Why study the classics in contemporary classrooms?
Like most stories these days, this one begins with me mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. My cousin, an ardent music fan, had nominated me for one of those painful challenges where you are tasked with posting an image a day. In this case, the focus of this social media scam to force us to engage and divulge information about ourselves to an audience who, let’s face it, only really gives it a cursory smirk before scrolling past, was about the albums that defined your life.
Needless to say, I have spent the last 10 days on a journey back in to my mis-spent youth to share the music that has signposted my life and shaped me. It has been fun, not only getting nostalgic about the experiences for which these bands provided the soundtrack, but also hearing how music has defined the lives of my friends and co-workers.
Like music, literature has a way of signposting our lives. For many of us the mere mention of Shakespeare and we are transported to our experiences as students forced to make sense of this seemingly foreign language. For our Year 10 English students, this relationship with the big man, started this term with the introduction of our unit on The Merchant of Venice. On cue, the suggestion that we would read/view the play prompted collective groans and, in some cases, even a flash of sheer panic. When I speak with parents about what students will be studying in English, commonly they recall having studied similar texts in their own schooling. Sometimes their memories are fond. Other times they are not. The bolder parents have even challenged the choices of texts by arguing that “surely something better has been written since Shakespeare.”
But the inclusion of canonical texts, like Shakespeare, is not an indictment on the poor standard of literature today; there are magnificent works being published every year. It is a testimony to the true genius of a work, that it should stand the test of time and continue to be relevant. As an English teacher, I can appreciate Shakespeare’s language for its elegance and artistry. So many of the idioms that we say today have their origins in his works. But what really keeps us coming back is the sheer genius of his stories. Shakespeare’s works, like many of the greatest writers, speak to the very nature of who we are as humans and cuts to the quick of what drives us, amuses us, and frightens us.
Truly great stories leave us somehow changed by reading them. They shape our understandings of the world, help define our moral code and challenge us to be somehow different. Story telling has always formed an integral part of cultural identity and the perpetuation of certain “truths” but it is the impact it has on our own sense of self that is most fascinating.
Parents, exasperated by their son’s lack of interest in reading, regularly ask me what their son should read. The simple answer is… Anything. Anything that moves them, forces them stop and think, relaxes them, makes them laugh out loud, angers them at injustice in the world or pushes them to stand up and be better. The “classics” do this but so too do contemporary storytellers. As educators, our goal is to expose students to a range of stories that do all these things. While young people are often willing to engage with contemporary stories in various medium, unless prompted, they are less inclined to pick up a classic.
So, just like the tracing the music of my youth through a silly Facebook challenge, the stories we read help to signpost our life and shape our sense of selves should also be shared, liked, adorned with a cute emoji and commented on.
Here are just 10 of the great stories that have signposted my life.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
- Matilda by Roald Dahl
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
I nominate all of you to think about the stories that have shaped you. Share them with your sons and post them as a REPLY on our Facebook post of today’s blog. Feel free to use some emoji’s as well!
Head of Senior School Humanities