Classics Still Important for Students to Read

Authors and writers in general, whether writing fiction or non fiction, have always captured the essence of the time, location and cultural temperature to introduce or reinforce issues that effect the human race in any time period.

English teachers often debate the issue of whether classic stories such as The Scarlet Letter or Antigone are valuable to today’s students who seem to be born with cell phones, Ipods and other technological devices attached to their bodies. Is what happened to Hester Prynne in Colonial America or Julius Caesar important to today’s students?

Some people argue that classical literature does not teach students of the 21st century how to live or make a living or is remotely relevant to the economical, political, technological and cultural issues of today.

Carol Jago, a 32-year veteran English teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), begins her NCTE presidential address Crash! The Currency Crisis in American Culture by stating that
“Some argue that reading and writing about literature does little to prepare students for the real world.”

Jago, who is also Director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA, states, “They [public] see the study of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, as superfluous to helping students make a living. But making a living isn’t enough. The young people entrusted to our care need to know how to make a life. And real life all too often poses moral dilemmas like the one Atticus Finch confronted when he stood up for his beliefs in court and in so doing put his own children at risk. Walking a mile in Atticus’s shoes, vicariously experiencing both his fear and his courage, can help to prepare students for the hard choices they will make in their own lives. Students need to be prepared to make a living, to make a life, and-even in defeat like Atticus Finch-to make a difference.”

The same could be said of The Crucible. Although Arthur Miller wrote the play in protest to the hysteria spread by the McCarthy hearings in the 20th Century, he took the story of real people who had been executed for witchcraft in Salem, MA in the 1600s and turned it into a drama that aimed to mock the absurdity of hyperbole, both accidental and planned. That drama could lead students to discuss other hysterias that have taken place over the centuries such as AIDS, weapons of mass destruction and universal health care.

Bernie Madoff, imprisoned for his fraudulent financial behavior, could be compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Students could imagine how Hester Prynne would be treated today as compared to the 1600s when she refused to name Pearl’s father who happened to be the minister Arthur Dimmsdale in The Scarlet Letter.

Advanced Placement English Language and Literature teachers, who follow the College Board’s recommendations and examples of past AP exams, create reading lists that often include a wide range of literature from the classics to today’s 21st century stories.

“The course descriptions for AP English Language and Literature include lists of representative authors, which are not meant to be prescriptive; they are compendiums of appropriate examples intended to indicate the range and quality of reading covered in such college-level courses,” says Jennifer Topiel, Executive Director of Communications at The College Board.

Topiel says teachers choose from the recommended lists of The College Board at http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ap08_english_coursedesc.pdf , “or they may choose others of comparable quality and complexity.”

“Literature reflects the human condition. Reading about heroes like Janie Crawford [Their Eyes Were Watching God] and Huck Finn, who must fend for themselves, helps put our own experiences into perspective and sometimes gives us the strength to carry on. When Huck decides to “light out for the Territory,” readers feel his discomfort with rules and manners and begin to reflect on the compromises we all make to live in “sivilized” company,” Jago states in her address.

A good mixture of the classics with some of today’s future classics is great for any classroom, not just English. So much can be learned from Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Hurston and Chopin. Their tales involve everything from psychology to the economy. People are just about the same today as they were centuries ago. The setting and props may be different, but the themes still ring true today.