The Role of Classic Literature in Modern Education

As a high school teacher, I think it’s important to strike a balance between classic literature and modern literature. My goals as an English teacher are more based around procedural knowledge – giving students skills that they can transfer to other tasks and environments – than about content knowledge – facts and details they can repeat back to me. With this in mind, classic literature can be used as a means to an end, to teach skills like recognizing bias in writing or critical evaluation of an argument, but it is not the be all and end all of English education.

At the same time, there are certain pieces of classic literature and aspects of classic literature that I believe high schoolers should be familiar with before they graduate. For example, certain works of Shakespeare or classical Greek theater and epic poetry bear a certain place in the literary canon. This knowledge gives kids cultural capital, making them appear more educated when speaking with people in academia or the working world. It helps them to understand allusions in modern literature or film. It helps them get more jokes.

So, I find myself constantly in a state of flux. I teach literature for the sake of the skills it provides, but I also teach some literature for its own sake. Perhaps it’s an old fashioned concept that I’m perpetuating, but in our current culture I still think it is important to be armed with certain pieces of cultural knowledge.