By June Peers
One day, my teacher asked the class if anyone had read “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. I immediately raised my hand and scanned the room to see if any other hands were raised. It was no surprise to me that only a few other students had read it, but I was somewhat disappointed. Why is the curriculum ignoring the classics in favor of more modern books?
Many teachers seek to help their students see themselves represented in the literature they assign in class. Students deserve to know that their perspectives are respected and important. The current trend is to do this through diversifying our texts both in terms of who wrote them and when they were written. Some are advocating in the extreme for completely replacing older white, male texts with more diversified voices. However, there is value in older texts.
Educators should continue to teach the classics with diversity in mind. Classic literature still offers students opportunities to engage in critical literacy which is necessary to being well-rounded individuals.
The journal Science completed a study that found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction, people performed better on tests that measure social perception, empathy, and emotional intelligence. So in other words, reading more complex works makes you a more humane person.
Despite the clear value in classic literature, there is a common belief that white, male authors bring less value to the learning experience for students than modern books with diverse perspectives. Many find classics to be boring or not relatable or just unimportant in today’s society. But what better way to analyze power structures and issues like racism and oppression than in the classic texts where those issues are prevalent?
Take Shakespeare’s “Othello,” for instance. You can’t help but analyze racism in Shakepeare’s text, whether it’s on racial slurs or 17th century attitudes toward race. Shakespeare can help us see that both then and today, we’re facing similar issues. Then teachers could pair Shakespeare with a more modern text like “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah.
Students are in need of literary stimulation. By allowing students to explore different time eras and writing styles, they are able to get out of their comfort zone and engage challenging texts and issues.
Rather than simply removing the classics because they are not from this time period, are more complex, or are overrepresented in the canon, teachers should continue to use these works but with a broader perspective and more paired texts.
Removing the classics altogether, will come at the expense of leaving students uninformed about the books that have shaped many generations, for better or worse. Reading and teaching only modern books does not allow for progression, but rather, regression, which is what I am afraid the English school curriculum is unintentionally promoting.
By all means, bring in new and more diverse voices, but make sure to keep the challenging texts too.