Lately, I’ve been reflecting on an English class where my assignment was to analyze some of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems. The first one wasn’t bad, but the more often I read them the more tired of them I became. His writing wasn’t bad, in truth, it was pretty good. It was the point of view that was tiring. Each time, without fail, the main character was a white man, and if there were a secondary character, they would also be a white man. Identical identities and struggles were represented each time. There was nothing new to learn and I couldn’t connect with any part of the writing. Reading all of these stories felt completely pointless. While there are so many beautiful identities that they can’t all possibly be represented in a single poem, it’s not fair to anyone to only chose to consistently show one when there are so many others out there.
Don’t get me wrong, classics can be beneficial — showing different types of writing styles and conflicts. But one thing that they don’t have is different identities. Throughout school, people learn important skills. No, I’m not just talking about math and science. I’m talking about empathy and kindness. How are you supposed to show empathy for a group of people that you never learn about? In school, the general assumption is that you learn about significant things and people. So, if you don’t learn about something in school, it must not be as relevant. The issue with that mindset and with our current curriculum is that not everything important is included. So many people’s stories aren’t told. Education is power, and the more we know about people the more understanding we can be toward them.
It’s time to stop emphasizing classics and start emphasizing diverse books. It feels like the majority of the books I read are all dominated by white men and the struggles they go through. An article from The Stanford Daily says that in one student’s case,” …even on the rare occasions BIPOC authors were included in the curriculum, they were confined to the summer reading and only a couple days would be spent analyzing and discussing them. On the other hand, weeks and months would be spent reading and analyzing ‘the same old, tired ‘classics’ that don’t represent the people, time or experience of its audience.’” Let’s diversify our lessons and make everyone feel represented. You’d be surprised at the difference seeing yourself in something you’re passionate about can make.
I read a really interesting article by Tricia Ebarvia called How Inclusive is Your Literacy Classroom Really? In the article, she talks about assimilation and not seeing herself in the stories she learned about. One thing that stood out to me was the eight questions she left at the end to help teachers understand whether or not they’re being inclusive. These questions are:
- How inclusive is the media you consume, personally and professionally?
- How inclusive is your curriculum?
- How inclusive is your classroom library?
- How inclusive are your mentor texts for writing?
- How often do you use gendered versus non-gendered language?
- How equitable are your student discussions? In what ways do you ensure all student voices are heard?
- How often do you show (think aloud) inclusive thinking when discussing your decisions and responses to texts?
- In what ways—and how often—do you and your colleagues reflect on your practices to ensure all voices are recognized and respected?
In the article, she also has more questions to go further in-depth into each of these topics. While I’m not a teacher and I can’t answer all of these questions exactly as they were meant to be received, I can think about the impact of these questions on the lessons I’m learning. Teachers aren’t doing badly with most of these, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s definitely not, but there are steps we can take to make things better.
In The Chicago Tribune, they made a helpful suggestion about something we can do.
“For example, a discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird opened with questions about why the book is widely taught: ‘For what reasons might teachers include this text in their curriculum? What is the value in teaching this text? Do you have to teach this text — why?’” Simply by asking questions like these and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, we can begin to make things right.
Yes, the classics have been taught for ages. Yes, they can be great books. Yes, they can be helpful to read and analyze. But who are we leaving out? Are there other books that teach the same things but showcase different identities? I guarantee you there are.
To end this blog post, I don’t want to leave anyone feeling hopeless or like they don’t know where to start. So, here are some resources to look into alternatives to classics:
- 6 Books to Read Instead of or in Addition to the Classic Novel
- 7 Classic Books You Can Skip Reading
- 20 Books Poised to Become Modern Classics
- Disrupt Texts
- Our own Writing Center graduate, Sydney Cunningham’s Uncovered Classroom
Good luck and know that I, along with the rest of the Writing Center, believe in you.
5 thoughts on “Are Classics Always the Answer? ”
The lack of representation in books that are used in high schools, as well as middle and elementary schools is astonishing. In my own experience, the classic books I’ve read for school had little to no relevance to modern issues or situations.
This blog post is incredibly insightful. I felt relieved after reading because the specifics described in this post helped to put into words how I’ve always felt about being taught classic literature. I relate to the ideas of only consuming one type of identity – affecting your ability to connect with others who might not directly be the same as you. This blog post positively challenges the ideas we’ve learned in English classes throughout our educational careers and I think everyone should read it.
In my English class, I analyzed Edgar Allen Poe also. It’s only after reading this blog post that I realize how right you are. Looking back on every poem of his we read, and all of the classics that I can think of, there is such a similar structure as you mentioned. I think it is really important that you put this topic into light, as calling out problems in a system is the only way to change them. I really like how you included multiple resources that teachers or other people can use to make what the teach and read to be more inclusive and moving for everyone.
I love this take on classics, I totally agree with your narrative and ideas about how we only learn about a certain type of person that looks a certain way. I can relate to your experiences in my classes, as we’ve read “Of mice and men,” “The Veldt,” and other classics that generally are centered around white men, or white families. These classics often depict women and people of color as lesser or weaker than their white male counterparts. I think that it is imperative that we begin and continue to use mentor texts and texts that include people of all races, gender and sexualities.
I feel as if that many of the so called “classics” cannot be let go by many teachers, and this is one of the roots of this problem. They rely on these stories to shape their teachings and curriculum, and ultimately spread themes and messages throughout the course. It has worked for many years, but is it really still the standard? If educators cannot look in the mirror or take the time to rethink their material, how will we progress?