The Role of Classic Literature in Modern Education

There is a reason why some books stand the test of time. Year after year, generation after generation, people find something in them that speaks to them.  The value of these works is enormous, but there is a danger in turning students off if they’re poorly taught. The language of ancient Greece or Shakespearean England is not the language of today, and students struggle to understand the meaning of these works.

It’s important to convey the universal themes of this literature and to provide clarification of confusing terms, but sometimes reading aloud without explanation can also be helpful. There is a beauty and a flow to the language in many of these works that has to be heard to be appreciated.

Some classic works are valuable because they provide the philosophical framework upon which our democracy and western values rest, while others present profound truths about human nature. It is essential that students understand why a particular work is being studied, and why it has stood the test of time. While some more sensitive students may grasp the inherent value and beauty in a particular piece, others will miss it completely unless further exploration is done.

One way to do this is to relate the characters and their struggles to people and events in the students’ own lives.  There is probably not  a teenager in the world who can’t relate to the plight of Romeo orJuliet, once the difficulties of the language are overcome. We’ve probably all known an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Lady Macbeth.  Once students are caught up in discussing why the characters do what they do, they understand that the authors and their characters aren’t so different from themselves.  All human beings struggle with fear and anger, just as all long to be loved.  All of us wonder why we are here, and what our purpose is or should be.  Classic literature answers those questions. We may not agree with those answers, but they make us think. 

The classics are not only for the intellectuals among us. They belong to all of us and are a precious inheritance from those who went before us and struggled with some of the same questions we do. From them, we learn what they thought about God and the meaning of life and how they resolved issues of morality. They teach us what they knew about love and sex, government and politics, and life and death. They will continue to be studied long after we’re gone and another generation has taken our place.