Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Classic vs. Modern Literature

As a student in middle and high school, I was asked to read works by great classic authors. And, yes, I struggled to understand the old English language of William Shakespeare and to decipher the stream of consciousness style of William Faulkner. But I also reveled in the beautiful tone of Charlotte Bronte and the courageousness of Harper Lee. The point is that I was pushed outside my comfort zone to experience authors and subjects that I otherwise never would have picked up for myself.
Today, many classrooms are turning away from classic literature and replacing them with modern works of fiction. In an effort to appeal to their students and their action packed science fiction world of fantasy and adventure, our education system is dumbing down its curriculum. It is passing over time tested classics for reading lists with “teen appeal.”
Since when did our curriculum become dictated by student appeal? With this method of teaching, algebra and calculus would be omitted from many a math schedule. Physics and European history would be passed over for subjects kids prefer like cowboys and indians.
It shouldn’t matter if a student thinks he isn’t interested in 18th Century England. From reading books of this era, he will learn higher level vocabulary, more complex sentence structures, as well as vivid and descriptive prose. He will learn the historical significance of unique locations and important cultural references. Reading one good classic novel can cross curriculums for English, literature, art, history, and sociology. It can open up an understanding of humanity and how far the world has advanced over time.
But reading classic literature takes time. It cannot be gobbled up in one sitting or digested in between classes. Classic novels often require concentration and deciphering of language and style. They were penned in times when writing was an art form and authors had distinct styles and tones. No two classics are alike – there is not cookie cutter classic novel format.
This is not to say that that modern fiction doesn’t have its place in today’s world. Students are interested in science fiction and the world of possibility. They are interested in relationships that mirror their own lives and struggles. But students who are interested in these things will read them anyway. They do not need to be taught them in school. School should be about broadening the horizons beyond what a student already finds interest in.
In addition, modern fiction doesn’t challenge students in the same way classic novels do. Modern fiction employs lesser vocabulary and sentence structures. They are written for the masses. A good teacher should help students move beyond “the masses” mentality and aim for higher standards.

We’ve all heard the saying that “good readers make good writers.” But this is only true to the degree that the body of work being read is of high value and standard. A student who reads only cereal boxes and comic books will never become the next Hemmingway!  

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