Wednesday, June 1, 2011

To CLASSIC or Not to Classic...

A recent YAAYNHO post had to do with whether or not kids should be REQUIRED to read the "classic" books of history.  The writer made the argument that it is much better for kids to read what they are interested in.  What THEY want to read. Requiring students to read the classics was, she felt,  counterproductive to making them interested in reading. I thought about her argument and then I recalled my own history of reading the classics and the irony that I was currently reading Moby Dick. A book I had chosen to read and was not part of any syllabus.

Then I thought back to my favorite teacher ever - Mr. Joe Kraus who was my AP English teacher in high school. In his class we WERE REQUIRED to read Hamlet, Cat's Cradle, Catch-22, Death of a Salesman,  etc etc. I can recall him, much like Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, standing atop his desk reciting scenes fromHamlet.  I ate up the books. I will always recall Joe Kraus and his class fondly. He always encouraged me to be a writer. And I am GLAD I was forced to read some classics. 

Anyone who knows me personally is quite aware I am not a conservative conformist who bows to authority. But I also realize that classics are classics for a reason. LikeThe Beatles's music and films by Capra, the work stands the test of time.  They challenge the reader to think and interpret and delve into the layers of meaning. Let's face it- if we let kids make their own decisions about everything they would eat crap food, watch crap TV and never ever do anything for anyone else but their own narcissistic selves.  It's what makes a kid a "kid".  Children, I strongly believe, have to be TAUGHT to appreciate beauty and the value it. Comedian Billy Connolly tells the story of bringing his kids to see the gorgeous scenery in Scotland and telling them "You see, mountains and trees in that order is pretty. OOh. Ahh. Say it kids "Ooooh" "Ahh!".

He is right.

As a teen I was encourage to read on a variety of topics and hold that dear to this day. Would I have CHOSEN on my own to read Macbeth or Waiting for Godot? Probably not. Am I glad I was made to read them?


So I stand on the side of TO CLASSIC. And mix in with that anything else your mind desires to read (including my to-be-released-in-June kidlit novel, RUPERT STARBRIGHT: The Door to Far-Myst from Zumaya Publications's Threshold imprint) . You will be a better human for it. 


  1. You make good points, Michael. I think a lot depends on what the teacher in a particular class is hoping to accomplish - if it is to encourage reading and comprehension and critical thinking skills, then a book a student finds compelling on their own would seem best. If it is to broaden their understanding of literature and the historical connection between books and culture etc, then classics are clearly the way to go.

    I think a good curriculum would aim for a little of both.

    My point was that a newspaper columnist was bemoaning the fact that high school students were not being required to read Lolita (to simplify his argument) and I thought that it really wasn't fair to hold up an 50 year old reading list and say that if students hadn't read those books they weren't well-educated. One can be well-educated with modern books as well.

    That said, my daughter (8th grade) just discovered (during independent reading) a link between Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and Greek mythology. That's the kind of thing a teacher dreams about her students discovering. Of course, in her case, the discovery had nothing to do with what she's learning in school.

    So, we can't forgo the classics, but we shouldn't make them the only thing we judge a decent curriculum by. In my opinion.

  2. I disagree. Yes, classics should be available but seriously force a high school student to read them? My one experience of being 'forced' to read a classic was in the eighth grade. To this day I can't stomach anything by Tolkien. Also you mentioned AP classes. I can see how they would be a part of that curriculum but to force students to read classics because they are just that classics I think is wrong.

    I'm also a credentialed teacher and have seen what happens when you force a student to read a book. I've also seen what happens when you set guidelines and also leave room for student choice. My own son was forced to only read certain books. Now that I'm homeschooling him and giving him more options, he's thriving and loves to read.

    Kim Baccellia

  3. It is not like I was tied down, eyes propped open with wire ala Clock Work Orange!!

    I also had to do certain math problems, and read history chapters and learn computer programming. Why is this any different? If you take an Enlgish lit class it would seem logical that literature needs to be read.

    To me it is more indicative of a culture where kids are bowed to and their every whim must be met. I see parents negotiating with screaming kids in supermarkets because the child never learned what the word "no" means.

  4. I know I resented anything forced on me. I'd go out of my way not to read it. I'm a former first grade teacher and I always tried to have a big selection of books for my students to read. But then again I know third grade teachers who refused to have Junie B. Jones books read in her class as it would 'encourage' bad speaking habits. Or graphic novels were frowned on as they aren't reading material.

    Also one of the librarians at our library said that the classics should dominate the YA section as these are the books they should be reading. I couldn't believe it. Thank goodness the MG librarian understands that teens love variety.

    Kim Baccellia

  5. Also to be honest I didn't have to read most of the classics until college. I asked my husband and he said the same thing. And he took some of those AP classes that my so-called guidance counselor steered me away from.

    Even then if you do have to read the classics, I'd try to make them fun and/or have students do activities to liven them up.

    But that's just me.

    Kim Baccellia

  6. I find it odd that kids are at a point where brilliant writing needs additional activities to "liven" then up!!

    Why not just delve into the work and explore its meanings, etc? I mean - take Vonnegut- how much more interesting can you get?

  7. Because honestly, some of them are dry. Why not liven them up? Who wants to sit in a classroom just listening to people read passages? Boring.

    But then again I'm a former first/second grade teacher. I had to liven things up to keep their attention. From what I've been hearing from some teens I know, those are the classes they do like. Just reading straight from a book? Kill me now and get it over with.

    Kim Baccellia

  8. Sigh - I was just typing in a really long comment and lost it.

    To summarize - because I don't feel like typing it in again: I think we need both classics and modern literature. Kids forced to read classics too young may forever be turned off of literature that could enrich their lives.

    But allowing reading choice does not mean we are coddling the youth of today - it means we accept the world they live in as just as valid as the world of 40 or 50 or 200 years ago.

    It all comes down to what you are trying to teach: a love of reading? Then let them read.
    A understanding of shared cultural values through literature: then assign the classics.

    I think there is room for both.

  9. I couldn't say it any better, Christine!

    Kim Baccellia