A friend recently sent me a link to an article that suggested we should stop assigning some of the works of literature traditionally assigned to high school students in English class and replace “classic” titles with more contemporary ones that would be more relevant to today’s youth. https://media.bookbub.com/blog/2016/09/01/books-we-should-stop-making-high-schoolers-read/
She wanted to know “what I think?” – I started thinking and haven’t been able to stop. I thought I could write a short response, but the more I wrote, the more I found I had to say. This is probably the result of being an English teacher for 30 years and an avid reader for almost 60 years. For me, the act of reading can be one of the most creative, imaginative activities I have found. I firmly believe that reading “classics” gives one a perspective about what it means to be human that is hard to achieve otherwise. I also believe that requiring students to read books they cannot understand or appreciate is a quick road to extinguishing the fire of literacy.
So what is an English teacher to do? First of all, when developing a literature curriculum and a reading list, one must be clear on the purpose of that curriculum. Is the high school literature class hoping to create avid readers? Culturally literate adults? Literary critics who will thrive as university professors? Depending on the purpose, the curriculum and reading list will be different. Works of literature chosen for required high school reading lists may be chosen to introduce a particularly famous title or author, or to provide information on a particular era or topic. Some works may be chosen because they are beautifully written, others because they have been widely cited. Some works may be chosen simply because they are a short work by a famous author.
A traditional reading list of the “classics” (like the list cited in mediabookbub, which is one sample of a much larger list of literary works considered “classic”) may not have been created primarily to encourage a love of reading, but rather to give students a sample of “the best” of literature. Reading books that were written long ago but are still admired by educated people is partly how students learn the history of literature and important ideas. Students who have read “classics” are better prepared for college literature classes, because they will have background knowledge of works that other writers refer to; without that background knowledge, a student’s reading comprehension is compromised. Unfortunately, if you don’t already love to read and haven’t already developed strong reading skills, it can be difficult to tackle literature from other eras and cultures. Asking students to read books that they are unable to understand because of unfamiliar vocabulary, syntax, or underlying culture will almost surely ensure that they either won’t read the books or that they won’t learn what was intended by those who chose them.
In this age of declining literacy, a primary function of school should be first to ignite an appreciation for reading. Once students love to read, they will be more likely and able to give a work of literature from another time, place and culture a try. The replacement titles in the mediabookbub list were most likely chosen because students will find them more relevant and easier to read. They may help interest students in reading, but they cannot replace great works of literature. Still, they may help to create readers, which is the first goal to reach. So how can we create readers? Start with our love of story. Humans love stories. We like to tell them, we like to watch them, and we like to hear them. If we are fortunate, we like to read them, too! We know that the more you read, the more words you know, the more stories you know, the more names you know, the more you know, period. As you read more, you become a more skilled reader, one who is more likely to understand and appreciate works written in other times and places.
Schools that want to ignite a love of reading set aside time every day during school for independent reading, with so many choices of text in print available that everyone can find something of personal interest. A daily read aloud by a strong, expressive oral reader who reads wonderful texts in a safe and intimate setting is also essential. The study of classical literature texts, like the list mediabookbub says we should replace but which may be one of the best ways to understand what it means to be human, can be encouraged by reading excerpts aloud, followed by civilized conversation. Some students will choose to read the entire work after being introduced, but many will learn as much from the excerpt as they need to know about that author and that work for that moment in their lives, and they may return to the work later in life.
Now that humans have developed video, many think that it is destroying literacy, because it is easier to watch and listen than to read and imagine. There’s no sense in fretting about this. We aren’t in control of the popularity of video. I am a participant in watching film, and it is an amazing medium, which requires tremendous collaboration to create and which can have a more immediate and powerful impact than the written word. It cannot, however, replace the intimate and vibrant inner world created when a reader and a great book connect. What I hope schools will continue to do is to create avid readers who are willing to take time to savor stories and great ideas. Anyone who has ever been “lost in a book” knows it is one of the greatest pleasures of human invention!