Unshelving Classic Books | TeenInk

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.

KDmusique said...
on 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 said...
on Dec. 5 2009 at 12:29 pm
Lostinbooks, Arcadia, California
0 articles 0 photos 63 comments
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.

Lostinbooks said...
on Dec. 5 2009 at 12:27 pm
Lostinbooks, Arcadia, California
0 articles 0 photos 63 comments
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 GOLD said...
on Dec. 5 2009 at 9:11 am
izz123 GOLD, Gaithersburg, Maryland
13 articles 5 photos 24 comments
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 reading, no matter what the material, so that later they could pick up some good classics? We don't want to turn children off from reading by only letting them read classics. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy reading classics. I read and cried over Uncle Tom's Cabin, and have read at least half of Agatha Christie's novels (written early in the twenthieth century) and enjoyed every word of them. But many are not like me, or most people on teen ink, in what they choose to read.

on Oct. 22 2009 at 10:48 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

Best classic ever-the Phantom of the Opera.

on Oct. 22 2009 at 10:47 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

Sweet. I love banned books. :)

on Oct. 16 2009 at 3:21 pm
FlyleafFreak DIAMOND, Loveland, Colorado
51 articles 0 photos 203 comments

Favorite Quote:
"I have faith in fools;self confidence my friends call it"~Edger Allan Poe
"In this world of infinite insanity, your friends are the best psychiatrists you will ever have."~Me

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!

on Sep. 30 2009 at 7:14 am
InkBlogger SILVER, Ruston, Louisiana
8 articles 0 photos 6 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?" - Henry David Thoreau, Walden

"A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life." - Charles Darwin

"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).

AmnyR BRONZE said...
on Sep. 8 2009 at 7:59 am
AmnyR BRONZE, Clifton, Texas
4 articles 0 photos 134 comments

Favorite Quote:
To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person, you may be the whole world. ~unknown

great article, i totally agree.

hannah=(= said...
on Aug. 15 2009 at 12:05 am
hannah=(=, Ossian, Indiana
0 articles 0 photos 23 comments
I think it all depends on what each individual sees as "classic".

on Jul. 31 2009 at 7:30 pm
AquariusSunandMoon SILVER, Sublette, Illinois
8 articles 17 photos 69 comments
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!

on Jul. 30 2009 at 6:55 pm
Abigail Gardner, Layton, Utah
0 articles 0 photos 1 comment
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 as right now in Darfur, or Sudan or the problems in Nicaragua, Cuba. They relate to the Holocaust but they are current shouldn't we read those and then maybe read the classics to get a better understanding of the situation from the previous?

** I guess I just want teens to balance their reading don't focus on known things focus on the unknown?..

Thanks, Loved your piece!

rubiesrrare said...
on 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.

on May. 3 2009 at 12:07 pm
I agree 100%

Reese said...
on Apr. 30 2009 at 11:42 pm
Reese, Laurel, Maryland
0 articles 0 photos 30 comments

Favorite Quote:
Mortimer Brewster: The name Brewster is code for Roosevelt.
Teddy Brewster: Code for Roosevelt?
Mortimer Brewster: Yes. Don't you see? Take the name Brewster, take away the B, and what have you got?
Teddy Brewster: Rooster!
Mortimer Brewster: Uh-huh. And what does a rooster do?
Teddy Brewster: Crows.
Mortimer Brewster:... It crows. And where do you hunt in Africa?
Teddy Brewster: On the veldt!
Mortimer Brewster: There you are: crows - veldt!
Teddy Brewster: Ingenious! My compliments to the boys in the code department.

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.

HOPEMVP said...
on 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.

on Apr. 26 2009 at 4:00 pm
BriarRose PLATINUM, Seneca, Illinois
24 articles 7 photos 162 comments

Favorite Quote:
I don't need a rose. I want a daisy you picked for my hair. I don't want some fancy box of chocolate. I want a pink frosting cookie you made just for me. Lets skip the upscale restaraunt and have a picnic in the park.

I absotively LOVE the clasics! Great piece, by the way.

miranda_ak said...
on 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.

on Mar. 24 2009 at 3:36 pm
Aro_To_The_Heart PLATINUM, Mandeville, Louisiana
47 articles 7 photos 49 comments

Favorite Quote:
Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than hands?

-Ernest Gaines.

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.

on Mar. 21 2009 at 6:54 pm
Jacqueline SILVER, Dayton, Ohio
7 articles 12 photos 8 comments
The classics are important, but so is teaching students to find books they enjoy reading and are able to relate to.