Reader Request Week 2021 #3: Teaching “The Classics”
Posted on March 30, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 86 Comments
For this one, two questions, coming at the same topic at different angles. First, this from Dominic Morton:
Should we teach “the classics” in high school? In the past I felt like the novels and plays I teach my students are a part of our cultural vocabulary, so they have common ground with other adults, later in life, but after once again slogging through Huckleberry Finn and (ugh) The Scarlet Letter I’m starting to think that what is important is practicing reading a longer work while holding details in your mind as you analyze a novel. How important do you think it is for all sophomore or junior teachers to teach the same titles from English canon?
And this from Kevin Fortier:
What do you think about classics being banned and censored in public schools (Such as 1984, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc.)?
For the record I’ve read all those books in question, and most of them as a teenager. I liked Huck until Tom Sawyer showed up as a special guest star and pulled focus; Scarlet seemed overwrought; Catcher made me want to roll my eyes at Holden; Mockingbird was okay and 1984 was the one that engaged me on a level other than “dutifully read.” There, full disclosure.
Books being censored or banned in schools is as American as apple pie, enough so that the ALA has an annual list of the top ten most banned and challenged books in the country, from schools and libraries. Strangely, the most challenged and banned books in recent years are not “the classics” but modern books with LGBTQIA+ content, and/or sexual themes or profanity. The classics occasionally sneak on there — Mockingbird showed up a couple of years back, as did the Bible (“Reason: Religious viewpoint,” which, I mean, yes, it definitely has that). But the focus does seem to be, shall we say, elsewhere.
I grew up with a parent whose philosophy with books was “if you can reach it, you can read it,” and that was the same philosophy that I had with my own kid, so as a matter of personal temperament, I don’t think it’s either necessary or desirable to try to ban books of any sort from schools or libraries. Also, as a general rule, within the constraints of the US Constitution’s establishment clause, I don’t think any book should be automatically excluded from public school classes or reading lists. Now, this is a very Olympian sort of attitude that falls apart where the pedagogical rubber meets the educational road, and where teachers actually have to make reading choices and then defend them to politically polarized parents of all sorts. Educators, feel free to unload on me in the comments for this (and all the other blathering that follows in this essay). But it is my overarching philosophy and I’m sticking to it.
This does mean when someone wants to have a handwring about a certain book (or a certain set of books) being banned or challenged, my first instinct is to wonder whether their outrage is situational — “It’s fine to ban those books, but these books are different” — and if it is, I admit to being less than entirely sympathetic to their pleas. A book banner is a book banner, and if your attitude is ban those but not this, then you kind of lose me. Having both been a teen and having had a child who was a teen, banning books is pointless anyway. A certain type of kid won’t give a shit one way or another; they were never going to read that book (or, possibly, any book) other than under duress. A different certain type of kid will be encouraged to seek out that book because it was banned, either from curiosity or to piss off whomever was attempting to censor it. Neither sort will be protected or comforted by a ban. It will literally not do any good.
With all of that said, I do not have any special great love for “the classics” in an educational setting, not because I’m worried about their outdated word use and attitudes, but because they’re often boring as shit, and often neither spark a love of the literature itself, nor a deep examination of the issues they are meant to help the students engage with. And that’s no good! So when we ask about whether we should teach “the classics” in school, I think the question is why are we teaching “the classics” in school?
So, for example: Are you doing a class in the History of American Literature? Yes? Fine, throw The Scarlet Letter in there. The kids who are taking the class pretty much know what they are getting into when they sign up for the course; they’re aware they’re going to spend at least some of their time reading work whose style, language and manner of storytelling is of a particular sort, and indeed, that’s part of the reason to take the class.
Are you teaching a general English class and assigning reading to help engage the students in the written word and to see how it’s relevant to their life? For fuck’s sake I beg of you do not assign The Scarlet Letter, you will smother their interest in the written word right there in that classroom. Give the kids something newer and something that they can more immediately see themselves in. Meet them on their own turf before you try to drag their ass back to Puritan New England and Nathaniel gotdang Hawthorne. It’s not too much to ask.
Well, like what? you may ask. What should we give today’s kids to read? Folks, I am not the one to ask. You know who you might ask? A young adult librarian, whose job (in part) it is to keep up with what’s going on in the world of YA, what’s being published and has been published in the last several years that could help today’s teachers achieve specific goals to engage their students. Or maybe check with an actual teacher! They often know! Ask them! Of course, be aware that what they might suggest might freak out a parent because it has a gay kid in it — please see above about what work actually gets challenged and banned in schools on a regular basis .
Which in itself might be a reason that educators often stick with “the classics” — it’s easier to haul out The Great Gatsby (An adulterous con man seeks the approval of high society — surprisingly relevant), which has passed the sniff test for high school for 50 years now, then to undergo the draining process of suggesting, defending and then dealing with the parental freakouts that come with, offering something new and relevant to the way kids live their lives today.
One other point to consider when we consider “the classics,” and not to be overlooked, is that “the classics” did not arise out of nowhere; choices were made over decades, and most of those choices were made by white folks. If there is one thing we know about white folks and their survey of American (and indeed, world) culture, it is a pronounced tendency to, how to put this, leave certain things out, and to make themselves look good. If you suggest to many of them there are other things outside the established canon of “the classics” they tend to get snippy about it. I mean, I get it, I went to the University of Chicago with its “core curriculum,” and when The Core was widened enough to consider the idea that Thought Itself did not spring only from an olive grove in Greece, there was much harrumphing. And this was from people who, from training and knowledge, fucking knew better. Your average white parent with a child in America’s various public school systems is not necessarily going to do better than a University of Chicago classics professor.
If we must teach “the classics,” especially the American ones, then we should be sure that “the classics” reflect more of the American experience than, say, The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby do. Those books do not need to go away! But they sure as hell need more company.
Ultimately, and again: Why are we teaching “the classics”? If we’re doing it because it’s what we’ve always done and we like doing things the way they’ve always been done, well, that’s a shit reason, and we need a better one. There are a lot of “classics” whose putative job in the educational milieu could be done equally well if not better by different, more engaging and more diverse work. Don’t ban or abandon “the classics”; teach them in milieus where they are relevant. Teach other work elsewhere. Students, at the very least, will benefit from that.
(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)
Teach Shakespeare with the dick jokes.
I took a Sci-Fi class for 11th grade “English”. We read Stranger in a Strange Land (hated it), Canticle for Liebowitz (love it), Foundation (love it), and I’m sure a couple of others that I am forgetting. We also read a bunch of short stories. Also played Gamma World in class once a week and then had to write a journal for our character to make it a writing assignment. Best.Class.Ever.
I hated Jane Eyre. I said it and don’t regret it. But I feel in love with Edith Wharton.
If I was teaching a class on Greek Mythology I would have them read the usually suspects and then I’d have them pick between Riorden’s Percy Jackson and Armentrout’s Covenant series and write a paper on demigods, et al.
I read a lot as a child/teen/still. Anything I could get my hands on. Thank God fired the library.
So much depends on the teacher. The one who taught A Tale of Two Cities to us in high school took the opening page and made it into a deep dive into rhetorical and stylistic analysis that astonished 16-year-old me: I had no idea that language could do that, nor that writers would think to do that. It changed how I saw every other book. It wasn’t Dickens who handed me that epiphany; it was Mr. Cousins’ ability to explain (and entertainingly too) what Dickens was up to in those opening paragraphs that did it.
I was just happy that, when I got to college, my AP scores were enough to keep me out of English Lit.
High school English ruined Julius Caesar and King Lear for me, and even the Utah Shakespearean Festival couldn’t rehabilitate them. Plays should be watched or performed, not read.
