My friend Ruth from Teacher Park asked a group of fellow teachers whether we noticed a decline in classic literature being taught in school and what our thoughts were on the topic. This brought up some strong feelings, so I thought I would share and ask that you weigh in by commenting below.
I agree that there is probably a decline in the teaching of classic literature in schools today. I do not have hard facts to prove it, but I communicate with many teachers from all over the United States and many are teaching contemporary novels. Does this mean that they have cut all classics from their curriculum? Absolutely not. I still teach a variety of classic works, including The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, stories by Poe, poems by Whitman, and so on. Yet, I supplement them with many contemporary works, as well. Are they "classics"? No. Or, at least, not yet.
Students won't score high on reading tests if they don't read the classics!To those who think reading the classics increases reading scores, here's a news flash: Students who read score higher on reading tests. It does not matter what they are reading. The more they read, the more they succeed. Period.
Teaching contemporary literature along with the classics is a good thing. Why? Because students are more likely to read newer works. If our goal is to produce better readers, students must practice reading. I cannot force students to read. Sure, I can assign reading as homework; but if they don't want to read the novel, they aren't going to read at all. Well, they may read the Spark Notes summaries if I give them assignments or quizzes; but most likely they'll ask their friends, or look up answers online to avoid--at all costs--reading the very boring piece of classic literature I assigned. So why bother when I can assign a book they truly find appealing? If the novels' themes are the same, are both rich with figurative language, and both offer opportunities for in-depth analysis of characters, symbols, and plot, then why shouldn't we teach the contemporary novel over the classic if it means more students will read it, appreciate it, and love it?
Students won't be prepared for college if they don't read the classics.And probably the most convincing evidence I have that more contemporary works should be taught is through my own high school experience. I was in school in the 80s. The most recent work of fiction we read was To Kill a Mockingbird, which would have been 25 years old when it was assigned my junior year. And the only book I remember reading in middle school as part of the curriculum was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I don't think it's a coincidence that the two novels that influenced me the most were the only "contemporary" novels my teachers introduced.
We read classics like The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, Macbeth, The Odyssey, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and so on. And I hated them. With a passion. They did not inspire me to seek out additional works by the authors for pleasure reads. I continued to read the types of books I was exposed to, which consisted of mainly Danielle Steel and V.C. Andrews novels. Contemporary classics they were not. Had I been exposed to more recently-published works that were intelligent and thought-provoking, I would have chosen better books to read in my free time. Case-in-point: in college I was introduced to Neuromancer by William Gibson, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse Five, which is still one of my all-time favorite books. I began reading more science-fiction (which I had never read before) and fell in love with contemporary authors like Amy Tan, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou.
Many teens are not ready to read the classics. Whether it's because they are not yet mature, lack world experience, or just don't have the patience or will, forcing them to read a classic can cause a lifetime of hatred toward a book or reading in general.
If it's popular, it can't possibly be good...People have this stigma that if a book is "popular"or a best-seller, it cannot possibly be considered good enough to be classic. And I have to say that misconception ticks me off. It's basically saying that the large majority of people buying the works aren't smart enough to recognize a good book. Perhaps a hundred years ago this was the case. But not today. Perhaps the contemporary novel we read today may very well be a classic in 50 years. I think works such as Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner are pieces that will endure. Since I've devoted the past four years teaching and blogging about The Hunger Games trilogy, it's probably obvious I think Suzanne Collins' work will stand the test of time in the young adult genre, as well.
In 1936, readers of The Colophon, a book magazine, were asked which contemporary authors would have lasting works. Even though the author of an editorial in The Smithsonian states that many of the writers on that 1936 list are not well-known today, I recognized all but one name. The readers were actually pretty good at spotting authors whose works will be read 100 years later.
If anyone is qualified to recognize a classic, it's the people who read both classic and contemporary works every day. When I read Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, I knew it would be a classic. My first impression of Divergent by Veronica Roth was mediocre, at best. It lacks the depth of a good classic read. I can't pinpoint what it is that makes a book a classic or not; call it a gut-feeling. But I think we English teachers are probably some of the most qualified groups of people to determine the classic-status in a novel, don't you? In which case, you should trust your gut and teach what you think your students will read and appreciate, not necessarily what others think should be taught.