Unshelving Classic Books This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 29, 2009
More by this author
In the late twentieth century, there was a move to replace classic literature used in most schools and universities with a more diverse reading list. The new curriculum would focus on themes present in today’s society, emphasizing multiculturalism and embracing ideas from all cultures. However, in replacing the classics curriculum, educators have removed important parts of America’s heritage.

Classic books provide the framework by which we can build our own world view and analyze the problems of today. The classics are an important part of American education because they not only reveal the ideas that have shaped the world, but also provide a foundation which we can use to develop our own opinions on many of the issues facing us today.

In many ways, the replacement of classic books has backfired. In school we learn about the atrocities slaves endured on Southern plantations, and the sorrow they faced when a husband was separated from a wife, or a mother from a child. However, contemporary books cannot present the issues surrounding slavery the way the classics do. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written during the abolitionist era, addresses the horrors of slavery as no contemporary book can. Likewise, the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery, tells of a former slave’s struggle for equality in a hostile world. History books can talk about the struggles of African-Americans during this era, but only the writings of abolitionists and blacks who lived through it can make the experience real for schoolchildren.

This not only applies to the struggles of minorities or women, but to the problems faced by all people. “You think your pains and your heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world,” wrote James Baldwin, “but then you read. It is books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive.” Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield tells the story of a man who was abused as a child, and his efforts to live a comfortable and normal life. Oliver Twist describes the struggle of a poor orphan who tries to rise above his criminal companions’ level. The classics show that the problems of today are not new, and that a person can still be happy despite his circumstances.

The classics also reveal ideas that have long been the foundation of American government, including those of Plato and Aristotle. The writings of John Locke are considered the principal influence on American government; however, with the removal of the classics from American schools, few know what Locke believed. Understanding our own culture is necessary; if we do not, how can we understand others? In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “The child who has once met Mr. Badger [a character in The Wind in the Willows] has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.” The classics present cultural history in a way contemporary books cannot.

The classics also preserve traditional values that have survived for centuries. Todd Gitlin, in “The Liberal Arts in an Age of Info-Glut,” wrote, “Amid the weightless fluff of a culture of obsolescence, here is Jane Austen on psychological complication, Balzac on the pecuniary squeeze. Here is Dostoyevsky wrestling with God, Melville with nothingness, Douglas with slavery … In a culture of chaff, here is the wheat.” In other words, we need to study ideas and principles that have endured for centuries.

In today’s culture, everything is transient. We follow what is popular, and not what has withstood the test of time. An understanding of the ideas that have endured is the deciding factor between a person who went to school and one who is truly educated. Once we have read Walden, we realize that there is a world outside of the city. Through Jane Eyre, we see that patience can bring about unexpected results. By reading a book that has endured, we find many new concepts that open our eyes and give us a different perspective on life.

We live in a time of great technological advancements. Computers have made information more accessible. We have found cures to some forms of cancer. We are healthier and live longer, yet we are becoming intellectually fat. Many contemporary writers, especially fiction writers, merely appeal to our desire for wealth, prestige, and power. The classics create a longing in us for a different world, a better world. Contemporary books create a different longing. C.S. Lewis addressed this too: “The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes – things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would happen if the reader had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two types of longing. The first one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.” It is the classics that cause askesis, or self-discipline. If you remove that from a child’s education, you are removing an intellectual stimulus.

The classics are an important part of education. It is critical to teach children about their culture, and to encourage them to be accepting of other people as well as to know what is happening in the world. However, this pursuit should not replace the classics. It is the classics that make us think and make our minds mature. Once mature we can contribute to society. The classics do not force a child to conform to old-fashioned beliefs, nor do they teach them to be Eurocentric. They teach that there is more to the world than the clichéd problems of urban society. According to Arnold Bennett in “Literary Taste: How to Form It,” “The makers of literature are those who have seen and felt the miraculous interestingness of the universe. If you have formed … literary taste … [your life] will be one long ecstasy of denying that the world is a dull place.”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

Join the Discussion

This article has 65 comments. Post your own now!

Missy312 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Dec. 6, 2011 at 2:03 am

I agree with... everything you wrote. Everything. I'm like, "Yes! Someone else agrees with me!" 

Classics are amazing. There's a depth of understanding and insight into humanity that isn't found many other places. Some modern books also have this quality, but I find markedly less of them are literary and more of them are commercial "candy fluff." 

There are too many books in the world. I don't want to read good books; I want to read great books.&nb... (more »)

ChoCho1001 said...
Jul. 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm

So, I see where this is coming from. But I feel the need to point out that there are still school's reading the classics and whatnot. My reading list for the coming year at my school includes:

The Jungle (Upton Sinclair)

My Antonia (Willa Cather)

The Tempest (Shakespeare)

The Crucible (Arthur Miller)

The Great Gatsby

Walden and Civil Disobedience

And more...

