Unshelving Classic Books | Teen Ink

Unshelving Classic Books MAG

January 29, 2009
By Sarah Schwab BRONZE, Orcutt, California
Sarah Schwab BRONZE, Orcutt, California
4 articles 0 photos 0 comments

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.”

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This article has 65 comments.

TheJust ELITE said...
on Oct. 31 2010 at 1:14 pm
TheJust ELITE, Ellenton, Florida
254 articles 202 photos 945 comments

Favorite Quote:
"I feel that a hero is somebody who will stand up for their values and what they believe in and that can take any form. People that have values and have thought them through rather than those who just do what they’re told."-Skandar Keynes

"When it’

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 Frankenstein was a mad scientist (once again, he wasn't).

And the Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland made me want to barf! First of all it was horribly made and it insulted the entire classic. So many teens today would much rather read Harry Potter or Twilight than classics like Frankenstein or Up From Slavery or The Hiding Place (the last two which I did not particulary enjoy, but am happy I was made to read them because I learned a lot about history that you can't learn today without a first hand account.) Classics should always remain apart of every school curriculum. These ARE and always WILL BE apart of American history. Great article!! :D

on Oct. 31 2010 at 6:00 am
Phantom_Girl GOLD, Ft. Carson, Colorado
14 articles 0 photos 279 comments

Favorite Quote:
"If it comes out of the lion's mouth...it will be on the test."
-Mr. Bala

Sorry, that was supposed to be a new comment, not a reply.

on Oct. 31 2010 at 5:58 am
Phantom_Girl GOLD, Ft. Carson, Colorado
14 articles 0 photos 279 comments

Favorite Quote:
"If it comes out of the lion's mouth...it will be on the test."
-Mr. Bala

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 freshman literature teacher got me hooked on Shakespeare. Then, she started talking about Fahrenheit 451, which is now my favorite book. And my dad forced me to read the Phantom of the Opera. I think we can tell by my name and icon how that went, even though I was reluctant to pick it up. Teens will always read contemporary novels, but they need a little push from school to read the classics so that the reading list can stay balanced.

on Oct. 31 2010 at 5:52 am
Phantom_Girl GOLD, Ft. Carson, Colorado
14 articles 0 photos 279 comments

Favorite Quote:
"If it comes out of the lion's mouth...it will be on the test."
-Mr. Bala

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?

on Oct. 21 2010 at 8:55 am
bennyB PLATINUM, Memphis, Tennessee
26 articles 0 photos 63 comments
I agree with you clasic books are better than contemporary books

on Oct. 9 2010 at 10:37 pm
Destinee BRONZE, Oakville, Other
3 articles 0 photos 306 comments

Favorite Quote:
Blegh. - Abraham Lincoln

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.

on Oct. 9 2010 at 10:34 pm
Destinee BRONZE, Oakville, Other
3 articles 0 photos 306 comments

Favorite Quote:
Blegh. - Abraham Lincoln

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".

on Oct. 9 2010 at 9:20 am
babygirlinthetardis BRONZE, Snaith, Other
1 article 1 photo 14 comments
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.

on Oct. 9 2010 at 8:21 am
falling_star DIAMOND, Stafford, Virginia
52 articles 0 photos 13 comments

Favorite Quote:
"This sh-t writes itself." --William Shakespere

Two of my all-time favorites.


on Aug. 4 2010 at 2:34 pm
beautifuldisaster18, Arlington, Texas
0 articles 1 photo 29 comments

Favorite Quote:
Keep your feet on the ground, When your head's in the clouds.

!!! I loved The Catcher in the Rye.


on Jul. 13 2010 at 9:35 am
vikesfan28 GOLD, Genoa, Nevada
14 articles 0 photos 28 comments

Favorite Quote:
I'm still a geek on the inside, that's the important thing.

-Wierd Al Yankovic

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...
on 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 reader, and want to start some classics. They are very good and not boring or dry in the beginning, middle, or end. But summer is the best time to start reading classics, in my opinion... another good time is reading them in school and showing your English teacher! :)

VarsityRider said...
on May. 20 2010 at 2:57 pm
VarsityRider, Milledgeville, Georgia
0 articles 2 photos 81 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice." - W. Shakespeare.
"Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do." - Confucius

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.

liy_g BRONZE said...
on Apr. 1 2010 at 1:05 am
liy_g BRONZE, Madera, California
1 article 0 photos 10 comments

Favorite Quote:
"You want to know someone? Heart mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get wont be the truth; i will be a story. and nothing is more telling then a story."
-'The Thirteenth Tale'

writen like a true californian =)

Boulangere said...
on 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!

on 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.

on Feb. 9 2010 at 2:12 pm
Ivagrovegirl BRONZE, Noblesville, Indiana
2 articles 0 photos 3 comments

Favorite Quote:
Everything I've ever done is out of a fear of being mediocre - Chet Atkins

thank you for this article, it is perfect. Completely correct

on Feb. 9 2010 at 12:39 pm
billiewatts BRONZE, Pickerington, Ohio
1 article 0 photos 1 comment

Favorite Quote:
"forgetting yourself is freedom, and i need to be free." -jeff mangum

classics are classics for a reason! a book doesn't have to be new for a kid to relate to it. (:

Victaria GOLD said...
on Feb. 9 2010 at 12:17 pm
Victaria GOLD, New Braunfels, Texas
14 articles 22 photos 30 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind"
-Dr. Seuss

I could not agree with you more. Ten stars! Excellently written. Probably the best writing I've seen in this section.

Evaspie BRONZE said...
on Dec. 27 2009 at 4:08 am
Evaspie BRONZE, Lewiston, Idaho
1 article 0 photos 6 comments
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!