Classic literature teaches valuable life skills and encourages students to ‘examine what they believe’


Patricia Yadao, Artistic Editor

When a high school student thinks of classic literature, it usually consists of confusing words, far too small fonts to read, endless pages meant to be used as a pillow to sleep on and works written by too many dead white men. So what good is trying to teach classic literature in today’s classrooms when students — too often bored and disinterested — are generally criticized to have the attention span of a goldfish?

“I know a lot of students grow skeptical when discussing classics,” said BC alumna Natalia Rocco, a freshman at University of San Francisco who did her senior project on the benefits of reading literature. “I always hear ‘this is red because the author simply liked red, not because it had a deeper meaning.’”

A classic merits lasting acclaim and is usually considered representative of the historical period in which the novel was written. The classic novels that are passed down through school libraries throughout generations gain their prestigious “classic” status by withstanding the test of time.

“Why wouldn’t you want to read anything but the best things that are written in your language?” English teacher Lynda Farrar asked. “We want students to be exposed to good literature and to good examples of writing because the better material you can read, the better you can write.”

Some of the most beloved books in American literature were initially attacked by critics, receiving mediocre ratings at best upon publication. Critics are tasked with determining if a book is worth the reader’s time to invest.

“Critics see themselves as the gatekeepers to literary prosperity, so when unworthy aspirants approach they need to be forcibly barred from the premises,” Sam Sacks said in his article entitled “Cannon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics.” “The only time the classics can expect to find peace is when the dreaded day comes that nobody is reading them.”

For example “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt was seen as a failure in the eyes of some top reviewers, but nevertheless, earned the 2014 Pulitzer prize for fiction. Reviewers initially gave the works of many talented writers the cold shoulder. Originally, Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby” was panned by critics as “obviously unimportant” and it wasn’t until after his death that the novel was re-evaluated and re-issued. It has never been out of print since.

The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature defines a “classic novel” as one that includes a “well-crafted plot; a sharp, clear setting that gives a sense of place, period, time and feeling; fully developed characterizations; natural dialogue appropriate to the characters; a logically developed theme; and accuracy that lends authenticity to the whole.”

“I remember reading Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ last summer and it’s a romance novel,” senior Haley Pfeifer said. “We learn that in a relationship guys can depend on girls too and girls shouldn’t succumb to social norms and you should step up for who you are.”

“I like ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ because it teaches me to stay young at heart since it’s about a little boy,” junior Katie Biddle said.

Classic novels each carry unique shades of universal appeal within their pages that touch on the most basic of emotional responses of certain relatable themes which pull on a reader’s heart strings. The appeal of classical literature leads to a discovery of influences from other writers and allows the reader to visit a wide variety cultures and time periods that are impossible to experience in modern times. A classic usually is beautifully written and conveys some form of artistic quality: an expression of life, truth, and beauty.

“Literature challenges students to examine what they believe,” Joan Ryan said, in her column entitled “Life Lessons on the Living Room Shelf.” “Reading the classics may not guarantee you a good job, but it can help make some sense of the world around you.”

Perhaps these pieces of classic literature are the essential learning tools that continually shape the modern world’s perception of values. However, as Common Core takes over as the new standard in education, many teachers argue that works of fiction are not as essential to high school education as basic skills such as reading for information, writing and math skills.

“I feel as if many students don’t fully understand the importance of classics,” Rocco said. “Classics are a great way to help us analyze and comprehend text, but also gives us, the reader, a broader view of society — it’s not just about memorizing what this or that means, it’s about how you apply these lessons to your life.”