And in past years at my school, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird (amazing book)... (more »)

MidnightSol said...
Jun. 13, 2011 at 9:44 pm
I'm homeschooled so I read real books as well as brain candy, modern, stuff. 
JennyRotten said...
May 17, 2011 at 7:37 pm
I completely and utterly agree!
ilovewriting95 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 25, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Great job! I completely agree with your article and I think classics are very important for us to read in order to understand the world and its history. Books about wealth and money and rich people are rediculous. Books about people who don't care about money and understand the true values in life are the books worth reading. Have you read the book Secret Life of Bees? If you haven't then you should because it is a really good book. :)


leafy said...
Jan. 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm
i agree with this article for the most part, but i will mention that at my school they have not changed the reading list. (btw, im reading oliver twist right now, and i would suggest it to anybody)
SandyLee This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 27, 2011 at 8:43 am
 I agree with the article: there's too many people "watching the movie" instead of reading the actual classic book, and thinking they've read the book through watching the movie. And not only do people only watch the movies, they oftentimes watch badly made movies. By the way, we read one modern book by an author that takes place in our city this summer for school, and I think it was a terrible book! A good book is a good book, no matter when it was written, but schools should do a better j... (more »)
Ehwaz11 replied...
Apr. 3, 2011 at 3:42 pm
Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore? Ughhhhh. Spare me. I so know where you're coming from.
alexandrexis said...
Jan. 14, 2011 at 10:16 pm
Why does it have to be classics vs. modern books? They definitely shouldn't be teaching 100% classics at schools because we do need to STUDY, not just read without thinking about, certain things people are writing TODAY. But it shouldn't be like "Oh modern books are better than classics!" or that classics are inherently better and the quality of writing is spiraling down with time. Sorry but that's B.S., a good book is a good book, no matter when it was written. 
impossibleisfun said...
Dec. 14, 2010 at 7:14 pm
I agree with the ideas presented, but the writing is a bit on the flat and formal side. Opinion pieces should have a bit more flavor in them. This seems just too much like a formal essay which is trying to stick to a format rather than really present the information in an informative or entertaining manner.
SmileyFace13 replied...
Jun. 30, 2011 at 11:52 pm
I agree. it was well written though, just not perfectly fitted for a piece in the catagory.
Rememberthebest said...
Nov. 22, 2010 at 11:50 pm
I must agree with this article as well as some of the points made by BlackHoleHighAlumni. I might also add my opinion that writers now are not writing out of experiences or passions, or even any emotion at all, they have no grit to their story. I realized this recently and realized that most authors, such as F. Scott Fitzgerlad with the Great Gastby wrote about something that was happening in their life, and that usually a story would parallel to the authors life in characters or plot ... (more »)
BlackHoleHighAlumni This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 31, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I completely agree. And a lot of these classics have been turned into punch lines and movies plots by people who never even took the time to read the original story. I wrote a review of Frankenstein (which I must happily report was published :D I'm very happy lol) because I was shocked by the actual story. All my life I've heard from friends or on tv shows about how Frankenstein was first of all the monster (he wasn't) and that he was a monster bent on desctruction (he wasn't) and that Franke... (more »)

Hawthorn replied...
Feb. 10, 2011 at 5:19 pm
I agree. How many people have watched the Sherlock Holmes movies? It's not that the movies were badly made, its that people watch them and assume that they know about the books by virtue of their doing so. First of all Sherlock never had to battle a "Magician" Second Irean Adler was MARRIED and lastly Sherlock never met Watson's wife! 
With-the-Wolves replied...
Jul. 22, 2011 at 9:56 am
I agree with the article, but I thought Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland was great. Anyone who has read the books can tell it is nowhere close to what the books are about, but it takes some details and redirects them for an older audience. It wasn't at all like the books but it was still a good movie
bennyB said...
Oct. 21, 2010 at 8:55 am
I agree with you clasic books are better than contemporary books
Destinee This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 9, 2010 at 10:34 pm

I don't see where it says that classics have been banned; it merely says that they have been taken out of the curriculum.

Other than that, I completely agree. However, it's amusing how you say that Charles Dickens, CS Lewis, the Wind in the Willows (no idea who wrote that), etc are all part of "American heritage".

babygirlinthetardis said...
Oct. 9, 2010 at 9:20 am
Same - but there is no way I will ever optionally read Thomas Hardy again. Or Charles Dickens. Jane Austen's good though, I loved Pride and Prejudice. Great essay though, the majority of kids at my school don't read at all, never mind the classics.
swimster23 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jul. 13, 2010 at 9:35 am
Awesome essay it seems like you really know what you're talking about and have formed a strong opinion. I still hate Charles Dickens, though.  :)
Book Junkie said...
Jun. 21, 2010 at 5:19 am
i personally admit that I used to be a modern day book reader; I would wrinkle my nose at Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and J. D. Salinger. But I read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen about  a month ago, and I couldn't have loved it more. I now read classic books in between my modern ones, and I love how people talk. I am currently reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I am almost done with it. This and Northanger Abbey are great books if you are a modern-book reade... (more »)
bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback