The Case for the Classics
I hated to read. My older brother began reading at four years of age. It took me until I was six. My brother wanted to read The Chronicles of Narnia by the time he entered second grade. I wanted to read Clifford Goes to Hollywood for a sixth grade book report. I fake read a lot. I listened carefully to what the teacher told us about the book and then bull----, I mean wrote wonderful analysis on the test. And on it went until the summer reading assignment of The Great Gatsby. Huh? Of all the books that a junior in high school might read, The Great Gatsby is the one that turned me into a reader.
Today, I teach English and Reading to high school students. I've questioned the need for reading many of the classics we teach--see this post/article from the Education Wonks. I've tried to balance my belief that certain texts are valuable because of their impact on society at the time of writing and my belief that many of those texts send my students into a coma.
The author Frederick Buechner says that words, whether they are written today or five hundred years ago have the power, if we allow, to change us. And that is the beginning point for how I teach the classics. It is not so much that Beowulf must be read because it is the only text to convey the heroic code, honor, loyalty, and bravery. It is, however, that Beowulf's language, if we step through it carefully, is poetic and different.
Currently, we are reading The Canterbury Tales--in a fine translation. I am reading it to them, modeling reading fluency and diction. My student have enjoyed what we've read. No, we don't read all of them, just the ones I think they'll cry or laugh at. The Miller's Tale comes to mind. It is full of depravity and tawdry humor, but still ever focused on pointing out the flaws of upperclass society and nobility.
While the truth remains that many English teachers kill great literature with stuffy criticism and neo post modernistic feminism, I believe that sometimes it is best to let the students be selfish in their reading. Forget what some professor has to say about Othello, and hear it for the passion and the truth that unfolds from characters who portray people like you and me.
You see, that is how we can make the classics less classical and more modern. Let your students hear the story; stop drowning them out with terminology and study questions. Just read it. Just react to it. Just listen to the words.