Should high schools require students to read the “classics”?

James River Day School Sep 2011

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.

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!


10 thoughts on “Should high schools require students to read the “classics”?

  1. What a good article, Mary! Thank you for being so thoughtful. I love “[Film] cannot, however, replace the intimate and vibrant inner world created when a reader and a great book connect.”


    1. The term “classics” has had some bad branding, that’s for sure. I continue to believe that there are enduring works and more ephemeral works (that are important in a given era, but don’t continue to speak powerfully over time), and “classics” has come to be the category in which those enduring works fall. They are more than just great stories; they embody some power that causes them to endure. It’s very hard to choose which works fall in the “classics” category, as that has morphed, even in my lifetime. For me, “classics” means a work has endured over time. For students, “classics” often means something to be endured!


  2. I am old and learned to despise all fictional literature in high school. From personal experience, they is absolutely no benefit to studying classic fictional literature. My thinking is strictly analytical. I could care less about literary license and hidden themes. I am pissed off that I actually wasted a portion of my youth reading this nonsense just to get the hell out of high school. They can take all of the classics and throw them in the incinerator which is what I did upon graduation. It felt good at the time.


    1. I’m sorry you learned to hate fiction, and I hope that you may have since found some books that you think worthwhile. I appreciate your taking the time to read the article and respond with candor.


  3. Great article and most realize that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. People like to read books that are fun, I get it. Similarly, people like to watch movies that are fun, go figure; but those fun movies rarely win the Oscar. Instead, movies that have artistic ideas and important themes tend to win the Oscar. In the literary world, those “Oscar” winning books are the classics; and the article is correct that students are at a big disadvantage, moving forward in school, if they don’t have a background of books that are commonly referenced, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, etc, etc. I currently believe that high school and college are the perfect time to dig deep into the classics. Once people leave school to work, earn money, and pay the bills, it takes too much energy and time to dedicate to these works of fiction. When people are working hard to raise a family, they may prefer lighter easier reading, that’s reasonable. Therefore, high school and college are the perfect time to read the classics. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to throw something in from time to time, from the last twenty years. As I get older (quickly approaching the big 6-0) I prefer nonfiction books, but I still enjoy and recognize the importance of the creativeness of fiction novels.


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