The Case for Classics: Why They Are Relevant in a High School Curriculum

The new classics section of the author’s high school library.

In late June, when regular classes had ended and our students were in the midst of finals week, I began a light weeding of the fiction collection in our high school library. More than once, I came across a classic like Willa Cather’s My Antonia sitting on a shelf next to a contemporary romance or young adult dystopian thriller. Each of these genres has its merits, but it had always struck me as odd for them to be organized in a way where they were all mixed together. So I took on the project of pulling each classic work of fiction and creating two separate bookcases for them.

During this strenuous reorganization, I contemplated the role classics play within the high school curriculum, and the definition of what makes a book a classic. When I was in library school, I wrote my thesis on the portrayal of immigrant Latinos in contemporary young adult literature. The value of promoting diverse books is indisputable; widening the range of what we label classics is part of that. During my reshelving, I included works by renowned authors of various backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. I also had to remind myself why some of the titles, many written by white males, were still relevant in our modern world. Even though people have criticized the canon for not being inclusive, there is still value in many of these brilliant books. In a 2014 New York Times Book Review article, Daniel Mendelsohn states, “the traditional canon. . .is, in fact, good for you. It provides invaluable insight into the thinking in the past that has helped form the present.” He goes on to point out that because readers today are made up largely of a worldwide digital audience, their interactions with literature is a big part of how books are interpreted in modern society. Even those books that contain chauvinistic or racist views present an opportunity for students to understand the damaging ideas that exist in the context of literature of the past.

The conclusions I came to during the long, quiet hours of book shifting were:

  1. A classic is any book that is infused with universal themes and speaks loudly to all humanity through superior prose, and
  2. There is a beauty that exists in the traditional classics that comes partly from the absence of technology and social media in their pages, and partly from the sheer power that these authors give to words.

I recently started a podcast with my 16-year-old daughter in which we discuss books that have been adapted to movies. In two of our earliest episodes we talked about A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. While we both saw some positives in the movies, we agreed that the books far outshined the screen versions. Today’s children grow up with images constantly presented to them. Books written before technology exploded use the strength of words to convey their messages. These authors demonstrate how poignant language can be, without any gadgets or gimmicks attached. This is not to diminish the value of contemporary books that use technology to engage teens in exciting plots and important moral issues. The key is to balance these two different, but equally crucial, elements of teenagers’ reading curriculums.

Which leads to another question that my weeding produced: How can we, as librarians and educators, combine the beauty of classics with the freshness and dynamism of modern novels? One idea is to pair classics with contemporary works that were inspired by them. Not only will this make reading curriculums more balanced, but it will also show teens that great writing moves people to respond by exploring similar issues using their own perspectives. Some possible combinations are: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Winters by Lisa Gabriele; and The Odyssey by Homer and Circe by Madeline Miller. If teachers are unable to incorporate these modern books into their classroom reading assignments, then as librarians, we can promote them ourselves. By doing this, we are teaching teenagers that literature is not stagnant, but is a moving, flowing entity. No matter what shelves the classics exist on, they have the power to create dialogues that span centuries, and keep critical thinking and intellectual interaction alive.

Author: Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg is one of the library media specialists at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal and Woodbury Magazine. She co-hosts Bookscreenz Podcast with her daughter, Annabelle. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, the beach, and spending time with her husband, three children, and dog.



Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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4 replies

  1. The pictures one can see with their mind’s eye are far more vivid when one has an imagination enriched by exposure to books of all types. I undertook a listening marathon of Harry Potter in 2005 of every book on CD at the time. Some of them had 26! The movies were tame in comparison. Creative shelving and thematic marketing is a wonderful way to go.

  2. Thematic marketing, yes, but thematic shelving???? If My Antonio is on a shelf that is obviously dusty and shelved with all those other obviously old books with their faded spines and unrecognized titles, no student is going to accidentally stumble on it.

  3. I am a strong advocate of children learning about the words that authors use to help their readers understand touch, tastes, sights, sounds, and smells in their writings. Uses of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are prime examples of an author that does it so beautifully. Taking exerts from books with descriptions can help young children learn to depend on words to make a vision within their minds instead of an illustrators’ depictions of the story.

  4. Thank you for launching this conversation, Karin. Another collection development exercise is to analyze “the classics” on our shelves for diverse worldviews. The Common Core State Standards offer (classic) “exemplars” at each grade level, yet there is a dearth of diversity in those titles.

    Pairing classics with global literature is another strategy that supports readers in exploring universal themes.

    To help educators think more globally about literature, the team of educators at Worlds of Words created book lists paired by theme and complexity with the Common Core exemplars. (This list will be updated as new books are published to provide a resource for educators searching for ways to globalize their classrooms and libraries.)

    Check it out at: https://wowlit.org/links/globalizing-common-core-reading-list/

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