High School English convinced me not to read Melville, or Fitzgerald. Thank God I’d been reading on my own before I got there. Heck, I read Lord of the Rings in 5th grade, and Dune in 6th. I’d read most of Twain before 8th grade, too. Twain didn’t seem to think much of the “classics”, either, as “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper” demonstrated. Having gone to JF Cooper Jr high School was a bonus when I read that one.
We teach the classics in part because of their lasting impact on literature. Homer is worth reading for instance, as well as the classic Greek plays. Shakespeare’s influence on English literature is immense. Moliere’s plays also are still worth reviewing as part of western literature. We tend to think of the classics as boring dusty old things, but they’re really not. The hubris of those in the present judging works of the past is embarrassing when you consider what the fate will be for 99% of today’s popular works.
I actually loved Scarlet Letter in high school BECAUSE it was overwrought. That little demon pixie child going screaming imp on Hester Prynn was delightful horror.
I feel like ‘English classes’ are given an unrecognized and unstated dual mandate: teach reading comprehension and critical thinking, and teach American history / Western civilization through major touchstones. I believe if that dual mandate was much more firmly, directly addressed, it would be a lot easier to discuss ‘the canon’ and ‘the classics’ because part of the reading comprehension and critical thinking can come out of having the students themselves engage with whether the texts are meaningful or relevant in the same way they were when written. But because that dual mandate is sort of tucked away as a sort of half-assed “We’re reading The Great Gatsby for you to learn literary techniques such as symbolism like for instance the green light at the end of the pier, what does that represent? Oh and by the way the Jazz Age is kinda significant to American history too, just FYI”, individual teachers are going to have major differences in approach and results.
Not that being direct about that dual mandate will resolve the issue of updating the canon / cultural touchstones by, you know, introducing more texts that are slightly diverse of straight cis-white upper middle class male and the European / Greek referents they worked off of, in the minds of politically charged parents of either and neither side. But it at least makes more clear what’s being debated rather than arguing each text individually.
Long-time lurker, but as someone with a PhD in Literature who has moved over to an adjacent (and, IMO, more useful field) I can’t help but weigh in on this. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the canon just boils down to bros who like reading/teaching other bros, and it doesn’t have a lot of significant merit other than that. I mean, yeah. There’s a lot of (esp. British and American) literature that you can understand better if you can trace its lineage back to older stuff, including the Bible and whatnot, but then you’re leaving out so many other cultural traditions and mythologies and so on that it’s a net loss, really. What people would lose by not necessarily reading all the classics and getting all the intertextual stuff, they would gain in a wider familiarity with other lives and ideas and histories.
Now, that said: I think all Americans should read some things like Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, etc. I do believe in a canon to help Americans understand our super-problematic (extreme understatement!) history. But it would bear little resemblance to what people typically think of as “the classics.”
I wasn’t educated in this country. So what do I know?
We studied a variety of books (The Hobbit, Wuthering Heights, and such) but as excepts to understand changes in vocabulary and style.
We did read a variety of books and could choose from a recommended book list. It inspired a love of reading.
Great Expectations was a slog, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Billy Liar, Twelfth Night, …
They all informed my future reading direction. I love Shakespeare (performed and read), sci-fi and fantasy and mystery stories. It sure steered me clear of what I hated.
“The hubris of those in the present judging works of the past is embarrassing when you consider what the fate will be for 99% of today’s popular works.”
My dude, I have very bad news for you about 99.99% of the popular works of the past.
And, no. “Lasting impact” is about choices that people in the past have made in their own times about what should be sent forward, and what shouldn’t. Every era judges the past, just as we will do with “the classics” now — some of “the classics” won’t be “classics” in 50 years time, and other things not considered “classics” will rise in stature.
Don’t act like we are not now qualified to judge the works of the past, or that the choices we make now won’t have an effect. It’s not a great look. It’s not hubris, in any event. It’s life.
Nothing kills the love of reading more profoundly than a shitty English teacher. Some of the most tedious time I spent in school was listening to my 12th grade English teacher read certain passages from Gulliver’s Travels that amused her and how Swift was poking fun at this nobleman or this order of the garter or wtf ever. Then I took a satire class in college and learned how awesome and hilarious Gulliver’s Travels was, and Don Quixote and VOLTAIRE!
I had a class where we slogged through Silas Marner (which I don’t remember a thing about) and a teacher whose only requirement was that we read something we liked and then go over it with her.
But I also lived in a small town in Iowa with an active John Birch Society that got “Looking Backward” and “Brave New World” in the high school library temporarily banned. And when I tried to borrow “Stranger in a Strange Land” from the library, I had to have my parent’s permission.
If you’re gonna teach the classics, be sure to teach all the fun stuff, because Shakespeare sure as hell MEANT to put them in there, and they were almost assuredly part of the reason why they lasted.
(and dick jokes are still part of the human condition!)
@COD My high school had spring electives for English. One year I took a class on Lord of the Rings and one of our major assignments was to write some fanfic!* Now that is True Best.Class.Ever!
Though this was back in the early days of the web and the teacher was “old and grumpy”** enough to not use email at all. So I don’t think he realized that he was assigning us to write fic.
** I took a class from the same teacher the following spring. It was on Joyce’s Ulysses.
“Don’t act like we are not now qualified to judge the works of the past, or that the choices we make now won’t have an effect. It’s not a great look. It’s not hubris, in any event. It’s life.”
What qualifies one for judging the works of the past though? Maybe it’s simply being open to what the past has to say. Mark Twain’s less than satisfying ending because the climax of the book came too early to wrap the tale up isn’t a good reason to ditch the book as a classic of American literature, IMO.
As for lasting impact, that takes care of itself since as you say others will later get to judge them for themselves and make choices. Thinking of other media, I can see WandaVision generating some interest in “classic” U.S. TV shows. As someone old enough to have watched The Dick Van Dyke show, it was pretty funny then I thought. Is it still? Hmm.
This year my sophomore in high school son has had to read:
Into the Wild (rich white boy dies trying to find himself)
A Separate Peace (rich white boys at boarding school–literally no other demographic groups)
Dead Poets Society (ditto)
Antigone (so… two women in it who die grisly deaths… at least it is actually a classic?)
12 Angry Men (at least this has literary value even if there are you know, just men)
Anthem by Ayn Rand complete WITH questions that seem to have been written by the Ayn Rand society. I am not joking. Yesterday he was asked to illustrate the truth of the statement that no man can be free unless he is free of his brothers. Not discuss the truth, illustrate it using examples from the book.
I’m starting to think that the QAnon poetry site they were asked to submit a poem to for extra credit wasn’t an accident after all. (We did complain about that one…“trending poems” included “Poem for the Second Inauguration of President Donald J. Trump,’ and ‘On the Main Stream Media’s Fake News.’)
So… connecting to the question, I think right now my concern is more about propaganda and less about whether or not a classic is worthy or being read. And honestly, I would not mind if Ayn Rand were banned.
This is interesting timing. I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks reading articles about this, trying to figure out what the hell teachers are thinking when they choose the curriculum. I’m a life-long reader who hated high school English. While I know there are some who enjoy at least some of the material, most of the readers I know have little good to say about high school English, and we continue to love reading despite high school English. It seems to me that teachers have wildly different goals while refusing to make adjustments to the basic material. (Or are being denied the ability to do so.) Are you insisting that students read the classics because classics are classics and students will be seen as Philistines if they can’t rattle off the plots to at least five Shakespearean plays? Then admit that. Are you trying to get students interested in reading? Then maybe you should seriously reconsider whether making 15-year-olds read Heart of Darkness is the way to accomplish that. You want them to develop empathy through the use of stories? Are you sure constantly bombarding them with the worst of human nature is the way to do that? I’m not saying all of the horrifically traumatizing, boring, and irrelevant stuff needs to be thrown out, just that there needs to be some balance.
