The answer to this question isn’t a simple yes or no. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, as I’ve noticed that we’re still having the same debate when it comes to school curriculums and literary circles. The argument seems to be stuck in this place — the classics are THE CLASSICS, and they deserve respect; versus they’re ancient and unrelatable and more boring than that weird old comment about drying paint. As a parent, a former childcare assistant, and now a library aide, and a lifelong reader and writer, I have a broad perspective on the topic.
The short of it, I feel, is: The classics are not relatable to much of Gen Z. The world they’re growing up in is SO VASTLY different from Western society even 50 years ago, and certainly 100 and 200 years ago, I really don’t see the point of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Twain being in academic curriculums right now. I’m not talking about teaching history. History has important value, and it’s often separate from literary merit.
I do believe many teachers have taken advantage of trying to combine the two subjects. But I truly don’t feel this is effective. There’s a major problem with attempting to view history through the lens of literature penned in a particular period; cultural ways and ideals shift over time, and constantly thinking of an author as prejudiced or bigoted based purely on the century or decade they were living in means many current readers find no redeeming value in their fiction.
The best English teachers I had were the ones who focused on the common threads of greatness — how certain authors portray themes and characters that resonate with all different sorts of people — while also making it clear these authors were flawed human beings.
So, if I’m insistent on temporarily removing history from teaching the classics (a tall order, I admit), which titles can we find to still have relevance and connection in this modern age?
My first thought is to replace (at least for a couple of generations) the books (with definite merit) that have simply been discussed to death. Let’s expand our list of possibilities.
Instead of To Kill a Mockingbird (which I love, by the way), how about Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which presents a broader and more contemporary conversation on slavery and racial relations.
Rather than Frankenstein to cover the fear of mortality (dark and gross and scary), let’s use Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, which has a charming, thought-provoking, and heartstring-tugging plot and characters.
Charles Dickens (one of my own favorites) and the Brontes are guaranteed to come up in any classics list. So let’s give them a well-deserved rest, and explore The Book Thief for our dose of orphans and tragedy. (Erm, sorry for saying it so plainly?)
Animal stories like Call of the Wild are frequently used to teach us more about being human. But too many of these involve pets dying, often tragically, and just traumatize readers of all ages. Can we take these out of the equation altogether for a while? Let’s all read the original Winnie the Pooh instead.
Long-suffering dystopias such as 1984 and Farenheit 451 have absolutely been succeeded by a big new crop of modern publications, The Hunger Games of course being one of the most famous. But my personal choice is Legend by Marie Lu or The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau.
Mental illness and disabilities have notoriously received terrible representation since, well, forever; so I think this is another area where we should be quite careful with selections, especially with classics. Honestly, since we’re still having issues with proper rep even in titles released in 2021, the jury of me remains out on how to address this glaring discrepancy.
What can we keep?! (I hear some of you yelling). Consider works that haven’t received as much of the spotlight — Brave New World (Huxley); Far From the Madding Crowd (Hardy); Northanger Abbey (Austen); The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde); and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens) come to mind.
And of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is an ongoing conversation that we’ll undoubtedly revisit at least once or twice more in my lifetime alone. The “next wave” of what we value as a society is nowhere near cresting. Issues that we only began approaching in literature 30 or 40 years ago are still developing (acceptance of disabilities are a definite example here). I’m sure that by my retirement, even the definition of “classics” will have altered, maybe dramatically.