What High School Students need to know about Literature

Many high school students dread literature. They view it as old-fashioned, boring, and unnecessary in today’s digital world. Who needs Shakespeare when there’s YouTube? Students should be encouraged to alter their thinking, however, and give literature a try.

First, high school students need to know that literature is not obsolete. Rather, it is classic and timeless. Classic literature tells stories with universal themes that can be used to help explore and understand today’s world, fast-paced and digital though it may be. Themes in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” are highly applicable in today’s society despite the original manuscript being published anonymously in 1818. The age old question of “just because you CAN, does it mean you SHOULD?” was as pertinent in the early 19th century as it is almost 200 years later. Artificial creation of life through controversial means is far from a dead issue; students can engage themselves for weeks finding modern analogies in the debates presented by historic novels.

Secondly, high school students should know that classic literature presents frameworks by which modern life is categorized, depicted, and understood. Modern life does not exist in a vacuum. Modern situations are compared to past events, including classic works like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Beowulf,” “Moby Dick,” “Wuthering Heights,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Great Gatsby,” “War and Peace,” and scores of other tales. We compare and contrast present scenarios with classic literature most adults have read. Classic literature, therefore, helps provide common reference points for diverse groups. “It’s like Romeo and Juliet,” is a description that would familiarize a scenario to virtually every Western adult.  So successful are these classic tales at representing modern life that they are frequently recreated in modern formats. Big-screen Hollywood blockbusters are made of modernized historic tales with surprising regularity.

Third, literature and formal language are not “dead subjects” that are useless in today’s world of brief memos, informal e-mails, and constant text messaging. Formal writing is still used in many fields, especially law and education. Regardless of one’s position in life, a firm grasp of formal language and proper grammar goes far in revealing one’s innate intelligence, talents, and accumulated skills. A person who is well-written and well-read has distinct advantages over those who ignore the importance of reading and writing. An employee who can compose good letters and e-mails may be promoted above his or her colleagues, as would an employee who can write out clear and understandable instructions for job tasks.

High school students who can read and appreciate classic literature are likely to be those who are later praised and promoted on the job for being able to better train new workers, communicate with colleagues, and interact with clients and the public. Students who ignore classic books as “boring” and never develop an affinity for reading may later struggle to be seen as able communicators. They will get passed up for promotions to positions that involve creating and explaining policy, interacting with customers and clients, and teaching and training others.

Finally, classic literature makes modern novels and short stories more interesting by providing a frame of reference. Without having read the classics modern stories may have little “pop” or “twist” that makes them interesting by comparison. As a result, it is harder to develop an appreciation for even contemporary writing.