Posted on the Squeetus Blog August 02, 2006 09:00 AM PST.

The belief that you should only teach the classics in high school is an assumption that has been, in my experience, largely unquestioned since before my parents went to school. I think that assumption is faulty. But I'm afraid I'm being a tad misunderstood from my last post, so I need to clarify.

If I said that NO classics should be taught in high school, that would be just as bad as the declaration that ONLY classics should be taught. The classics are the classics for a reason, and exposing kids to that area of literature is a worthy endeavor. Of course many young adults will love those books. In my current personal reading, I devour all kinds of books, including some classics (I recently read the Iliad, reread some Austen, and am pleasure reading The Tempest right now, along with the graphic novel Invincible). What I vehemently disagree with is that only one type of literature is being taught in most high schools (specifically in grades 10-12). That's stifling and creates some unwanted effects, such as a HUGE percentage of teens stopping reading of any kind as soon as they graduate.

For me, one of the main reasons to even have literature is because it creates options. Reading about different people, different situations, different words and places and emotions, creates new worlds of possibilities for the reader. The argument, "Teach the classics in high school and let kids read whatever they want on their own" is seriously problematic. Many teens don't have time to read during the school year outside of class or have any inclination. For many teens, their only exposure to books of any kind is what they're assigned. According to a recent study, reluctant readers cited their English teachers as their number one source of book recommendations. If we offer more types of books in class, more teens will find a genre they love and continue to read on their own after school and after high school.

I think it's a valid argument to say that a kid might like a book if she picks it up on her own but be prejudiced against it when it's assigned. However, I've spoken with many teachers who have had miserable success trying to interest their class in Steinbeck or Hemingway, Chaucer or Hawthorne, but when they offered a well-written young adult novel, the number of kids who finished it rose from 30% to 90% and the discussion became exciting. I don't poo-poo the classics because they're too hard for teens to read (though that can often be the case and should be considered), but because they were written in different times, for adults, and are often irrelevant to a teen's life today. Why should they care about many of these books? I think a carefully selected curriculm including some classics as well as other genres and young adult books would make a dramatic change in high school English classes.

So that you know where I'm coming from, I looked over all the assigned books from my years in high school English and here's what I found:

  • every single story was generally depressing and ended badly (except the Odyssey and Dickens)
  • not a one was humorous (of Shakespeare, we only studied the tragedies)
  • 95% were written by white men from the US or Great Britain
  • not a one could be considered any genre (i.e. horror, sci fi, fantasy, children's, mystery, detective, adventure, thriller...)
  • not a one was written for teens or had a teen main character

Aren't there stunning works of literature that are also funny? Or have pictures? Or tell a crackin' good story? Or send the heroine on a wild adventure? Or involve romance? Or have been written in the past 20 years? Or include one or more dragons (why not)? Academia's refusal to allow any genres into the canon is getting tired.

The books assigned for or read in elementary and junior high schools tend to be broad and wonderful. Colleges are getting MUCH better, offering courses on contemporary literature or horror literature or graphic novels or whatever sparks the professor's fancy. But high schools are way behind. I do not blame the English teachers, not in the least. They work so hard and face incredible odds. This is a complicated issue that involves principals, those who set curriculm at the district level, irrate parents who complain if their children aren't reading the same books they were taught in high school, and a myriad of other obstacles. It will take time to change. But I truly, truly hope it will. Slowly. Book by book.

Someone asked what books I would put on a high school curriculm. Here's my stab at it.

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