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 now!

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 »)
beautifuldisaster18 replied...
Aug. 4, 2010 at 2:34 pm

!!! I loved The Catcher in the Rye.


Horsewriterlol This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 20, 2010 at 2:57 pm
Aint that the truth. Most people at my school dont even know what a classic book is, or a novel. The outsiders by s.e. hinton and gone with the wind are great classics.
falling_star This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 9, 2010 at 8:21 am

Two of my all-time favorites.


liy_garcia said...
Apr. 1, 2010 at 1:05 am
writen like a true californian =)
Boulangere said...
Mar. 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm
All the references to great classics brought back great thoughts! I think an occasional "modern" book is okay, but whenever I try to read one I find myself longing for something, well, classic :). Great writing!
Phantom_Girl This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 31, 2010 at 5:52 am
I agree. Teaching a modern book here in high school isn't so bad, but can books like Twilight REALLY compare to the works of Shakespeare or Ray Bradbury?
whatIreallythink said...
Mar. 3, 2010 at 11:56 am
I totally agree. I read the classics and I love The Odyssey and things like that. Also The Lord of the Rings (NOT the movies) that I consider classics.
Ivagrovegirl said...
Feb. 9, 2010 at 2:12 pm
thank you for this article, it is perfect. Completely correct
billiewatts said...
Feb. 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm
classics are classics for a reason! a book doesn't have to be new for a kid to relate to it. (:
Victaria This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 9, 2010 at 12:17 pm
I could not agree with you more. Ten stars! Excellently written. Probably the best writing I've seen in this section.
Evaspie said...
Dec. 27, 2009 at 4:08 am
The best classical book that I have ever read is "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame." Believe it or not, it is the single greatest book I have ever read. At fist, I hesitated on picking up the book because of the Disney movie that completely got it wrong! It is more about the people of Paris and a really complex love triangle. I recommend it to anyone who ever reads. The first few chapters are boring but once you get past that, you may never want to put it down!
BlackHoleHighAlumni This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Nov. 22, 2010 at 9:14 am
Well, Disney didn't always get things right, just because he wanted to keep things appropriate for children. But I think Disney's movies would almost help kids read classics in the future, just to see how they differ from the Disney movie. I find nothing wrong with Disney movies that get the classics wrong. :)
irockandy This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jun. 8, 2011 at 7:35 pm
Evaspie, I hate to admit that I haven't read Hunchback yet. I tried it once, back in middle school, and failed. I think I may have to try it again, now. Thanks for reminding me! Another one of the great Victor Hugo's works, Les Miserables, is my all-time, hands-down favorite book. If you haven't gotten to that yet, I reccomend it. Very complicated, but still very lovely!
Valerie replied...
Jun. 30, 2011 at 8:35 am
I saw the disney movie Hercules, and the real myth was NOTHING like it. I mean, the disney people child-proofed it into a completely different story, leaving kids completely ignorant of how it REALLY went in the myth.
KDmusique said...
Dec. 5, 2009 at 7:10 pm
I enjoyed reading that article very much! I agree that we need to keep children reading the classics, now the question is, how do we do this? I guess somehow we have to make learning enjoyable again!
Lostinbooks This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Dec. 5, 2009 at 12:27 pm
Nicely written. Yes! Classics! I believe that a wide variety of wonderful writing should be read in school-and a lot of it! Classics from every genra and from many writers, and modern award-winners that may be considered classics in the future. Popular series can be read in extra time, but the best writing should always be avaliable!
izz123 said...
Dec. 5, 2009 at 9:11 am
I do agree that reading classics is important, and they should surely not be banned anywhere. They do give a taste of what life was like in earlier years and what problems different people faced. However, they way they are written, the writing style I mean, is not very appealing to many, if not most teens. Many teens would very much prefer to read books written nowadays so they could relate better. And don't you agree that the more important thing is to get children interested in readin... (more »)
Lostinbooks This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Dec. 5, 2009 at 12:29 pm
A wide variety is good. We don't want to grow up only knowing Twilight, now do we? :)
I think a lot of kids don't realize what is out there. They need to be exposed to a world of books-not just a bookshelf, so classics are a good place to start.
BlackHoleHighAlumni This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Nov. 22, 2010 at 9:12 am
If they start young with contemparary books, it will build their vocabulary for reading classics. The writer of this piece isn't saying a fourth grader needs to be handed a copy of Oliver Twist. She's mainly speaking of teens who should be reading classics. The problem with teens being turned off to classics is that they don't read a lot, which means when it's time to read Mary Shelley or Charles Dickens they don't have the needed vocabulary and this turns them off. Reading helps vocabulary more... (more »)
This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 22, 2009 at 10:48 am
Best classic ever-the Phantom of the Opera.
bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback