The education world is rife with conflict and disagreement; one need only look at the furor generated by the ideas of our new secretary of education if they need an affirmation of that idea. A debate that seems to rage within the halls of the institutions that I find myself frequenting is whether high school students on their way to a higher education should be required to read classic literature. Some advocates for moving away from literature argue that the relevance of such works is long gone and that it does little to prepare them for whatever challenges university life will bring them. Such arguments find no purchase with one such as I. To the contrary, I believe that lessening the focus on literature does a terrible disservice to young students.Studying literature at the high school level engenders growth in students by pushing the limits of comprehension that otherwise lie idle in complacency and providing cultural context that cannot be gleaned through other means.
The most practical virtue of the study of literature comes from the principle that resistance builds character. High school students will struggle with literature, if well taught. A high school senior will find some difficulty in unpacking the themes and deciphering the meaning of Shakespeare and Chaucer. College students studying in the English discipline struggle with such material. By introducing students to the concept of studying long-form literature at the high school level, educators build skills in much the manner that weight-lifters make gains; by pushing limits.
The central argument that seems to be presented against the teaching of literature is that a majority of students will not continue to study literature at the university level. The belief is that most will not take many English courses beyond the initial requirement of Composition and Rhetoric and therefore there is no impetus to focus on the established canon of literature that has been the backbone of English classrooms since what seems like time immemorial. District experts, at least where I have been an educator, are moving away from literature and focusing on attempting to teach the skill of analysis through excerpts, usually under a page in length. While it is possible to analyze an excerpt, and while there is nothing wrong with this practice on the whole, it also does not address skills that are lost be removing the study of established literature over a prolonged period of time. The time spent poring over the text is, in and of itself, a skill. Remembering the chronology of events, being able to map character relation, comprehension of the progression of the narrative, etc.; these are all skills that are left underdeveloped if replaced by short-form analysis.
If the only argument against the reading of literature were simply that a majority of students will not engage in in-depth study of English at the college level, that would be well and good. The skills necessary for the students who do in fact choose a liberal arts major could, in theory, be honed and perfected through practice at the college level. That flies in the face of the mission statement of high school educators to produce college ready graduates, but if we accept the idea that the study of long-form literature is the purview of upperclassmen in the back half of their undergraduate career, then allowances can be made.
However, that argument does nothing to address the fact that literature is a whetstone on which the sword of the mind can be sharpened. Did you understand that last sentence? It is a metaphor. You likely understood it because an English teacher drilled it into your head. Probably during high school. Page long excerpts can teach the concept of literary devices and, yes, one can analyze them. But it is unlikely, in my humble opinion, that any educator worth their salt would call a one-page excerpt challenging or rigorous to the degree that a developing mind requires. The prolonged study of literature is a study skill that builds academic endurance. Attempting to replicate that skill with truncated excerpts is the same as trying to attain the build of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson using one pound barbells. It just does not work.
Another element of studying established, classic literature over a substantial period of time that cannot be discounted is the concept of cultural relevance. Advocates for moving away from the study of literature say that the window of relevance for the established canon is passed and our focus going forward should largely be repetition of basic skills utilizing shorter, targeted texts. By doing this, we do a disservice to the students by robbing them of cultural touchstones. When you feed excerpts and short-form literature to high school students what you do is devalue the content of the writing. How can a student reasonably be expected to retain the information and the meaning behind the myriad excerpts they’ve been force-fed over thirty six instructional weeks? Contrast that to teaching four major works each year, wherein they are expected to make connections between them over the course of the instructional year; teaching in this way teaches that what we engage in has value beyond the idea of simply learning a simple skill. Show a student that literature is applicable and they will reap the rewards.
Perhaps I am just a bitter high school teacher, but the arguments for literature far outweigh the arguments against. Those seeking to replace it from the curriculum appear to be reactionary, recoiling in fear from the rising tide of low test scores and declining graduation rates. The solution is not to cut corners. The solution is to stand firm.