Monday, February 23, 2009
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.