Every vehicle I’ve ever owned has had the same bumper or window sticker.
“Everything I know I learned from reading banned books.”
AMEN! and HALLELUJAH!!
I was sorely tempted to knock out a one-liner like “If it’s in the public domain, skip it” but that leaves out some genuinely interesting works.
The classics won’t go away from English curricula, but maybe they could do a one-on-one thing, and say assign a contemporary work that’s well-regarded and highly readable following the boring crap.
Yes, we did read “classics” 50+ years ago (Dark Ages?) and my problem is not with reading classics but with what classics we read. Some I liked, like the Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities – had a brilliant teacher for this, David Copperfield, Great Expectations). Others, I’d rather slit my wrists than sit through again (Silas Marner, the one book I went for the Cliff’s Notes rather than read, plus The Mill on the Floss – which gag – and The Return of the Native, which I totally hated).
Others we were assigned (ca.1962-’65):
Giants in the Earth
War and Peace (abridged ed.)
Crime and Punishment
Lost Horizon & The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Heart of Darkness/The Secret Sharer
The Sun Also Rises
and in a Senior Honors Class:
Dubliners & A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Death in Venice
can’t remember all the others
Two thoughts. 1st: Captain Underpants! Really?
2nd. I’m ordering a copy of George by Alex Gino. To be included for four years in a row means it demands to be read.
Two things here:
For me, it wasn’t so much “if you can reach it, you can read it” as “if you can read it, you can read it”. My mom, especially, seemed to be of the opinion that if I could comprehend what I was reading, I was ready to read it. Louis L’Amour at 7 and Peter Benchley at 11 wasn’t exactly typical in my family, school, or neighborhood, but mom was fine with it and it didn’t ruin me – at least I don’t think I’m a complete sociopath! So I’m thinking that pretty much nothing a kid reads can ruin them so long as their environment is a loving and caring one like I had. So, let’em read whatever they can understand is my thought.
On the idea of teaching the classics, as others here said, the teacher is pretty much everything. I was in what my high school called a “mixed” class for English my freshman year. “Mixed” is what they called a class where they took kids who got good English grades and combined them with kids who got terrible English grades and hoped that the “good ones” rubbed off on the “bad ones”. What they actually found out was that Ted Shaw, the teacher, was spectacularly good at what he did. He took kids who’d never even picked up fiction before and made them absolutely love The Odyssey. With him, that book wasn’t just an old classic – it was a rousing tale of battles won and lost, love and betrayal, treasure found and treasure squandered. Pretty much everything a young teen loves. Nobody in that class walked away with less than a B. And it wasn’t an easy B either – you had to work for it. But work for it we all did because we loved the material and the teacher.
A good teacher can make a lifetime explorer of life. A bad one (and I’ve seen those too) can crush someone and destroy a life. It’s not the book, it’s the one who leads you to – and through – the book.
Speaking as someone with a degree in English, I think the point is absolutely correct: WHAT are you trying to teach?
If we want to argue that students should all have a detailed grounding in ‘the classics’ and their influence on later works, I’m not necessarily going to argue against you (though I should note that I’m absolutely the parent who expects any teacher who is teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets to actually address that the first portion of them were most probably written to a man – if you’re not prepared to actually address it and you’re gonna straightwash the entire affair, don’t bother. And teach the dick jokes, for crying out loud – it’s all sword fights and dick jokes).
If you want kids to read, to pick up books, to learn to hold complex ideas in their heads and analyze texts, and to identify the stories and themes they’re trying to sell you about the culture they belong to, to identify the broad narratives and the detailed elements in contrast with other books and stories… honestly, that’s a different goal entirely, and the text you choose needs to be compelling enough to prompt that analysis and discussion. In the end, culturally literate people have these skills, and they don’t appear in a void.
Different aims, different books. Occasionally, if the teacher is very committed and skilled and the students are receptive and equipped, it can be the same book. But figure out what you’re building before you pick the tools.
“Every book their reader, and every reader their book” is a truism in library school. That said, a lot of the so-called classics will not spur a kid in today’s English class to love them. For my AP class, we had to compare and contrast 2 novels by the same author; some people went for contemporary novels, others for the ‘classics’. I thought I was edgelord when I wrote about Robert Heinlein. At least it had the benefit of being books I could engage with.
I might suggest to teachers, for at least one of the books in an English Lit class, take a survey of books the class considers ‘good’. Let the students make a case as to why the book is worth reading. The results might be surprising (and yes, you will get the jokers who push for Hustler. Let that go.)
As for Shakespeare, he’s one “classic” writer than I’m strongly in favor of keeping in the curriculum. Because so many teen movies are shameless wonderful rip offs of his plays. Get the kids up on their feet, have them read the words aloud, and explain all the bawdy jokes. It’ll give them some added joy and insight when engaging with all the contemporary stuff pulling from it.
You could do something like this with Austen too, as she’s so frequently adapted. Read Emma, watch Aisha, and assign a paper comparing Regency England and modern Bollywood!
For a couple of my High School English classes, I had a wonderful teacher, a Greek-born man named Miltiades Yiasamedes (what a name!)- though he insisted we call him “Mr. Yaz”. He was a riveting storyteller, funny, slightly manic, and taught Homer most amazingly- full of lyricism and wit, with just the right amount of sidetracking into the horny side of Greek myth. He was a bright light in a dark time for me, and there’s a reason I remember his name and have forgotten most of the others from that part of my education…
Truly an evergreen controversy. I’ve had half-lifelong arguments with several people about required reading in school.
I’d skip teaching fiction in school altogether. Like calculus, it’s either something you don’t need or something you don’t need a class for. Nonfiction is as suitable, at least as teachable, and far more useful for lost students. Most only need to learn how to compose sentences, use words properly, structure arguments, and communicate basic ideas. We should go right back to the trivium.
In the end though, I have to say we all place too much effort into the debate. As almost universally awful as literature classes are, they haven’t destroyed literacy or the book publishing industry.
Or are they? Would more people be better readers if they weren’t confronted with books they don’t want to read? Shouldn’t reading be fun? The problem lies in the separation between readers and non-readers. Readers will wrestle with challenging books because they are readers. Most people read reluctantly, if at all. Lit teachers aren’t doing them any favors with classics. They really don’t care about technique and aesthetics, and as a semi-reader I can vouch for having never fully enjoyed a classic.
I don’t know. I’m really glad I never had kids.
Also, nicoleandmaggie–yikes! That’s…an alarming syllabus, etc.
I’d ban the bible, not on religious reasons, but on the grounds that it glorifies rape, child murder, and genocide. And that is all from the Old Testament. At least two of those are from Exodus alone. Also it pretends to be actually historical, Exodus again, instead of being flagged as fiction.
I slogged my way through the classics in high school. Some, I loved. Some, I couldn’t stand.
But a lot just made me furrow my brow and ask “why are we bothering with this?” After the third Hemingway novel in four years I start wondering why we need to dwell so much on terse sentences about guys being masculine and killing things. Okay, Old Man And the Sea? I get it. But once we’ve gotten through a couple more I started to wonder what aren’t we reading instead?
And we have to face a rather unpleasant truth; a lot of the considered classics are books by straight white guys. And yes, sure, many have their place and, like ol Billy Shakes, have inestimable influence. But when the only book involving POC I got to read in my entire HS career was written by a pleasant white lady about pleasant white people defending a person of color, it kinda throws the whole thing into sharp relief. There are many books by authors of color, women authors, LGBTQ authors, disabled authors, and so forth that are just as deserving as Hawthorne (or god help us, one of the lesser Dickens novels) yet get overlooked because they were never flagged as a “classic” a century ago.
