Some tooth-grinding on Twitter this month revived a debate that begs for side-taking among educators and writers. Since I am both, I jumped into the fray like Chuck Bednarik. The question at hand: Do classics of English-language literature still have value in the classroom? I looked on with shock as young adult authors, their fans, and no small number of educators answered in the negative, pouring venom onto grade school classics like The Great Gatsby (apparently it celebrates stalking?) and Wuthering Heights (allegedly a tale about how cool incest is), arguing they should be removed from the curriculum.
For me, this stance is both galling and difficult to understand, given some of the realities that teachers, particularly teachers in Philly, have to grapple with.
One of the most noxious circumstances that educators in urban schools have to manage is that students arrive at college unprepared for the rigors of university learning. According to a dispiriting Pew study from 2018, 17% of Philadelphians over the age of 25 have earned some credits toward a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t finish their coursework — that’s 176,000 people. Anecdotally, I hear often about students who get into high-level universities, but find themselves unfairly unequipped to tackle the coursework and transfer out.
There are plenty of reasons why this is the case. Systematic disinvestment from schools, crumbling infrastructure, poverty; they’re all part of the overall issue. But an often unaddressed aspect is that, through a combination of testing fears and concern that student experiences aren’t reflected in curriculum, we neglect content that helps students build the knowledge base necessary for college success. Many middle schools in Philly, for example, don’t offer foreign languages, and English language arts curricula get trimmed to both screw down on testing standards and make information more accessible.
Educators who root against the classics are doing so from a place of love and with an eye toward justice. It is hard for any person of moral constitution to teach in a system that has so routinely devalued the experiences, much less the art, of Black and brown Americans. It’s painful to see that some students struggle to access literature at any point because they don’t see themselves in that literature in any form. Simpler still: It can be difficult for students to grapple with circumstances they can’t understand and language that might as well be Martian in the 21st century, as you try to help them to pass tests.
But at the same time, you aren’t always supposed to see yourself exactly represented in literature. A reader — especially a developing one, or someone building a knowledge base by consuming literature in school — gains something from learning about the world and its experiences, by reading stories that are physically distant or emotionally challenging or morally opaque. We start to build a common language by consuming — and unpacking — literature of different provenance, that is disparate to our personal experiences.
English curriculum should be diverse. It should be challenging. It should highlight lives so totally different from ours that we can only see them in our mind’s eye if the writer is clever and vivid and honest.
As such, a classic isn’t a classic because it’s “old and white.” That’s a lazy and outmoded way of thinking. Grade school curriculums have comfortably included classics by Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, Black writers who develop characters with personal experiences that are radically different from, say, a random Zoomer, but who write so clearly and beautifully about the trials of human beings that it has been widely agreed these stories are vital in a society meant to be built around respect and understanding.
Shakespeare isn’t the cornerstone of English literature because of some shadowy cabal of anti-innovative English language arts villains. It’s because he, basically the first great secular writer of fiction in Western history, created ideas and themes that have been emulated for going on five centuries, and whose prose, once unlocked, reveals the unbelievable power of language.
Is there room for improvement in how we teach English, and what we choose to include in our canon? Hell yes. Decades of innovation in practice give us a pretty good strategy: keep an open mind, seek out genius — or at least, stunning novelty — and teach it with the same respect and reverence we do anything else. Listen to the voices of advocates who recognize brilliance and communication of diverse, previously neglected experience, and build on their input. Be unafraid to challenge kids with new worlds and characters and concepts and themes that are at once impossibly distant and accessible — with thought and meditation.
We educators have a habit. We sometimes tend to assume that less is more. The less content, the easier it will be for kids to grasp the meaning. The less text there is, the more subtext can be understood. But that’s wrong. More is more. Harder is better. If we want our students to be prepared for college, and the world, we should not only update our canon and curricula to hold a mirror to their experiences but hold onto classics for what they are: works of beauty that help us understand each other.
Quinn O’Callaghan is a writer and teacher in Philadelphia.