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Classical versus Contemporary Literature In Secondary Education Curricula

posted Jan 18, 2012, 3:48 PM by Kyle Willey   [ updated Jan 18, 2012, 4:02 PM ]
    Ok, I've started out four drafts with a snarky self-deprecating remark about the lengthy title, so I'm just moving on. Quite frankly, I don't like how modern high schools seem to approach literature-that is, that they use the least engaging books or ones that have relatively little literary value. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not going on an assault and saying teachers are horrible and whatnot, but I'm still fairly young and in touch with what I'm pretty sure could get a whole new generation of students to enjoy literature.

    While I'm not arguing that classical literature lacks value, I'd suggest an economical approach to the teaching of literature, i.e. that literature should be taught with students' patience and enjoyment in mind, as well as what they can learn about it. For instance, the Iliad provides some stunningly well-done examples of a lot of literary genres, and it can even be an enjoyable read for a high-level advanced scholar or reader. However, the issue with it is that we're giving it to high school students. Culturally this is a disaster-most children don't want to read about ancient cities. I'm not saying we couldn't make the Iliad interesting-I'm in an English class right now that analyzed the Iliad and made it be totally cool and interesting. To a honors college student with an interest in the classics. I practically beg to learn about this stuff and I'm pretty interested in it, but I don't feel that the pervasive attitude among high-school students is one that loses sleep for want of a deep analysis of Achilles' actions in light of his concepts of honor and being a great warrior.

    Similarly, I felt while I was in high school that most of the contemporary literature I read was to make a point or political statement, which is not necessarily bad, but also doesn't necessarily improve my literary abilities. I recognize that any reader will probably suspect that modern authors are trying to get a point across-even Elie Wiesel's wonderful Night and Dawn had a point, and this isn't a bad thing, but the reason I call them wonderful is because they also doubled to teach me about literature. Also, they made reading personal, just like Angela's Ashes, though I'd choose Elie Wiesel's writings first any time.

    I have a solution to both of these problems-integrate books into the curriculum based on their popularity and literary value. This means a multiple-element evaluation for books that regards several criteria-length, difficulty, culture, popularity, and educational value. I'm not saying that classic books should be entirely omitted from the curriculum-but I am pointing out that part of the reason we read classics is out of the fact that we've been able to diagnose their value. There are very good reasons to learn about antiquity-I'm a history minor, I'm not denying that in any form, but at the same time we must focus literature on literature, and look at the values inherent to the text.

    Now, for most of these evaluation standards, you want a middle-ground. Lengthy books are good for personal reading and can tell very engaging stories, but they also run into issues when we step back and look at how much we want our students to read. It may very well be better to get students to read three hundred pages from three authors than one thousand from one. Difficulty is also important, with an ideal difficulty being one that neither frustrates students nor bores them (and despite what students often say about easy assignments being the best, I've had some genuine snorefests reading simple books and some really good times reading books that people absolutely fear). Also, more difficult books tend to use more advanced grammar (for example, something like The Sorrows of Young Werther in comparison to a typical children's book) Similarly, cultural popularity is one of those mixed bags, with the issue being that students in a literature class should be reading their books from a critical perspective, not remembering when they read them over break or in a spare moment. Of course, on the other hand, a lot of how students do on assignments seems to be their attitude about it, and while this may be a flawed observation I think a student asked to read The Lord of the Rings would have a much better time than one who had to read War and Peace or even a similarly lengthy collection of other works by Tolkien, if not due to the literary style just due to the fact that they cannot get behind the works. Similarly, big budget Hollywood movies are often bemoaned by high-school teachers due to the fact that they take reading out of the equation (and often leave out important bits). I agree a little with the former complaint, and a lot with the second, but I'd also like to point out that such movies serve to interest students in the text, and discussing how the movies differ from the text can open up shy students and encourage a deeper analysis of both works. In fact, I'd almost recommend using books with movies, with the promise that the movie will accompany a session or two of class towards the end of the reading (or on a day with a substitute teacher).

    Of course, I'm leaving out the cultural and literary values of the text-as an educator it is important to choose texts that enlighten students. This is part of the reason I wasn't a fan of Bless Me, Ultima when I read it in high-school, because I grew up in the Southwest. I enjoyed the insight into Hispanic heritage, but I had Hispanic friends and fellow students from whom to learn it first hand, so the cultural awareness it could have created was replaced with a sort of "This again?" attitude among myself and my fellow students. Similarly, reading The Lord of the Rings may have some cultural value, but it is, after all, a work set in an entirely fictional setting, where something like Grapes of Wrath could be much, much more culturally enlightening. Literary values are also important, but they are perhaps more obvious-if I were reading a children's book to high school students in a regular class, it'd better be either pretty well analyzed or a look at the graphic design or drawings within. It is important to remember that high school is a great opportunity to challenge students to succeed, and I believe that the sky is the limit in terms of the complexity of themes to discuss in their curricula-I'm not saying to choose books with wanton sexuality, gory violence, and harsh language, but we can definitely include social issues from multiple perspectives. To use a mostly neutral example, let us analyze human augmentation; those for it would argue that it can improve quality of life and revolutionize our society, while its opponents would probably point out that it deepens social strata, as well as ethical dilemmas arising from potential loss of humanity associated with technology. This could easily interest students and open up the field for debates in classrooms, which would be the ideal form of learning.

    So, in short: Why don't we just step back a bit and consider teaching with good modern books that won't intimidate students?
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