Reengaging Contemporary Students with Classic Literature
April 28, 2015
by robert esposito, prose reader
Questions asked to ten randomly selected Arcadia University students by Mark Sterling: What was a book you hated having to read in high school? Why do you think the teacher assigned it?
Answers (unmodified for grammar or spelling):
ANYTHING SHAKESPHERE (or however you spell it). It is a dead language. Hard to understand, serves no real purpose other than keeping our kids cultured when it comes to ancient literature.
Romeo & Juliet b/c its a classic???
any Shakesphere book I never understood it
The Crucible. It was an interesting topic, but the book was dry, in Ye Olde English, so bit boring.
The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Farewell to Arms – WHAT WHY, the wording led you down the path of confusion & wasn’t modern & couldn’t hold my attention.
As I lay Dying. It was an award winning book, but it was dry and boring. I guess she had us read it because there were deep metaphors for social/family issues?
The Giver, it was slow and boring.
Catcher in the Rye, because “it was so much more significant than the imagery and metaphors” plus he thought it would be cool since it was a “banned book.”
The Heart of Darkness. It was used in a comparative literature class. We used it because of it’s genre.
Metamorphsis – it was literly pointless and the climax was in the first sentenc
Anyone who has been in the United States education pipeline within the last few decades is able to testify that the system is extremely toxic and corrupted. Learning for the sake of learning has become something that is seen as a luxury, even in the highly endorsed science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, where pure science has taken a backseat to applicable science. As evident from the above responses, classic literature is also being pushed away by contemporary students, which is not necessarily their fault. If a school system does not put focus or relevance on classic literature, only a handful of students will have the audacity and motivation to seek outside knowledge and attempt to understand why the classics are preserved. A stigma is also placed against the classics by modern media, which creates such conundrums as one’s claim that they didn’t like The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet solely because “b/c its a classic???” It is the responsibility of those who have reached out to the classics on their own, or who have been exposed to them by others, to reengage contemporary students – not just children, but adults as well – with classic literature; to make them understand why classic literature needs to be preserved and continued; to make them understand the physical, spiritual, and mental benefits of classic literature.
With even a little statistical knowledge, one is able to ascertain that the study completed is not representative of the population of college students in the United States. However, it is corroborated by other studies that illuminate the “historical decline in voluntary reading among teenagers and young adults” (“To Read or Not to Read”). The problem that many modern students face is an isolation, where difficult literature is perceived as something elitist and untouchable by a layman. If something is coined as a classic novel, it is immediately met with leers and assumptions about boringness. These misconceptions must be assuaged immediately with literature such as Lady into Fox by David Garnett, where a man attempts to care for his wife who has inexplicably turned into a fox; or Sartre’s No Exit, where three people argue endlessly in Hell. Classic literature is not meant to be suited men in stuffy rooms, it is meant to be available to all those who seek it.
After it is established that classic literature is not impenetrable, one must understand why these specific works are preserved. Sometimes it is solely based on poetic quality, but in a majority of cases, there is a history to the work: something that has never been explored before, something that has never been opposed before. The first step to being engaged is to understand why the book is being read, and relating that novel to each student. This does not mean asking students to write a day in their life in stream-of-consciousness to emulate Mrs. Dalloway; this does not mean asking students to write conciliatory letters between the Capulet and Montague families. It means telling them of twenty-year-old Shelley, who started a whole genre, but felt it necessary for her novel to be published anonymously; telling them of nineteen-year-old Rimbaud, who catalyzed a change in nature poetry, from a symbol for order to chaos; telling them of Woolf’s depression and suicide, of her love and humor, of Orlando, one of the longest and most public queer love letters in history.
Give the students ways to relate to the novel that are organic: love Homer’s Iliad, because it demonstrates to queer students that they are not alone in any period of history; love Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, because it reminds lost students that it is okay to not have everything sorted out; love Knowles’ A Separate Peace, because it accurately presents a struggle between friendship and jealousy. While reading, they will pick up new vocabulary as easily as one would pick up gum on their shoe; they will learn how to vary their sentence structure, how to make their sentences sounds musical – all of this is natural. Instead of butchering English, they will ascertain the difference between “its” and “it’s”; they will understand why it is ironic to write a sentence like, “the wording led you down the path of confusion,” regarding confusing syntax. Before a student can appreciate something that is difficult to relate to, they need to learn how to read, and they can only do so with works that they are in love with.
Some students will never understand it, just as some students will never be able to grasp biology or calculus – and this is fine. It is absolutely fine not to love, not to even like, literature. But before one can make this decision, they must be exposed to it by a teacher that loves it, that truly wishes for everyone to love it as best they can. Literature is meant to challenge the reader, but no one is born being able to interpret Shakespeare or Woolf. A teacher must intervene, must show them why literature matters, and then give them another book that they may relate to, and then another. If Woolf does not work, then show them Joyce; if Joyce does not work, then give them Shelley – once the student is aware of what they love to read, they can find that topic in any novel that they may pick up.
I will tell you the key to love literature: find a topic explored in literature, and uncover that topic in every novel that the reader may encounter, no matter how irrelevant it may seem to the work. Rip apart literature into paragraphs, into words, into syllables, into letters – search for what you want in every facet of the work, and as long as you have evidence to support your idea, no one can deny what you see. Suddenly this topic crops up everywhere, like some invasive flower: in movies, in music, in television. In works that are not considered classics, you will find these classic works. Tell me how The Iliad deconstructs heroes in the same way that Neon Genesis Evangelion deconstructs one dimensional character archetypes; tell me how Florence and the Machine’s Heartlines uses traditional Greek allusions to present the narrator’s ideas about destiny; tell me how a movie’s mise-en-scène is just like a novel’s syntax. Find what you love, and tell me about it: that is literature.
Note: The essay written by Mark Sterling regarding English education in schools can be requested at firstname.lastname@example.org.