Should High School Students Study Modern or Classic Novels

High school students: rambunctious, hormone-driven individuals who are hard-pressed to sit still and learn unless their interest is captured. The classic novel evokes titles such as A Tale Of Two Cities or Moby Dick, both of the older species of book. Though timeless and classic, thinking of those books as seen through the eyes of a pubescent teenager reeks of mothballs in an elderly person’s closet.

Classic novels are cherished because of their literary value and showcase a writing style penned by dedicated writers, and they are admired by anyone with an interest in superb storytelling. But let’s be honest here: forcing young adults to read what most would consider boring, old books which probably inherit their grandparents’ attics is just torture. And how many adults – except for intellectuals, writers or literature professors – would actually pick up one of those books just for the fun of it and read it from cover to cover? How many of the teenagers’ parents would read one if they were told their kids need to – just so they could set a good example? Yep, not very many.

Bet on the fact that CliffsNotes makes a killing because of classes being taught the classics of a bygone era. The past four generations endured the same stuffy literature, and probably had one nerd in each class who actually read the material and then informed the rest of the class about the specifics. Though classic becomes classic for a reason, students would prefer to delve into a book they can relate to. New works could actually draw the student in and make them want to read, rather than browse the CliffsNotes version prior to their exams, book reports and the grilling the teacher may give them.

Educators need to evaluate what interests young people, because that is what young people want to read. It’s sad enough that most people don’t read anymore. So forcing the young to read what they don’t want to is like slipping quaaludes into their pudding: it turns them off from being interested and then makes them dislike reading, period. So why give them something uninteresting to cut their teeth? If reading is what they should be doing, then allow them to read. But let them read some new classics – new novels by writers who have substance that interests. How about Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon? A very interesting book which combines fact with fiction, a large dose of mathematical history, world history and adventure enough to hook them. And it’s a thick book. What about Stephen King’s Duma Key, another very good read and well written. How about Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts? A very interesting and well-written book sure to hook the teenagers.

On the other hand, the classics should be taught in schools, but the teens should be able to pick which ones they want to read. Give them a choice. If they had a vote, there is a possibility that the teenagers may pick a classic if it isn’t shoved down their throat. They may pick a new novel, but then again maybe they will surprise the faculty and decide to see what the hype is all about in an old book that has entertained for centuries. Poe may capture them, Kipling may enrich them, Margaret Mitchell may sweep them away, Melville may or may not excite them, Mark Twain may make them laugh. But who is to know? Maybe teenagers today don’t even care to read the new novels. Maybe they don’t have time or ambition to read anything. After all, this is the digital revolution. And books are those square things people used to have to lug to classes, and what their elderly relatives cover their walls with. 

Let them have both. Tell them to read one classic from a list of the teacher’s choosing, and then they can pick a new novel of their choice as long as it isn’t smut or some other waste of ink. Give them a guideline and allow them the freedom to make a choice within parameters set by the class as a whole. It’s a democracy for a reason, correct? Motivate them by letting them actually have the carrot for once and they may surprise you. If you dangle a mothballed version from prehistoric times in front of their noses, do you actually think they’re going to enjoy it, or read it at all? If you tell them they have to, do you think that helps? Give them choices and lure them in by letting them think they’re getting the best of you. But pay attention to ensure the book they read is well written and by a decent, new author.