Magazine, website & books written by teens since 1989

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


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!

PurpleMidnight said...
Oct. 16, 2009 at 3:21 pm:
Wow! I Totally agree with you. Actually, my school's library was just talking about banning books (they are against it). We got these awesome bookmarks that said: Join the Banned; Protect your right to READ!
 
This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 22, 2009 at 10:47 am :
Sweet. I love banned books. :)
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
InkBlogger said...
Sept. 30, 2009 at 7:14 am:
"The classics do not force a child to conform to old-fashioned beliefs, nor do they teach them to be Eurocentric."
Exactly. This applies to anything in school (particularly liberal/conservative teachers).
 
TommyOoOoO replied...
Nov. 22, 2010 at 9:05 am :
Um, not that this has anything to do with the article, but by saying liberal/conservative teachers, you're saying all teachers. You're either conservative or liberal or you just couldn't care less. So are you against all teachers teaching? :/
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
AmnyR said...
Sept. 8, 2009 at 7:59 am:
great article, i totally agree.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
hannah=(= said...
Aug. 15, 2009 at 12:05 am:
I think it all depends on what each individual sees as "classic".
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
AquariusSun&Moon This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jul. 31, 2009 at 7:30 pm:
Very good, I agree with everything but the statement "We are healthier and live longer" (but that need not be brought up right now :] ).
Thank you for sharing your opinions!
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
Abigail G. said...
Jul. 30, 2009 at 6:55 pm:
First off,I agree with this article although I have a couple questions/ideas/comments for the writer.
- Classics are great but what about the books about the same era written in the same period or about the same period that don't have as much popularity although they can give students complete different point of views into a concept or idea? Should we spend our time in school reading those?
- Secondly, How about the current issues that relate to what happened in the past. Such a... (more »)
 
Destinee This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 9, 2010 at 10:37 pm :

I'm not the author, but I'm replying anyway. :P

I think the point is that classics are time-weathered books that don't follow the latest fad in writing (*cough cough the Kite Runner cough cough*). They also show how literature has evolved and how we are what we are.

eg: An interesting curriculum would be reading both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone With the Wind. Two different perspectives on slavery.

 
Phantom_Girl This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 31, 2010 at 5:58 am :
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for teens balancing their reading. I happen to switch back and forth between books like Harry Potter and Vampire Academy to books like Fahrenheit 451 and Phantom of the Opera. However, most teens have already read some contemporary novels. If you don't have them in the curriculum, teens will still read them. But how many teens would willingly pick up a classic? We need teachers to show us the joy in them first. I never picked up a classic and enjoyed it until my fresh... (more »)
 
Phantom_Girl This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 31, 2010 at 6:00 am :
Sorry, that was supposed to be a new comment, not a reply.
 
BlackHoleHighAlumniThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Nov. 22, 2010 at 9:03 am :
Just a side note, Destinee, if you're reading books about slavery, Up From Slavery. You can't read fiction pieces without being willing to read a nonfiction book written by a slave. (Not meant as an argument, just making a point.) Up From Slavery is a book needed to be read by every teen. :)
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
rubiesrrare said...
May 29, 2009 at 9:39 pm:
really, if you take out the historical context, then most of the "classics" DO deal with what we as teens deal with now days.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
i believe in dreams' said...
May 3, 2009 at 12:07 pm:
I agree 100%
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
Theresa S. said...
Apr. 30, 2009 at 11:42 pm:
I totally agree with this article....It's really great.
I think books Like (Wuthering Heights, By Emily Bronte,) and (Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen,) Should be required reading for schools their really great books. But I mean the classics are just AWESOME their some of the best out there. I bought these two books a week ago and am done reading them cause they were so good I couldn't put them down. So I would tell anyone I could that these two books are a must read.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
HOPEMVP said...
Apr. 29, 2009 at 1:58 pm:
I really agree with all of this article; the way its presented, its composition and on its topic.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
BriarRose This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 26, 2009 at 4:00 pm:
I absotively LOVE the clasics! Great piece, by the way.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
miranda_ak said...
Apr. 10, 2009 at 2:03 am:
I enjoyed this article and agree with it, but I also think their should be required books that the students can relate more with, since so many people are simply loosing their interest in books.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
Emo_Kid12 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 24, 2009 at 3:36 pm:
the classics are the roots of our youth society. they create a sense of what life was life was back then and also how the authors though about the world. they provide a major chunk of current knowledge to people these days. it would be a shame to unshelve such wonderful and meaningful books. we would be "shooting ourselves in the foot" if that were to happen.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
Jacqueline S. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 21, 2009 at 6:54 pm:
The classics are important, but so is teaching students to find books they enjoy reading and are able to relate to.
 
Reply to this comment Post a new comment
 
Site Feedback