The Case Against Classics in High Schools

I HATED classic books in high school. (Ironic since English was my best subject.) They were long, tedious, and boring. I did read most of them anyway (confession though, I never read The Scarlet Letter and completely faked that entire paper, sorry WK!). I didn’t care that water was a symbol in The Awakening (for the record I still don’t know what it symbolizes because no one ever told me, we just kept saying “water is a symbol!” without ever explaining it). I didn’t care about the symbols or motifs or literally anything else because, for the most part, I didn’t understand them.

That is exactly why I think high school students should be reading more than classics. I won’t say to get rid of all classic literature altogether because I think that’s a narrow view that isn’t necessarily what I want to promote. I want to open up a discussion here about not applying them so liberally and adding Young Adult (YA) literature to the curriculum.

Classics were written for adults. They weren’t designed for high school students, they’re dense with often obsolete or difficult vocabulary. They’re books that professors can read and teach 150 times and still notice something obscure about a symbol or interpretation. That’s pretty great for adults in college or adults or even adults. But I don’t think your average high school student is an adult quite yet.

I’ve learned significantly more about classic works I studied in college. Some of them are the same ones I studied in high school. I understand many more nuances because in high school I just didn’t have the proper abilities to analyze things so far above my reading level. For real though, we’re asking students to analyze The Great Gatsby when they may have just finished reading something like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Bless the teachers who try to make sense of 1984 to a room of 16 year olds. Yeah, it has significance but you know what else is significant? The Hunger Games. It’s also a dystopian novel with an overbearing government using extreme methods to control the population. The difference is that 1984 was written for adults and The Hunger Games was written for high-schoolers. I know that at the time of writing many classic works there wasn’t a YA genre but hey, it exists now and we should take full advantage of that.

There’s an argument that YA literature is somehow “not challenging enough” or that it’s “not really literature” in the same way classics are. The former is part of my point: I needed something less challenging in high school. I was not a slacker. I was an A student in most of my courses. I did my work and tried but I still didn’t understand a lot of what we analyzed in classic literature. It was too challenging for me and many of my peers. We made stuff up all the time and I guarantee that students are still doing it. And it wasn’t the C students complaining loudly before class about not “getting anything” out of the reading/worksheets. These were the A students, the smart kids, the people who got 114% in each of their classes. So instead of understanding how to analyze a book, we learned how to fake analysis. Just repeat the teacher’s words in a different way and maybe throw in something about how the color of the curtains was significant. Done.

The year I graduated from high school a generous person or group donated a classroom set of The Hunger Games (which would explain why I’ve been using it as an example here). As far as I heard from one of my teachers, that set was for the advanced English classes. At least it’s a start. Or WAS a start because I messaged one of my English teachers and to their knowledge the set was no longer in use.

I definitely learned about analysis in high school but I feel like I missed out on a lot. By the time I grasped a concept we were done with the book, speeding through at a pace I could never hope to sustain at my level of understanding. When things finally clicked later on I could actually start to appreciate the classic works. I still don’t like the majority of them but at least I can articulate why now.

The most important thing, to me, that education should do is teach how to think critically. Once you can do that then you can learn anything on your own. Analysis of books on your own, thinking about the media you’re consuming, is incredibly important to raise an educated society that doesn’t rely on someone else to straight up tell them what the water symbolized in The Awakening. They should be able to eventually articulate that on their own. Forcing someone to study something beyond their capabilities isn’t productive. It simply teaches them, as I was taught, to hate and resent the material.

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