(to say nothing of the genres – I went through high school and most of college before getting a sci fi or fantasy novel. Like, geez, throw some Samuel Delaney in there and you can hit a literary jackpot – good literature, genre literature, LGBTQ author of color, post-structuralist themes…it’s kinda everything you could want to teach in 12th grade lit all in one author)
As a librarian, this post makes me VERY happy. We actually just got rid of the “Classics” label in our library system and I don’t think anyone noticed but the staff. Being forced to read “classics” in school almost killed my love of reading and if I hadn’t stumbled upon Douglas Adams and Michael Crichton (and then checked them all out from my local library) I probably wouldn’t be the reader I am today.
And actual book banning is SO rare – yes, books are removed from school curricullums or school libraries because of content, but everyone can still find them in public libraries (unless the publisher decides to stop making the books, and with so many books going out of print each year, who can tell what is “banned” and what is just done?).
As an English major and teacher, I think I’m third or fourth on this list in saying: let us teach Shakespeare with the dick jokes and stop trying to straight-wash everything! I do think there’s some merit in reading stuff that is still coming up in modern culture: Bruce’s suggestion above on how to teach Shakespeare is right on. We do have to fight school boards and curriculum people to get anything decent done in the classroom, though.
Unfortunately, whether or not kids love a book often comes down to the skill of the teacher and we’re not getting our most skilled people into the classroom (and we’re not supporting them once they are there — teacher burnout/turnover is HIGH). I was lucky enough to have many good teachers who gave me a blueprint for how to teach classics:
1) do away with the reverence, some classics will resonate with some kids and others won’t
2) let the kids critique! Many of these works are racist, sexist, or poorly thought out and allowing kids to write a scathing essay can really help them define what isn’t working in a piece of literature
3) don’t tell them what to think, I just had my oldest son texting me from college complaining about how much he hates Jane Austen — turns out his professor wanted him to write a formulaic paper on her pet theory, which is so antithetical to Austen that he was actually having trouble finding sources
I’m in favor of pushing a lot of the traditional curriculum to the curb in favor of more relevant and modern authors, but without a teacher who is knowledgable and excited about the material, we’re going to run into the same levels of ennui in the students.
Back in 90s/early 000s HS for myself, I thought I was “meh” at English and lit classes because it just never struck a chord with me. Reading, in dry fashion, most of the usual classics (Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, Antigone).
I never did badly and still got A’s and Bs through courses, but it always seemed to be a disproportionate struggle. Then my senior year had a much more engaged teacher, and we did a full unit on dystopian Sci-Fi (1984, Brave New World, etc) and I not only loved it, I had exceled at it. In part because the stories were actually exciting to me and resonated in a way that was easy to map to modern issues and analysis.
Now, does that mean the traditional “classics” were somehow not lacking in value? No, but I like some of the suggestions above that it matters in terms of the course intent and content. You want to just get readers through the door and doing basic analysis? Give ’em things they can identify with. I can tell you I can’t remember most of my HS English and lit courses, or even what I learned, because of the material they chose to use as vehicles to teach their concepts.
Married to a university-level Shakespeare teacher (and have taught a bit of him my own self), and while I’d agree that Shakespeare (and Shaw and Ben Jonson and Aristophanes and Euripides) need to be seen, they also need to be read if they’re going to be studied. How, after all, does the director/dramaturge/performer figure out how to shape a production? And in the case of Willy S., one is also going to school on poetics and rhetoric, which means dealing with text.
But minor rant aside, books don’t ruin themselves in classrooms. They might be presented to an inappropriate audience, they might be shoehorned into a curriculum devised by ideologues or idiots or just assembled by unthinking acceptance of what’s gone before or what’s available or affordable. But mostly, I suspect, literature is badly served by mediocre teachers–or by teachers whose enthusiasms or skills are hobbled by all the other demands made on them by bureaucratically-politically-economically dysfunctional school systems.
My wife teaches Shakespeare (to college students) because she’s convinced that he’s really, really good. She teaches All Quiet on the Western Front and The Joy Luck Club and Candide and The Metamorphoses and the Odyssey because they’re good, too. Good art, good writing, good for learning how to construe a complex text, good for strengthening the muscles of the imagination. In a different setting–a high school, a grad course–the particular texts might change, but quality, as seen by a very experienced reader and practitioner (she’s a writer herself), remains the primary criterion.
And among her English-ed majors, the ones intending to be teachers, she sees students indifferent to literature as anything beyond a set if political-moral examples–or, worse yet, students whose experience of literature and art and history is stalled at the middle-school level. They’re the ones who will continue the long tradition of plodding, tin-earred, workbook-bound drones who will fail to light any fuses among their students.
I had the good fortune to have two very (and differently) effective English teachers in high school–one lived to be 101 and answered my 100th-birthday-greeting letter with a response (handwritten!) in which she recalled who I was and that I’d read SF. In 1964. Vale, Doris Vickery. You helped light the fuse.
Perhaps I’m disremembering, but I thought part of the point of “The Great Gatsby” was that Gatsby DID do the things he was famous/infamous for –???.
::Teach Shakespeare with the dick jokes.::
Cannot agree with this more — if it’s Juniors or Seniors in HS on up. By the time they’re 16, they’re old enough to know WTF’s going on with that.
::We teach the classics in part because of their lasting impact on literature. ::
Spoken like White Male Gatekeeper.
I’ve always felt the reason more people don’t get into reading for fun is they haven’t found the types of books that appeal to them. I think one thing that’d benefit students is a class where they actually sample a variety of literature of different genres and styles to get a taste of what’s out there and what speaks to them.
As a High School English teacher, I absolutely teach the dick jokes when teaching Shakespeare, AND we go into the objects of the sonnets. Why bother otherwise? And also, I want the kids to know that yes, LGBT people existed in Elizabethan England, too, and so did dick jokes, scat jokes, and basically everything else under the sun in human discourse. I also teach Shakespeare not as a text to be read, but a play to be performed, but that’s not really germane to this discussion.
The best success I ever had with a book that was not Shakespeare was when I taught Steven Gould’s JUMPER to my American Lit students. I always reserve the last quarter for truly modern lit, and that book slammed me between the eyes when I first read it at their age, so I taught it. They loved it, and the only failure involved was that about half the students decided to keep their copies despite my hounding them (they belonged to me, not the school).
I once believed in the idea of “the classics” having merit so students would go into the world with a shared vocabulary, but 1) Most people forget these books as soon as they can, if they even bothered to read them when assigned, and 2) Unless every single teacher in the US is teaching the same exact books, this idea fails right out of the gate.
In my AP classes I still teach mostly classics, but those kids basically asked for it. In my non-AP classes, I tailor my choices in readings to the students’ interests, and my own as a secondary consideration. My department largely agrees with this, which is why we’ve bought books like Neverwhere and The Hunger Games, as well as The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian.
::What qualifies one for judging the works of the past though? Maybe it’s simply being open to what the past has to say. ::
Except you’re not — you’re just “open” to what a bunch of White Men said that grease your smug White Male literary prejudices.
Have you ever read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain?
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man?
Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give?
Octavia Butler’s Kindred?
Any Langston Hughes or Amiri Baraka poetry?
Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits?
Camilo José Cela The Hive?
Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude?
Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings?
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji?
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War?
Read all those, and then maybe I’ll take your posturing seriously….
On the specific issue of classics being boring as shit, fashions in prose style are an underexamined issue. Prose style changes over time, popular prose faster than literary prose. Many people complain about Tolkien’s prose style. Had he written in the style of popular fiction of the time, no one would be complaining about his style because no one would be reading it. I find the writing style of popular fiction from my teens to stand out as dated. (Asimov wrote a very silly essay where he thought his generation had invented popular prose style, when at most it had invented that generation’s favored prose style, most of it virtually unreadable today.)
