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Are “The Classics” Still Important, or Simply Outdated?

It’s likely you read at least one “classic novel” if not more during your time as a high school student. At 16 years old, it is also likely you found some if not all of them to be boring and difficult to understand. Students often read famous works like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby. Some argue that these stories show how the English language has evolved or tell important lessons we can’t find anywhere else. However, what’s really so priceless about a 13-year-old girl being manipulated into a suicide pact with a man 4 years her senior? Or a man who is so delusional and obsessed with a woman he’s never met that he throws extravagant parties each night in hopes she will attend? More importantly, could it be found in a book that would keep the attention of students better?

Now, this is not to say some cannot find beauty and interest in these stories, or even that there are no classics worth teaching students about. Romeo and Juliet teaches an important lesson about unnecessary hatred and conflict in the world, and the deep effects it can have on those who are innocently involved. However timeless this lesson may be, the love Romeo and Juliet share is arguably toxic, and I think most people would advise teenagers to play the field a bit more before resorting to suicide over their first “love”. However, it is important to know who Shakespeare was, and the overall importance in having general knowledge about important historic figures and the ways that they influenced the society we live in today. The questions then become, is history class perhaps a better place to learn about Shakespeare? Likewise, is a story that glorifies the irrational decisions driven by teenage hormones the only book from which to learn about hate in the world?

Shakespeare made an important mark in history, but his relevance as a historic figure takes precedence over his stories’ relevance in modern society. The feud between the Montagues and Capulets is based on a situation in 13th century Italy, so perhaps the life lesson of their story isn’t the most relevant to the lives of a group of 11th graders. However, not all novels considered classics lack relevance in today’s society. If we leave poor Shakespeare alone for a moment and consider another commonly taught story, To Kill a Mockingbird, we can see a story with more historical relevance. Given the book was published in 1960, the language is not drastically different from the way we write today. Similarly, the story tells an important lesson about racism and hatred that is more relevant to today’s society.

The answer to whether or not classics should be taught in schools has two main points of consideration. First is how relevant the content of the book is to modern life, and how valuable this knowledge would be for young people to learn about. The second part then becomes whether or not the lesson is important enough to come at the cost of students’ attention and interest. The idea then is not to stop teaching classics altogether, but to be more selective about what is actually important when making decisions about curriculum. If the goal of English class is to teach students how to be better at reading and writing, shouldn’t materials that are going to do that best be considered first. You are never going to make every student happy. However, learning how to better communicate in the English language isn’t going to come easily from a story written in a way that requires a modern English translation next to each page. The reality is that students don’t fall in love with reading on sparknotes.com.


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