The Role of Classic Literature in Modern Education

As someone who is studying to be an English teacher, much of my time is spent debating inwardly on what, exactly, I should have my students read. Scores of educational theorists and our good friend common sense tell us that the best way to get kids to learn is to present them with something interesting, something relevant to their daily lives.

Unfortunately, many students are turned off by the classic examples of Western Literature. They deride Dickens, hate Homer, and shun Shakespeare. And honestly, I can’t blame them. Even though I devoured that sort of thing in high school, I will freely admit that I was in the minority there. I knew of nobody else in my classes who toted an unabridged version of The Iliad to middle school.

The problem is a relatively easy one to diagnose. A lot of it, not surprisingly, stems from the language used in such titles. Although everything on an American high school reading list is in English (either originally or via translation), not all of it is what students today recognize as modern English. That seemingly small barrier quickly leads to disapproval, as many students, even those in honors and AP classes, find it difficult to identify with the characters and care about the story. Reading literature, after all, should never be work!

That’s the idea behind the current trend in secondary education, the movement to find and employ literature that meets students halfway – well-written prose that still manages to be relevant to the average teenager’s life and culture. Many of these works are written in the past few decades, and most deal with some easily-recognizable issue with which students can identify.

Does this mean that we should ignore the classics? Hardly. For one, those stories are called “classic” for a reason; that means they’ve withstood the scrutiny of many generations. They also give us a window to the past, a chance to see what life was like in older societies.

The trick, then, is to find the link. There are certain universal issues and concerns that pervade every society, and it is the teacher’s job to help students establish those themes. Hamlet, for instance, deals greatly with the themes of betrayal and depression, motifs that are certainly relevant to the average high-school student.

Remember, teaching is an art. It isn’t always easy, but it is certainly rewarding, particularly when you accomplish something with your students that they never realized was possible. Don’t shy away from those classics simply because the connections aren’t always immediately obvious. After all, everyone benefits more when the teacher puts more effort into the lesson.