The good news is that these go in cycles. A lot of 18th century prose is surprisingly readable today, e.g. Swift. Pushing into the early 19th, this is part of why Austen is popular today.
The moral for teaching “classics” is to choose wisely, including for writing style. Not much 19th century prose plays well today. Some Twain, but honestly, only a tiny fraction of that. And while Melville really is all that, I would never inflect him on innocent youths. Most readers need a few years under their belts to grow into him.
Regarding banned books, I am against banning. Thus I was conflicted back when Amazon cheerfully sold books published by NAMBLA. “pedagogical rubber meets the educational road” indeed.
Amazon’s a private business, however. “Refusing to sell” is not the same as banning, as it’s being considered for schools/libraries.
I taught school for 15 years. The first couple of years I taught middle school Reading. The teacher’s text flat out admitted that none of the stories within were chosen for their “enjoyment,” but were chosen to teach skills and the basic rudiments of reading and analysis. My thought was that kids wouldn’t learn jack from reading if they didn’t enjoy what they were reading in the first place, so I began to bring in stuff I enjoyed. We read O. Henry and The Devil and Daniel Webster. We read early Stephen King from the Night Shift collection (not as much profanity), we read Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger and even Harlan Ellison’s amazing “Jeffty is Five.” And do you know what? By the end of the year, those kids not only had a greater understanding of reading and analysis, most of them had started reading for fun. For. Fun. One of my proudest accomplishments as a teacher.
@Michael R. Johnston
How recently have you taught Jumper? I’m still very fond of that book, but it’s aged poorly in terms of technology in a way that a lot of other books of the same time period haven’t.
I’m curious if current teens react the same way? Or is it just an “old fashioned” book to them?
I’ve long thought that a great book for teaching high school English would be CARRIE, by Stephen King. It’s short, it’s about teenagers, it’s got plenty of sex and violence to keep kids interested, and best of all, it clearly demonstrates several different narrative styles.
Different sections of the book are told in first-person memoir, third-person omniscient narrator, and epistolary styles. Discussing the pros and cons of each one in class would follow naturally.
I remember reading Native Son in high school and being horrified by it. Thank goodness, I assured myself, that we don’t treat black people like that anymore. (This was the late 80s. I was very naive.)
Some have argued that reading the classics gives us “cultural literacy” so we have an understanding of references in other literature, pop culture, etc. In which case, keep Shakespeare but surely we can ditch Silas whatsisface.
As with most other areas of education, this could benefit from a bit of backwards design. Decide what outcomes you want to target in your class, then work backwards to the activities that will best achieve them.
Many of the classics were decided in a different world, where rote learning was valued and studying literature meant copying it into your copybook. Times change. These days, we want to emphasize critical analysis, and that means connecting to students’ personal experiences. We want to expand horizons, and that means looking at work from previously marginalized populations. To do that, room has to be made.
There’s no one right answer here. The thing I don’t understand is why a teacher would always pull the same stuff out year after year. That makes you job boring. My classes are under continuous change. I like that. The most boring classes I ever took were taught from lecture notes that were turning yellow.
I don’t lecture at all anymore. All my classes are driven by activities which generate conversations in the moment regarding things of personal interest to the students. Since I teach physics, you might ask “How do you make sure you cover Newton’s Laws and stuff?” And my answer is work backwards to the design of the activity. Create one where you sort of know what they’ve going to come up with.
And that works, but not identically. Every group is different and comes up with different ideas. That in turn keeps me interested as I have to think on my feet all the time about how to lead the conversation to a useful end point.
But my course goal is not “I need to teach them Newton’s Laws.” Rather, it is “They should know how to think about and analyze motion and interactions in real situations. End of the chapter problems are bogus.”
I teach geometry, so my opinion won’t mean much, but I hated being forced to read anything in high school, and I was an avid reader. If you dropped me off at any entrance to the Lehigh Valley Mall today* I’d probably find my way to where the Waldenbooks was just on muscle memory.
*I’m assuming the mall no longer exists.
I push for the kids to visit the high school library, I’ve got free books at the front of the room for them to take. I’m no advocate for classics, but push reading, even if it is only comic books.
For the record, I’ve read Baldwin, Ellison, Butler, Langston Hugues, Allende, Marquez, among others. They’re considered classics, although in the case of Butler perhaps a classic in her chosen genre. I don’t know if I’d tackle Invisible Man in your typical high school English lit class though, but I did read it when I was 17 back in 1973 so it can be done.
You do prompt one question from me to you though. You mention Sun Tzu, who is well-known enough. But I’d ask you whether or not Machiavelli’s The Prince isn’t the more necessary book to review in your typical English lit class, given the context. Well? I think it gets to some of the reasons why some works are elevated to be classics and some aren’t.
“I liked Huck until Tom Sawyer showed up as a special guest star and pulled focus.” Hot ziggidy. This has been my reaction for nearly forever.
And regarding “If you can read it, you should be able to read it.” When my kids were young, I read all sorts of stuff to them: “The Hobbit”, “Lord of the Rings”, Heinlein’s “Have Space Suit, Will Travel,” “Citizen of the Galaxy”. And then, when I started running out of stuff, I went with the Xanth series. Later, it turns out my daughter was scandalized that I’d read that to her younger brothers. Heck, my feeling was that, if they could understand the jokes, they were old enough. And if they didn’t, it went right over their heads!
Since a lot of people on this thread are shitting on English teachers, and I am one, I have a few thoughts.
Try to remember that changing curriculum is often hard. Books are expensive. In some places, reactionary school boards control the reading lists. And even when a school has money and freedom to buy new books, there’s a lot of institutional inertia to overcome. Teaching a new book well takes a lot of time and effort that most teachers don’t have to spare. Like a lot of things, it’s harder than it looks. The bottom line is this: even a teacher who desperately wants to teach nothing but up-to-the-minute cutting-edge texts, in the most dynamic and subversive of ways, probably can’t.
Some teachers are incredibly skilled and talented; others aren’t. The same is true of plumbers, engineers, lawyers, barbers, etc., etc. That’s life.
Not every teacher, even a good one, can reach every student. I’ve changed a few lives in my time; I’ve also entirely failed to reach a few kids, which I regret. If you didn’t click with a given teacher, that doesn’t mean they’re a shitty teacher. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Or maybe the problem was on your end. You were a teenager at the time, after all.
I’m surprised anyone becomes an English major after reading “the classics.” I hate almost every classic I ever read, and yet still was an English major anyway, go figure. No wonder kids don’t like to read. Between all the dog-dies books and the fact that virtually every book (except any Austen or Jane Eyre) ends depressingly, UCK.
I was very lucky that my school had AP American History and 11th grade honors English sync up, so that you were more or less reading from the period you were learning the history of. The classes referred to each other’s texts. It was great and highly recommended where it can be pulled off. They also did this with world history and world lit, but not as successfully.
For classes which are using contemporary lit, having a unit where students can pick from a list and then work in small groups picking it apart and reporting back to the class.
I’m not sure how relevant 1970s British English Lit. education is. We did some standard texts, like Shakespeare and I picked Conrad from the shortlist for my specialist subject, because, hey, sea stories. At least I got the references in Alien…
There are some interesting thoughts here – @pjcamp’s post I think, is particularly good in highlighting one of the disconnects that become problematic while “teaching the classics.” That is, the big Why? What are you trying to accomplish?…broad overview of Western culture, rhetorical devices and their use, logic, basic writing/reading skill development, love of literature, critical thinking, boring the absolute crap out of them until they rise up and throw off the shackles of their oppression…HEY TEACHER! LEAVE THEM KIDS ALONE!
