in high school classrooms. Sometimes, though, I feel like far too much effort is exerted in extolling the awesomeness of those works considered irreplaceable (I wonder if there’s a class that examines how, or if, classic literature fails and stumbles on some fronts?). Because of the constant sunbeam of praise, I concur with the belief that there exists the possibility of feeling oppressed by the classics. It can reach such a point that upon discovering you were not especially moved by a piece of classic literature, you begin to feel like there is something wrong with you. It can be very lonely. It’s kind of like church, but that’s a different subject. I don’t think people disregard the classics; in fact, I feel like classic literature is more appreciated today than in any time before. Perhaps, though, it has become too big—too special—for its own good, as if nothing worthwhile is ever going to come again and this is your only shot of seeing and grasping something beautiful.

  2. Classic literature has stood the test of time and its greatness is undeniable. The classics have surpassed the designation of literature and have crossed the border into the world of mythology. For each succeeding generation the tales tell a different story. The messages from these accounts offer invaluable insight into personal relations and self study. They are metaphors that offer greater meaning than the stories themselves. It seems to me that the job of the teacher, therefore, is to extract the message of the metaphor, as it relates to the students. Only then will the young reader ‘get it’. It’s not about who lived and loved centuries ago, but about how we can better conduct ourselves now.

    Gerard Bianco
    Author of the mystery/thriller, The Deal Master, and the soon to be released, Triumph of Success: 52 Three-Minute Strategies for the Modern Business Professional
    http://www.gerardbianco.com

  3. adada Said:

    woah man this is so kool dude i totally smoked pot and read this awesome wicked peace dude

  4. nolan Said:

    useless

  5. Cameron Said:

    Students should be allowed to discover the supposed greatness of classic literature on their own, when they’re mature enough to appreciate it. Any other way only creates a long-lasting resentment for all books, which is why so many people do not become lifelong readers.

    As an example of this, I read Jane Eyre as a Senior in high school and it almost made me hate reading altogether. This is coming from someone who used to read all the time as a small child. Of course, the credit does not go to Jane Eyre alone. After roughly 13 years of schooling, I began to accept the fact that required reading was generally a chore. However, when I picked up those very same books years later, I found them to be quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, it took a very long time to convince myself to sit down and read for fun, thanks in large part to the damage done by an educational system that prefers your method of teaching: namely, jamming classics down the throats of students who simply cannot relate to them yet.

    In retrospect, it’s a little sad. One would think that if classic literature really stood the test of time, then teachers would not have to force their students to read it, But the reason they need to force them is because most classic literature just isn’t interesting at that age. I say let them read young adult novels instead, and they’ll continue to read as adults. Their tastes will mature with time, and if classic literature is as good as it’s said to be, then they’ll read it eventually, when they’re ready. Rushing that process is what has been done for years, and it has created a world of people who would rather spend their time doing anything but reading.

    But at least they’re not reading co-called mediocre books that they enjoy. Heavens, no.

  6. Jennifer Said:

    Wow,
    I was doing some research on whether classics should be read in high school and i found this blog. I have an assignment due in English class on whether classic novels or poems should be read in a classroom and i found your opinion to be very useful.
    thank you!
    Jen


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