The Case for Classic Literature

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A war is waging in English departments around the country regarding the literature syllabus: Should teachers follow the canon of classical literature or encourage student choice of young adult or graphic novels? Choice supports student autonomy and self determination. On the other hand, Classics extend cognitive skills, improve vocabulary, writing, and reasoning skills.

Some educators believe that allowing students to select their own books will encourage them to continue to enjoy reading. Teens complain about reading assigned books because they cannot relate to the experiences or characters.  And one of the reasons that teachers give for eschewing the classics is that they don’t reflect the changing demographics in their classes. But this is precisely the reason not to abandon classical literature that presents universal themes: good vs. evil, love, redemption, courage and perseverance, coming of age, revenge. Settings are often exotic and foreign, perhaps stimulating readers’ imaginations.  Student choice is putting young adult (YA) and graphic novels—not highly regarded and vetted literature — at the forefront of the English curriculum.  While these graphic novels may have the ability to spur reluctant readers, the curriculum must rapidly transfer to more complex texts. Teachers, like dedicated sherpas, must guide students on this path. ”Great  literature  forces readers to grapple with difficult, timeless questions about love, life and death, and societal dynamics.”

“Research shows that no matter what combination of factors is considered when defining text complexity, the ability to read complex text is the single greatest predictor of success in college.”  The latest results from the international PISA exam attest to the continued mediocre level of teen reading ability. It is known that while the complexity of text in college and career has remained steady, the complexity of texts students are given in elementary and secondary school has diminished over time. “The result is a significant gap between the reading ability of students and what will be expected of them upon graduation—a gap so large that less than 50% of high school graduates are able to read college and career ready complex text independently.”

Neuroscientific research that included brain scans concludes that reading comprehension is a complex, higher-level cognitive process.  Classic literature extends cognitive skills because they force the reader to slow down and concentrate.  Because literary classics contain denser language, more complex sentence structure, and vocabulary, they also serve as models for good writing.  Moreover, literature can provide opportunities for readers that they may never have in real life. They can travel to far away or imaginary places without leaving their seats. Creative teachers can assist students in navigating classic literature and also support a love of reading. Start simple; get complex!

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Laura M

Director of Handle Education with 40+ years experience as teacher and administrator in public secondary education, community college and college. Dedicated to helping parents and teachers to maximize student potential.

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