The same “what is the why” problem crops up in many subjects. “Because someone said we have to teach it” is poor pedagogy in my view as is the related “because it will get them a job” argument.
One of my teaching mentors even advocated for being explicit about the Whys in assignments as a way of helping student place the material in the context of their current learning level and experience. Without such context anyone flounders about because have little in their current learning space to which they can tie this new “thing.”
There’s so much to say on this topic, and as a HS English teacher, I could go on forever. One of the reasons why we have to be critical about choosing to teach classics is because time is our most limiting factor. If we only teach the classics, then what aren’t we teaching?
But some of the above comments have it right: what is the goal of the class? As an educator, I was trained in what was at the time called backwards planning (and I think is called something else now). But start with what you want the students to learn/think about/etc. So what’s the goal of the class?
In my school, 10th grade is American Lit and 11th grade is British Lit. When I first started there 15 years ago, it was all classics all the time (dead white guy, dead white guy, dead white guy (I’m a white guy)). And I could make it interesting, and students could be engaged and we could survey US and British history through a literary lens (how come English teachers have to teach literature, history, art, foreign languages, science, and math?). But a lot was missing in those curricula. I tried to rework the American Lit curriculum every year, but I just hated it. I hated teaching Huck Finn, Ethan Frome, The Crucible, so I focused my attention on Brit Lit.
It used to be Beowulf, Gawain, Canterbury Tales, Modest Proposal, Macbeth, Sonnets, Romantic poets, Lord of the Flies, 1984. Maybe some Frankenstein or Pride and Prejudice if time allowed.
But look at everything we left out. I spent years trying to convince my department we needed to update the curriculum. I finally won and we decided that British Lit could be anything in the British Empire (except American because 10th grade). We’ve since added Homegoing by Yaa Gyesi, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
It’s a start.
But that dead white guy curriculum did not and does not reflect reality. What about my students of color? My female students? My LGBTQ+ students? Did they ever see themselves in the literature? If we never had an author who looked like them, what lesson did they internalize? I worry that lesson is that they do not matter.
And this brings me back to that time conundrum. Of course the classics have value. But if we focus on them, what is the cost to the humanity of the students in front of us?
Students, people, need windows and mirrors. We need windows to see someone else’s perspective, and we need mirrors to see ourselves reflected in art.
A former teacher at my school had a bumper sticker on her desk that said something like, “there’s nothing more magical than reading a book and encountering yourself.” But her entire career, it was dead white guy after dead white guy. And she was a good teacher. But some of her students never encountered themselves and she never realized the hypocrisy she taught.
We’re also limited by budget.
If I want to teach a new text to my two or three British Lit classes, I need 70 new books. If I want to do that every couple of years? It adds up. So I think we also get stuck teaching the same old same old because of money constraints.
All this to say: it’s complicated.
I go back and forth on what my goal is as a HS English teacher. Is it to encourage a life long love of reading?
Is it to teach them to read critically? Is it to teach them what’s culturally relevant? Is it to prepare them for the SATs or college or the work force? The answers to those questions can change my curriculum.
I think there’s a way to teach the classics that also addresses diverse voices.
This year because of waves hands I’m teaching a remote 10th grade American Lit class.
We’re reading Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Raising in the Sun by Hansbury, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka, and Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals. They are all classics. And they’re all by women of color.
I’m not even addressing that with my students; the framing is still “Survey of American Literature.”
At the end of the year, I’ll ask them what they noticed and we’ll reflect on it, but as for now? They haven’t noticed. It’s just literature.
Anyway, I’m not entirely sure what my point is, except that there are a lot of variables and it’s too much to cover as hot takes/cancel culture/ban books/love the classics….
Read books. Read books you love. Challenge yourself to get out of your bubble of what you think you like. Read diverse voices. Or don’t. Life is short and I have to reread Old Man’s War again
The local library had an excellent selection of the SF classics, before anybody declared them to be classics, like LeGuin, RA Lafferty, Pohl, but also John Norman. I didn’t care, I read them all
Thinking of appropriateness… I’ve often wondered just what the librarian was thinking when she recommended John Gardner’s “Grendel” to 11 year old me. Quite a bit of it went right over my head, and thankfully I had sense enough not to ask any teachers, or my Mom, about the parts I didn’t understand. She also pointed me to some Vonnegut and, well, same thing. Interesting, but much better when I was about 5 years older and could understand it
One problem with Getting On In Years is the telescoping of time. Doris Vickery, fondly recalled above, remembered me from 1960, not ’64. An extra four yearsworth of remarkable.
To return to reading: Much of what I see over my wife’s shoulder (and what I observed among my own students nearly forty years ago) seems to be rooted in low-grade basic reading skills–something my wife notices when she has her students read aloud in class.
I suspect that when reading doesn’t come easy, there’s not much pleasure to be found in it, which feeds into the lack of familiarity with texts beyond the middle-school range. It’s nice that Harry Potter and such has attracted young readers, but it’s discouraging to find 20-year-old college students who have read little else. And that makes it really challenging to introduce more demanding material.
Hey, this is the 500,000th comment on this site.
That is all, carry on.
In my last two years of HS, ‘English’ was taught in month long units, and we could mix and match among them. So I took a Shakespeare unit (it was early 70’s and every girl in school had seen Romeo and Juliet). This teacher was very old, but excited about the ‘unit’ system, because he could teach what he loved – Shakespeare. Seeing it performed is still best, but taught by a good teacher, who really, really loved the work was pretty good.
Took a unit of Science Fiction… and that was horrid, because all the teacher knew of SF was ‘The Martian Chronicles’ Nothing against that work, but there was so much more!
There was a lot of ‘teaching the classics’ in middle and high school, too. I was immune, though, thanks to a public librarian who caught me when I was very young. Also parents, who while not as open minded as some, but firmly believed that any book I got from the public library children’s section was fine. (I never did tell them when the librarian’s upgraded me to the adult section in 6th grade)
My siblings, somehow, never caught the reading bug, and could nver understand why I read so much.
We got to read Bradbury in 8th grade English – Dandelion Wine(*) was a big hit and I picked Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles up next, and I was off and running with his books.
I also benefited tremendously from my school’s double-hour Humanities class my senior year. It tackled the history of Western civilization(*) along four tracks (Art, Music, Literature and History) by time period, so I always got introduced to some classic book along with the historical context and how that context helped produce art, music and literature. That made it a lot easier to enjoy the books (and appreciate the art and music too).
*Although it doesn’t do much for exposing students to wider viewpoints, given the heavily-leveraged, nostalgic mid-American setting.
Too often, what makes its way into the “classics” is a set of works with little true ambiguity; that is, they’re teacher-proof, amenable to multiple-choice or objective-short-answer testing, in a way that can be shown to angry parents objecting to students’ poor grades. “Mr. Huxley, if your son had actually read the book he would have known that Mr. Wickham did not end up marrying Elizabeth Bennet.” Now throw in the foofery of “important themes make books worthy of classroom study” (usually, those “important themes” are second-hand knowledge of those who haven’t read them… or, if they have, haven’t read any alternatives, contemporaneous or otherwise) instead of more practical subjects.
A bad teacher can make “worthy” books seem less worthy than they are, no doubt. The bigger question is how some of the dreck ends up in the curriculum, or canonized as classics, in the first place; for example, Twain was much too easy on Cooper… but Cooper’s thematic material was consistent with Manifest Destiny (and lends itself well to true/false and multiple-choice testing), so…
When my dawter* was in high school her English teacher assigned Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. I was quite surprised. That book is chock full of profanity and horrific violence, but it’s brilliant and I’m glad she read it.
*I’m getting old and have decided to quit using the ridiculous ‘gh’ letter combination. Trying to start a movement, who’s with me?
