Teaching classic literature as the focus of a language curriculum for high school is an issue that has enjoyed considerable attention. Some critics feel that there is little purpose in focusing on ancient works of literature when attempting to cultivate a love of reading in children. Others again feel that an important part of human history and culture is lost when these works are ignored. According to the latter group, the way in which literature is taught determined whether it is useful or not, rather than the content of the literature as such. An argument stemming from the same basis relates to some negativity towards the way in which classics are taught. Some critics claim that authors such as Shakespeare are being used to further dogmatic political goals. These views will be examined to determine whether using the classics as a focus for language education is a valid educational tool.
Arguments for the Classics in the Classroom
The argument raised by Stevenson is for teaching the classics as a vehicle towards ancient human culture, thus contributing to the learning experience beyond the language itself. The main problem with teaching literature, as explained by the author, is that the subject is not based on the intellect, but mainly upon imagination and taste. Thus, to impart the qualities aimed for by a specific author of classic literature, a large amount of work is required of teachers. Furthermore textbooks handed out to students are dull and boring, detracting from the taste that students might develop for classic literature.
Stevenson cites the above problems to demonstrate the importance of teaching classic literature in an adequate and appreciative way. Classic literature is important, but the way in which it is taught does not reflect this, and this, according to the author, is why so many are against teaching the classics in school. For Stevenson, classic literature offers the reader a "living truth," that is worth the effort to decipher. The problem lies in the inadequate resources offered to both teachers and students. Indeed, literature is to be taught in an imaginative way, in order to stimulate young imaginations. This is the true purpose of classic literature. It is because this purpose is not recognized nor fulfilled, according to Stevenson, that so many have discarded the classics as unimportant and irrelevant to young lives.
Kern agrees with the fact that classic literature should be used as a focus to connect a student's mind with the beauty of the human soul. The imagination that is to be stimulated within each student is the same imagination used to create the works of classical literature. Not teaching this kind of literature then, according to this author, would represent a loss to education and to the English language. Kern calls this the development of the "intellectual virtues." This is a quality that develops the intellect to a point where students are better able to deal with all elements of life, including facts, ideas, relationships and other human beings. Another element of learning through classical literature that Kern mentions is poetic knowledge. By this is meant the learning experience that occurs during the reading process. This is a knowledge that is deeper than mere intellectual learning.
Indeed, the intuitive knowledge cultivated by reading a work of classic literature endows the student with a deeper wisdom than other, more pragmatic subjects. This, according to Kern, is why teaching classical literature is of such primary importance in language teaching. Like Stevenson, Kern believes that the classics offer more than a number of archaic expressions and situations that students fail to understand. When understanding is cultivated in an adequate way, as suggested by Stevenson, then intellectual virtue and poetic knowledge will lead to a deeper and more effective expression of humanity that students will retain for a lifetime. Of course, this will take much more effort than providing students with substandard textbooks and hastily prepared, dull lessons. When done correctly, the classics can cultivate not only a love for reading, but also a love for humanity in oneself and others.
According to Cowan, it is therefore of fundamental importance to begin teaching the classics as early as possible. She advocates the paradigm of offering to children material that is at a level beyond their intellectual grasp, but that can yet touch them on a deeper level with the beauty of its rhythm and sound. These are qualities that children learn to distinguish long before developing speech, and this is the quality in classical literature that Cowan stresses for its value.
In terms of the classroom, Cowan emphasizes that having cultivated children's minds with the beauty of the classics in their early years, helps to cultivate their critical faculties in terms of classical literature. This is brought into the classroom, and enables the student to learn from what is being read on both and intellectual and intuitive level. As Stevenson emphasizes however, much of this learning occurs as a result of treating the text correctly in the classroom.
Arguments against the Classics in the Classroom
While the above critics present strong arguments for using classic literature in the classroom setting, other critics counter with equally strong views. Michelle La Vigne for example stages herself vehemently on the opposite side of teaching classical literature in the classroom. Her main reason for this is the fact that the subject matter of such books as The Scarlet Letter and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is too far removed from the reality of students sharing the classroom to make the impacts described above. The students in other words fail to identify with the worlds presented in these books. They are thus not taught a love for literature, but rather given an incentive for taking the quickest way possible to accomplish the minimum work required to finish the course.
Furthermore, Ms. La Vigne questions the value of literature that does not address students' concerns and lives directly. Regarding the "intellectual virtue" issue mentioned above, La Vigne has her doubts whether classical literature can indeed be endowed with the power of changing a human being, or an intellect that is not in the first place prone to such change. Thus, she proposes a modification of the curriculum towards a canon of reading from a more modern pool of writers. Indeed, the author persists that the term "classic" itself is at best arbitrary, and that the traditional classics should not dictate what is good and inferior literature. Instead, she suggests letting students read works that contain events that they can learn from, and that thus will cultivate in them the love of reading and the critical faculties mentioned by the above proponents of classical literature. The argument that the author therefore makes is not against reading, but rather against using the classics as a basis for reading because they are labeled as classics, and for no better reason than that.
Critics such as Paul Cantor on the other hand view teaching classics from a much more sinister point-of-view. According to this author, works such as those by Shakespeare are too often used for purely political and dogmatic purposes. Once again the author's problems is with the way in which Shakespeare's work is being taught rather than with the fact that it is taught at all. The author claims that the classics are being used to attack the cultural heritage of students, rather than to help them develop the critical faculties mentioned above. In this way radical professors have found a way to subtly insinuate their views into the curriculum.
While new approaches to teaching classical words are laudable, Cantor warns against insinuating individualistic dogma or political goals into the teaching of these works. This defeats the purpose as initially stated, to develop critical faculties and intellectual intuition in students. When used in the way claimed by Cantor, this literature serves only to indoctrinate and oppress. When used for these purposes, Cantor suggests that the classics can be a destructive rather than a constructive force in the curriculum.
Reading, as stated by the critics above, is very much a matter of personal choice. While some enjoy the archaism in the classics by Shakespeare and Homer, others enjoy reading about contemporary issues affecting the youth of today. In a school curriculum, it is unfortunate that the choice is never with the students, but often rests on the shoulders of one teacher with a single set of ideals, likes and dislikes.
I do believe that the classics have considerable value in terms of culture and humanity. Any worthy work of literature is something that can cultivate both intellectual virtue and poetic knowledge (Kern). Developing these faculties however is not the soul domain of the classics. I therefore believe that a school curriculum should mainly incorporate works that address students' concerns directly (La Vigne). It should be kept in mind that not all students were taught the beauty of rhythm and sound by means of the classics from childhood. In today's heterogeneous society, students from a…
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