As my books for this school year have been coming in, I’ve been increasingly excited and thankful for them. I get to read works by Tolkien, Hemingway, and Faulkner to name a few. This has reminded me of something I wrote a while ago, a topic that I’ve visited frequently throughout high school:
As a homeschooled student, I’ve read classic literature all throughout my education, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Many schools now are abandoning classic books, such as the works of Homer and Dickens, for trendy teen fiction like The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, and the Percy Jackson series.
They argue that these new books are more relevant, they include the same themes and messages found in the Classics, and their meanings are not so impossible for students to decipher.
These arguments don’t hold much weight. If students complain that classic literature is irrelevant, teachers are supposed to show them how the themes in these books are, in fact, always relevant, rather than bow down to their will and assign a trendy teen read. Sure, certain passages of classic works may be difficult to read and understand. Even avid readers need a teacher’s help to fully comprehend these works, but isn’t that the case for all subjects in school? A student cannot understand and answer all his math problems or the grammar of a second language without a teacher’s assistance; the teacher’s job is to help students understand the material.
The classics of literature are works that we’ve been reading, studying, and celebrating for hundreds, and, in some cases, thousands of years. We have laughed and cried with these characters, we’ve fallen in love with them, we’ve grown old with them. How sad it is for those who miss out on them. Only foolishly do we drop them for passing trends.
Classic literature offers many benefits for students, a few of which include increased vocabulary and literacy, exposure to ideals, struggles, and controversies that span all of history, and the knowledge that these writings helped form Western civilization. Reading classic literature is a vitally important aspect of a quality education.
Typically, classic literature is much more difficult to read and understand than a book written recently. A growing number of teachers believe that students should not be forced to read challenging material. They feel that what the students are reading is much less important than the fact that they are reading. They would rather students enjoy the material than become better and more thorough readers, thus choosing more contemporary literature for their classrooms.
Unfortunately, this has led to some shocking data. In a study of 2.6 million students in grades 1-12 from over 24,000 schools in all 50 states and Washington D.C., Renaissance Learning, Inc. found “the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school shows that the average reading level of that list is 5.3- barely above the fifth grade.”
Classic literature challenges students by using a wide range of vocabulary and sentence structure. Students who encounter expansive vocabularies build up their own vast store of words to express themselves. Students who read books with complex, diverse sentence structures will have a better understanding of grammar and language. If teachers assigned books that gradually increased in difficulty rather than giving first grade material to seniors, students would become more skilled in reading, writing, and speaking.
Not only is their use of language beneficial- aged masterpieces of literature are still immensely relevant today. Although they take place in different settings, timeless themes such as poverty, social inequality, government and revolution, and religious persecution fill these books and apply to us today as much as they ever have.
When you look back on a situation, it’s easy to tell where you erred, whereas at the time, your thoughts, actions, or motivations seemed right. In the same way, when we step back from our current culture and setting by reading classics, their vices, virtues, errors, and wisdoms quickly jump out. When students digest these works in a classroom, they naturally compare those issues to the issues in our society today. They can see similarities, differences, and what needs to change. In short, they become better thinkers.
Lastly, the classics of literature have stood the test of time; they earned the title of “classic.” The works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens are hundreds of years old, the works of Homer and Virgil thousands. Generations of scholars have studied, memorized, and applauded these books. Because they are so ingrained in our Western heritage, studying them can help us better identify many issues in our world today. Therefore students of the classics can better understand and appreciate cultural history. We would be foolish to abandon these influential works that tell us so much about our past.
Classic pieces of language are superior to trendy teen fiction in that they provide a challenge for students to read, they present relevant themes in situations separated from our culture today, and they have been studied and passed along through the ages. Though we’ve been graduating students with an elementary school reading level, we could have a nation of high school graduates with the ability and yearning to read time-honored writings, who understand the ideas of the many great men and women before them.
“As for literature––to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.”