When my eldest was in high school, she challenged her English curriculum because literally every single author on the slate was, shockingly, a white man. No people of color. No women. None.
She was successful in getting at least a few changes to the school’s curriculum. It pissed off her English teacher, but I was proud of her for standing up for better representation.
“We teach the classics in part because of their lasting impact on literature. Homer is worth reading for instance, as well as the classic Greek plays. Shakespeare’s influence on English literature is immense. Moliere’s plays also are still worth reviewing as part of western literature. ”
Ugh, no. I’d be more accepting of this if you’d stopped after “lasting impact”. I’m not sure Homer has any great relevance, though he’s certainly had an impact. On literature? I really couldn’t care less what his impact on a class of writing purely defined by snobbery has been (i.e., if you don’t consider Scalzi “literature”, you’re a snob).
Shakespeare, otoh, has had a lasting impact on ME, and while I’m not nearly so familiar with Moliere, I could definitely be “impacted”.
You seem to have made Mr. Scalzi’s point for him: we teach the classics “because it’s what we’ve always done and we like doing things the way they’ve always been done”.
“I’m not sure Homer has any great relevance, though he’s certainly had an impact. On literature?”
How about on the Marvel Comic Universe? The Illiad as precursor to Iron Man, say. Hector going out to face Achilles knowing he’s going to die.
As for impact on anyone personally, it’s not about that. It’s about making the case for a work of art having a lasting influence on the art itself. That’s why we teach the classics.
I’m another one whose parents supported my reading pretty much whatever I liked. Whoever said “if you can comprehend it, you can read it” pretty much summed it up, and reading things that stretched my comprehension also helped expand it.
Pat H, I completely agree. By the time kids hit high school, many of the opportunities to engage them as readers have passed. And that’s a big shame. And boring classics don’t do much to improve things.
I’m giving a BIG amen to teaching the stuff that made Shakespeare popular – sex, violence, etc. – rather than sucking all the life out of his work. Hot non-news flash: He wrote popular entertainment! He was primarily interested in box office! He was Steven Spielberg for the 1600s. It’s a crime to make his stuff boring when it doesn’t have to be, and his work underlies so much in idiom and cultural touch points even today, along with his skill in crafting words, that I’ll argue that he’s a dead white guy who’s still relevant.
I’ll also agree with another sentiment that’s been frequently expressed – the teacher makes a difference. My 10th grade English teacher made “A Tale of Two Cities” an eye opener.
That being said, Madame Bovary, Jude the Obscure, Scarlet Letter – ugh! Even Debbie (10th grade teacher) couldn’t make those interesting. Other classics I read on my own. I don’t really remember much about of most of them, but 1984, Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies all made deep impressions that I’ve retained decades later.
I say all that to say: not everything works for everyone, “classic” isn’t static and there are new ones emerging all the time, lots of different voices should be represented, and let’s not throw every dead white guy out with the bath water but let’s pare that down and be really thoughtful about why they’re included beyond “they’ve always been”.
Ken Baker, I got Going After Cacciato and sought out The Things They Carried on my own. Amazing book, I consider it a classic.
I had a major epiphany in my 30s, when I re-read Bleak House, which had confused me and bored me senseless in high school AP English, back in the 70s. The book turned out to be funny as hell, subversive, and dripped with well-placed acid. It’s now one of my favourites.
The difference wasn’t my age — it was my having learned, in the interim, about the history of Victorian social evils and the ugliness of dysfunctional families and institutions, and the same struggles and evils that persist today.
But we weren’t taught any of that. We were handed the book with zero context, and sat through class and wrote our attempts at papers, still without learning anything about the social context of a book that is a blistering rebuke of society. We weren’t much better off than if we’d been handed an untranslated book in a foreign language.
I remember that English class very well. It held the brightest students in a very bright class, and was taught by a very old teacher who had long since stopped putting in any effort; she was phoning it all in while she plodded out the last few years until retirement. She had students that could have snapped up any teaching she had bothered to do — and if we had been taught any friggin’ context for that book, or any of the others we read that year, at least some of us would have gotten so much out of it.
I went to high school outside the U.S. so there are a whole bunch of authors I never met during that period, but most of this resonated with me. I had excellent teachers in my English classes and a school willing to mess with the curriculum a bit…but that mostly meant making offbeat/obscure choices of additional white people.
Did undergrad in the U.S., took an English class on a whim, and ended up reading Vonnegut and Morrison and a couple of Latinx authors I’d never heard of. Turned out the world wasn’t quite as small and predictable as I thought.
I’m a thirtysomething and an avid reader, and the only book I’ve read in the last couple of years that moved me to the point of tears was The Hate U Give. It’s obvious to me that the people in South Carolina who want to ban it for supposedly being anti-police hardly know the first thing about the novel; they’ve given in to a huge knee-jerk reaction fueled by racist dismissiveness.
I am a little too old to have caught Captain Underpants, but I secretly borrowed the first volume from a cousin when I was about 14 and read it. I thought it was hilarious and creative and madcap without being mean-spirited. Apparently part of the uproar there is that one of the two boys is, in some parts of the franchise, quietly depicted far into a possible future married to another man. (Homophobes/transphobes claiming to be looking out for the children all have LGBTQ+ kids in their classes whether they like it or not. And those kids get hurt by this kind of behavior from adults.)
Incidentally, a bad teacher can ruin anything. One of the absolute worst classes I took in college was “Philosophy, Science, and Science Fiction”. Sounds great, yes? I thought so when I signed up.
The teacher used the class to try to beat textbook Christianity into his students via tired philosophical tropes propped up with a cherrypicked reading list.
The only item on it that I actually remember was Clarke’s “The Star” — which was taught, not as a challenge or inquiry, but as a illustration of the Problem of Evil. (The subsequent lecture mansplained it all to us so that we could understand how totes great god is even when he wipes out entire planets.)
I’ve always felt sorry for children in English speaking countries, who had to read Shakespeare plays a) as written words only b) in the original English. My teachers would have loved to show us more plays, but they did their best with limited resources. They presented excerpts of classics from different countries and time periods, and we had a mix of silent reading, films, re-tellings and reading parts in groups. The last was quite difficult to organise, somehow. Once a local actor performed at school. Quite brave to perform to a class of high school students in the class room! Not even a stage.
Still, I have a lasting resentment over the fact that fiction with male characters was overrepresented. I hope it’s better now, but back then the general idea was that boys read less fiction than girls, so at school the fiction should have male characters to draw in boys. Sadly the nonfiction didn’t have more girl characters to draw in girls, it was very one-sided.
As an aside, The Art of War is the last book I would choose if I had to choose a Chinese classic. The Journey to the West perhaps? Or the Legend of the White Snake.
I loved the classics in school and I’m glad I was exposed to them or I might never have discovered that I liked most of them nor that I can read a huge wordy tome and enjoy it. I hope kids keep having exposure to classics but I agree that the “classics” need a much broader scope of point of view and authorship. That said, it was not school that made me a reader, it was my family. We read together every night after dinner, lying around in a food stupor, while my Mom read 3 or 4 chapters of various books.
Growing up, I read a lot of science fiction and very little of “the classics.” Even “A Christmas Carol” was a bit of a slog. The attitude got embedded in me that because I didn’t read “the classics,” I wasn’t prepared to handle Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
But looking back, it occurs to me that the problem might actually have been my not asking the librarians for help or ideas on what to try instead of ping-ponging among the shiny things that caught my eye. Checking out a Doc Savage reprint one day and the script book for “State Of Siege” the next isn’t exactly a reading plan.
“not because I’m worried about their outdated word use and attitudes, but because they’re often boring as shit”
I had this experience relatively recently, when I took it upon myself to read through “the classics” of vampire literature. I read The Vampyre by John William Pollidori, Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, and Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer and/or Thomas Peckett/Preskett Prest (and/or someone[s] else, as the attribution is really unclear).
