Monday, February 23, 2009

Read Much?

I have been debating the value of classics with some other teachers. It's been an interesting dialogue.

Some of my associates express a vague notion that a classic is something lofty; that they must be all things to all children and that somehow touching them will elevate us to literary Nirvana. However, I maintain that blindly accepting the ‘classics’ and continuing to teach them without asking why or without understanding where they fit in with other things that we much teach is one of the problems in our educational society.

Some say: Let’s teach them something because it’s going to be on a test. Let’s expose them to books A, B and C because we’ve been told those books are valuable and they have been held valuable by the power structure.

I say let’s look at literature differently. Let’s understand the function of literature and not the function of classics.

Let us teach children to think critically, to identify with reading, to appreciate elements in literature that can inspire and instruct, but not to inspire and instruct blindly. Children shouldn’t be made to rotely rattle off concepts of characterization and theme, they should instead understand the connections and cause and effect and understand that literature is a door to a richer understanding of the human condition.

Let's challenge the status-quo and keep a fresh perspective on literature. While I often attack the evolution of the ‘classic’, I still respect these works for their contribution to world culture. Often the classic is the book that has helped address injustices and brought about social change, as in the case of Grapes of Wrath or Black Boy; they have represented those without a voice and have elevated dialogue and given us pride not just in our differences, but in that which we hold in common.

Still, some of you, and you know who you are, hold fast to the sanctity of the classic.

Perhaps, some of you stand as best evidence of the negative side of esteeming a book as a ‘classic’ because it has been held as such by the intellectual power brokers in the form of the church, the university, the local school board, the award committee, or the literary critic. As one fellow teacher who works in Detroit in one of the....wait for it....charter academies....stated it: “A Classic Is a Classic Is a Classic. Either it's a classic or it's not."

What depth of intellectual spirit.

While previously held merit is worth consideration, one shouldn’t view such texts as absolutes. As society changes, so does its literature. It in no way diminishes the past glory of the work, but it might call into question its effectiveness for this point in history and culture.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm with you. English teachers killed the "classics" for me when I was young. I'm not sure I'll ever forgive them. Fortunately, I'm a recovering classics reader as an adult.

Jon said...

Here's a way of looking at Classics: The are exemplars: specimens of a type, whether that type is of stylistic, moral or thematic nature. They are the microscope slides of literature.

We study them to learn, for example, the origin and development of the short story, or the structure of plot or the structure of society. Dickens may teach less about the ninteenth century novel than he does of ninteenth century fact we call a certain societal pattern "Dickensian." Fitzgerald is not about Gatsby's world so much as it is about the art of telling the story. (Actually Gatsby is about a lot of things, but mostly about the art of weaving character, plot and setting.) Ulysses is about style.
If a better example comes along, there's no reason it can't supplant the old. Is "On the Road" the new Odessy? Not yet, but maybe, and for its different view, it's a classic in its own right. "Palpable Illusion?" Someday? Who knows?

But all of this stuff notwithstanding, classics are classics for one reason: they are memorable.

Sidney said...

When I was a reporter, I had to do a story on the reading list of the local high schools. It was a list that at the time made me want to weep, though I don't recall specifics. It was hopelessly staid and had little that would interest kids in the wonder of reading. What's the point in that. There are classics that are readable and those that are not. At a point when kids need to be excited by reading, they don't need to be given snoozers.

Virginia Lady said...

Or you could take my husband's view, if it isn't at least 100 years old, he doesn't read it. Not enough time. If it's lasted 100 years, he figures it must be worth reading. Not sure I agree, but he's made some interesting choices.

Fab said...

At uni I felt that my professors of English literature almost force fed classics. Whenever one mentionned a dislike of one of the classics, it was not appreciated. I felt I'd appreciate the classics more if I could descover them rather than to be forced to read them. These days I like reading Murakami, because of his surrealistic style of storytelling. Not a classic, but a fine new discovery.

Avery DeBow said...

"Some say: Let’s teach them something because it’s going to be on a test. Let’s expose them to books A, B and C because we’ve been told those books are valuable and they have been held valuable by the power structure."

This is one of the main reasons college and I didn't get along. If I want to read something for its merit and for the guidance it can give me as a writer, I'll do it by myself. If I want to be force fed a bunch of pedantic bull about a work that has at some point been cheerleadered into importance by the faceless members of a system I don't really care about, I'll take a class.

Mark Rainey said...

Nail on the head. Being a highly rebellious young'un, as soon as someone in authority informed me about the classic status of any given work, it was my god-given task to determine that, no, it really isn't. Problem being, as a young'un, my motivation was no deeper than the by-rote recitation of lists of classics by teachers. Took a while for the critical thinking nerves to take hold. In later years, I've found that some of those teachers' lists were quite on the money, much to my chagrin. Others, maybe not so much. And above all, I'm still woefully under-read in the classics department, due to the aforementioned rebellious streak. I've remedied that to some degree in later years, but only to some.

Sphinx Ink said...

I fully agree. In high school and in college (B.A., English, '72), I read lots of classics--and heartily disliked at least half of them (The Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables are foremost in my memory).

When my daughter hit high school, I was pleased to discover the reading lists had been updated to include entertaining contemporary books that also could instill values and give readers knowledge of human character (e.g., The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton).

I read for entertainment and escape, so to guarantee myself a good time while reading I've stuck mostly to genre fiction for decades.

On the other hand, I've read War and Peace twice in my life...and Pride and Prejudice is my all-time favorite novel. So the classics aren't all bad.

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