As a high school English teacher of 15 years, I have always enjoyed the classics. Recently though, there has been a great debate on whether to continue teaching the classics. For the past several years, I have studied both sides of the argument and can proudly say that I have no clue what to do. On one side, the classics are written by some of the greatest writers ever, with such timeless themes and beautiful language. The classics are truly an art form. How could we deny our children their right to be a part of great art? Then on the other side of the argument, most of our children are not reading at a level that will permit them to understand and appreciate what they read. Are we missing the opportunity to teach them how to read well so that they can, in the future, understand and appreciate the classics? Should we continue to force these classics down their throats even though they can’t understand them and risk the chance that they never want to read again?
This makes me think of famous paintings and sculptures throughout history. Have I ever seen them in person? Do I know about all of them? Is my life any less fruitful because I have missed their beauty? How often do I need to know about them? Are there other ways to learn about them?
I do not feel that I have missed out on the beauty of life because I have not studied these paintings. I am, however, aware that if I did study them, I would be richer in my knowledge and value of art. But never, ever, was I taught about the famous pieces of art in school. I learned about Mona Lisa from a television show. I saw The Statue of David on the History Channel. Would I like to learn more? Yes. Now I have the maturity and intrigue to want to know more and to appreciate the amazing skill and talent that went into each piece. I can start to understand and appreciate the master of art.
I want my students to one day be awakened by this same desire. I think the love for art, in all its forms, comes from maturity. We can’t just tell students that a piece of art is great and that they should love it. We must teach them to love art step by step. Through scaffolding, we take one step at a time, not rushing, just tasting each bite along the way. This is what I desire for my students.
So am I suggesting that we stop teaching the classics? No, not really, but maybe we should slow down. We don’t have to teach as much. Currently in World Literature, American Literature and British Literature, we try to chronologically follow the literary periods and give excerpts of many different authors of the time. Other teachers teach by theme. Some teachers just teach novels. Maybe one or two stories is enough, expose our students, don’t inundate them. Focus on vocabulary so that down the road, they can pick up a classic and understand it. Teach them stylistic techniques of great authors so that they can notice and appreciate them when they do read, and build their ability for basic comprehension and fluency along the way, teaching empathy with books that relate to them better.
I once had a mentor who told me, “We need to reach down to get a student, but then we can bring him up…” Maybe that’s true. We don’t need to be in a hurry. Let’s don’t throw away great art, let’s learn to appreciate it so that we can continue to read it the rest of our lives…one bite at a time.
What do you think?