The first two were pretty good. I particularly enjoyed Carmilla. However, Varney the Vampire was… interminable. Nigh impenetrable. In other words, boring as shit. It is a “penny dreadful,” with a heavy emphasis on the “dreadful.” I slogged through it, because, after all, this monster (describing both the character and the work itself) had been touted as having inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula and all, but… woof.
I would recommend The Vampyre and especially Carmilla, but I’d say give a hard pass to Varney, unless you’re some kind of literary completionist.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, but the classics were just a slog. I read plenty of older books voluntarily (Sherlock Holmes, Dare Boys, Wodehouse, etc etc) but the canonical Great Western Literature(tm) was dry, tedious, and tiring. My grandfather paid me $10/book (in 1983 that was a lot of money) each summer to read from that list and I quickly decided enjoying reading was more important than the money and stopped reading them. I think at this point the fact that any book is part of the canon makes it a good candidate to be relegated to the bottom of the to read pile.
Reminds me of when the NY Times had it’s best seller list dominated by J.K. Rowling, mainstream authors complained vociferously and a separate list was established for children’s books. An author/illustrator of children’s books suggested that in her opinion, those mainstream authors should reconsider what they were writing.
@ Starfleet Dude:
“It’s about making the case for a work of art having a lasting influence on the art itself.”
OTOH, it’s the work of art elevated (arbitrarily) to the status of “classic” that will have a greater chance of exerting “lasting influence on the art itself”. So that statement is neither here nor there.
E.g. when you force-feed kids Hemingway in school today, Hemingway becomes a significant influence on whatever those kids end up writing tomorrow. Not because it somehow represents “superior art” (it really doesn’t), but because English lit curricula have always included Hemingway.
“But I’d ask you whether or not Machiavelli’s The Prince isn’t the more necessary book to review in your typical English lit class, given the context.”
Why would Machiavelli be more or less “necessary” in an English lit class than any other book?
My daughter’s 9th grade English teacher assigned Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, a graphic novel with some gay characters and written by a trans writer. So, not exactly standard reading for a public high school. (She also read To Kill a Mockingbird and some other classics in the same class.)
I cannot tell you how inspiring that turned out to be for our child, who cares deeply about representation and fighting intolerance. It showed her that graphic stories are worthy of reading and study. The inclusiveness of it delighted her. She loves the art, the nuanced characters, everything. She has her own well-loved copy and creates endless fan-art for it. Because of that book, our whole family got into the remake of She-Ra, because it is by the same writer, and its humor and messages of bravery and hope were a real gift to our whole family during lockdown.
Never once was I ever assigned a book that I loved or that inspired me, and I admit I didn’t see the point of literature classes even though I love to read. Watching our daughter fall in love with an assigned book made me understand what lit classes are supposed to be and so seldom are.
“OTOH, it’s the work of art elevated (arbitrarily) to the status of “classic” that will have a greater chance of exerting “lasting influence on the art itself”. So that statement is neither here nor there.”
It’s not arbitrary at all. What’s arbitrary is the opinion of some single person going by the not-so-gold standard of “I know what I like”. Classics are determined by far more people using a higher standard of criticism. Take the movie “Citizen Kane” a classic that more than a few people also happen to dislike. Does that somehow invalidate what makes that movie a classic film?
As for my comment about “The Prince”, I was pointing out that it’s more relevant to European culture than Sun Tzu is. Not that it’s a necessary book to teach in English class.
SOME “Classics” are arguably determined by people using a higher standard of criticism. Others are there mainly because of mindless tradition.
And, as our host wrote, it comes down to what you are trying to do with your class. If it’s a class about history of literature that’s one thing. Including relevant “Classics” makes sense. If it’s a class aimed at almost anything else, then you probably don’t want to start with ANY of the “Classics”. Although, depending on the class, some of them might be worth including at some point. Eventually.
When I was in middle school in the dumber English class our teacher had the sense, when reading aloud, to only read stories with gangs and switchblades.
My impression of my peers, both academic stream and otherwise, was that they didn’t like anything… in fact, I daresay they wouldn’t have wanted to read Harry Potter once it was no longer shiny and new. Actually, after escaping middle school to a nice senior high, then I think it became OK to like certain reading.
As for commenters saying their teachers assigned, or read, horrible classics, I have to wonder: Did the teacher bother to read the novel in advance?
I ask such a crazy question because in elementary school one teacher read aloud the Bible: but not a fun story out of Sunday school, no, he started with the first page, the one with all those begat names. He was as bored as we were, and so “that was it” for the Bible.
Another teacher decided to read us Winnie the Pooh, but chose the very worst story to read: the first one, the only one written in second person. On my own I always skipped reading that one.
Just as I wouldn’t dream of recommending a newcomer to sf to read a thick-spined Heinlein, I would hope a teacher would search for thinner classics.
As for classics in school, let’s face it: The average American (not you or I) reads only one book per year. Their school years should be on reading books they might like. The ones who go on to post-secondary can bloody well take a grown up interest in reading classics on their own, or in college…
Incidentally, at my Canadian university some one in my toastmaster club, when I was a non student, smiled to say proudly, “I have started to read because of you!” Meaning that yes, you can be smart and a non-reader too.
A teacher once wrote an essay on whether Huck Finn should be banned or taught in School, because of the ni–er word. Conclusion? No to high school, yes to college, when it would be more age appropriate.
As for age, it was as an adult former soldier that I found the too-gory-for-today Iliad very moving. Homer could write about gore because he had sympathy, and his warrior listeners could sense this, even if he broke their denial about the horror of war.
A while back I decided to tackle those books “I really should read or should have read”.
Somehow I missed Jane Austen in High school–fabulous!
Tried to continue on with ‘The Classics” and just decided that my “To Be read” pile was large enough and as I age, I prefer to spend my time on actual books I like. That includes modern day ones–in this pandemic I find myself getting books from the library and returning them after trying to engage.
I’d rather read about the time-traveling historians of Saint Mary’s or the Eight Worlds of John Varley.
Forgive me, I can’t resist adding: Unlike Hollywood war movies and books where you can tell it was made by Yanks (They won WWII single-handedly, you know) the tragedy of the Iliad is written differently.
Unless you know history, you wouldn’t know which side wins. (warrior Greeks versus citizen Trojans) There is no happy ending, no Trojan horse. The story begins mid-war, and ends with the war still raging, although the Trojans know their defeat is only a matter of time…
I teach 8th grade Humanities, and I want to thank you so much for this post! I agree that we need to ask why we are teaching a book. I was tapped to design our current curriculum, so when I chose novels for this year I used the overall theme of our course as a lens. That’s how books like Cinder by Marissa Meyer and The White Mountains by John Christopher made it into our curriculum alongside of The Red Badge of Courage. We wanted to explore the ideas of freedom, equality, and justice. There are so many exciting YA books out there that cover those themes and are still very fun and exciting to read. Bottom line: Just because it’s been assigned forever, doesn’t mean we still need to use it.
Sometime ago there were some educators who advocated that no book written by a white male author should be taught in schools. At first I was put off by this, but years later I can now see their point.
Everything is so dominated by white males, most kids never get any real exposure to classics written by people of color.
So I say let culture push whatever it wants, but let’s give kids a real education for classics.
@ Starfleet Dude:
“Classics are determined by far more people using a higher standard of criticism. ”
What is this “higher standard of criticism”?
And is there a secret handshake that allows one into this Society of Literary Gentlemen With High Standards and Impeccable Taste?
“I was pointing out that it’s more relevant to European culture than Sun Tzu is”
What is “European culture” exactly, and how is it “relevant” to North America?