Classic Literature Plays Coy with Modern Education

“How could he order Macduff’s family to be killed?” It is the third week of the quarter and my senior English students express their outrage at the apparent moral deficiency in the character of Macbeth. They have a growing distaste for the man who is willing to kill the king for the power of the crown and will stoop to any level to keep his power even killing a friend or man’s family.

It now is the 7th week of the quarter and these same students express their disgust at the behavior of boys on an island in Lord of the Flies. They evaluate how civilization can deteriorate to the level of murder and savagery, man’s inhumanity to man, so quickly. They once again think about the abuse of power and quality leadership. They examine the role of followers and the effects of unchecked authority.

So why do these students need to study classic literature and modern literature? The answer is very simple, because the stories are not archaic tales that are not relevant to our times. The same issues and problems that existed in the Elizabethan period exist in a different version in 1950 and again in 2007.

By taking students on these parallel journeys, students understand that history repeats itself. Mankind makes the same mistakes over and over again. If all you do is study these pieces of literature on literal and separate levels, they do seem like dusty icons that should appear on a museum shelf.

Teach the literature in a parallel format and students begin to make the connection to their own modern times. They can relate to themselves and people in their own lives that exhibit the same faults and traits.

When studying Macbeth and The Lord of the Flies, we discuss in depth the school yard bully. We compare the behavior of the school yard bully to the characters of Jack and Macbeth. We then discuss current political figures and their behaviors that appear similar to those same characters.

Students then make connections. They have “Ah Ha!” moments and start to relate to and understand the literature better. Shakespeare stops being inaccessible, dry and uninteresting.

Anyone who thinks that classic literature should not be taught in the modern classroom, probably does not understand the literature well themselves. The thing about classic literature is that if students do not have the reference of studying it, there is so much of modern literature that will never be truly understood.

Modern literature is full of references to classic literature. If the foundation of classic literature is never instilled in students, it is like trying to build a house with silly putty. Most ideas will just bounce off and never stick.

Without a foundation in classic literature students will never understand the reference to a Roman fool dying on his own sword, the meaning of “To be, or not to be” or the significance of walking around in someone else’s shoes.

An education without classic literature isn’t much of an education at all. It makes students into victims of a society that is determined to dumb them down as if they are not capable of analysis and intellectual thought. I, for one, stand up for the intellectual curiosity of students.

To paraphrase Ralph in “The Lord of the Flies”, imagine what would happen to us if I became like them. That is how I feel about classic literature and whether or not it should be studied in modern education. Imagine what would happen to our world if everyone developed the philosophy that classics do not need to be read and studied. I shudder to think about what would happen to our minds.