Take the Classics Out of High School
my opinion on why classics should be university-level and above
I remember reading three Shakespeare plays in high school: Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, and As You Like It. I also read bits from the Odyssey and the Iliad by Homer in Grade 10, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Crucible by Arthur Miller in Grade 11, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell in Grade 12. Without my teachers, I would've never understood the novels and plays ... in fact, I probably never would've even read any of them in the first place.
It's been nine years since I've graduated high school, and I have yet to reread any of these.
I LOVED reading growing up! I was in Battle of the Books competitions two years in a row, I won books from my school librarian for reading 250 books (and 500 books) in a school year -- reading was what I did.
Then I got to high school ... and university ... I didn't read (for fun) for SEVEN YEARS! School sucked all of the joy out of the one main thing I loved to do. I'm so grateful I took a year off between university degrees and rekindled my love of reading in 2016, catching up on all the young adult novels I missed out on -- City of Bones, Vampire Academy, Throne of Glass ... so many stories I missed out on!
What I will say about high school English, a positive experience I had with my Grade 11 teacher: Aside from the few novel studies we did as a class, we were also to read two books of our choosing to do book reports on for that semester. Now, granted, our "choices" came from a list of pre-approved books ... but that is still a win in my eyes! I chose A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks for my first one (not sure about the second one), after watching the movie half-a-dozen times, and had to keep myself from crying in class as I was reading the last 10 or so pages. I couldn't tell you everything on that list now -- I think there were somewhere between 50 and 100 options -- but I do remember there being a variety (which is important!).
Again, this was a decade ago; I know the school curriculum in Canada (or specifically, my province) has changed since then, for the better -- there is more emphasis on inquiry-based learning, giving more students freedom and choices over their learning. But not every teacher has gotten on board with this curriculum change, and there are still other areas of Canada -- other areas of the world! -- that still don't carry this philosophy that students should have a say in their education.
I grew up wanting to be a high school English teacher, for this very reason: to be part of the change I wanted to see in schools. I was close, too -- 2020 was a weird year, and I ultimately made the decision not to finish my teaching degree (even though I was 3/4 of the way finished). However, I still have a voice, and I would like to use it here, to share my opinion on classics at the high school level. This opinion is based on my personal experiences from K-12 (as a student who LOVED school!), my personal experiences taking upper-level (third-year and fourth-year) English courses at university, and the knowledge and teachings I gained from my one-and-a-half years in the Bachelor of Education program.
First: Why does it have to be classics? There are so many young adult novels, written about topics that relate to teenagers NOW. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas -- this was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement! The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner -- we don't need Nineteen Eighty-Four anymore, there are PLENTY of dystopian novels! (In fact, I'm reading one right now -- Cinder by Marissa Meyer -- and there is a plague happening; it's feeling a little too close to home after 2020, but it's also based on the fairy tale Cinderella, and I've seen it recommended in middle school libraries.) Some of these newer books, like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, were also made into a movie -- what students doesn't love a good movie (compare and contrast with the book!).
Second: Why can't the classics wait until university? Not everyone chooses the post-secondary education route, and the only people who take the classic-heavy English courses (like 18-Century Literature) are English majors. Why are we punishing non-readers for reading books that have little interest to them? You want a non-reader to read? Give them a choice in their reading material! Even if it's from an approved list; there's likely to be SOMETHING on there of interest to everyone. The teachers still assigning classics? I'm sorry, they're setting up at least half their students for failure. (Side note: I tried to read Pride and Prejudice in Grade 11 -- another book on the approved list -- and could not get past the first few pages; I tried again five years later, in university, and absolutely enjoyed the novel ... of course, this was after years of reading and watching adaptations of the story, like the 2005 film, but my point is, I wasn't READY for P&P at 16 years old.)
There are COUNTLESS lists all over the internet -- if teachers are thinking about switching to modern literature and are looking for a specific theme, but are unsure where to start, trust me, there is something out there for them.
I'm not sitting here saying we need to take reading out completely -- what a radical concept that would be, ooh boy! Could you imagine someone suggesting THAT!? No, I do see so much value in reading, and even though I would never want to force a non-reader to pick up a novel, there are too many benefits from reading that we can't ignore. All I'm asking is that teachers and schools reconsider their current reading material -- to be more inclusive, to make reading enjoyable for all, to give students a voice in their education.