Why Read Classics? The Eternal Question (And Only Half An Answer)

Remember high school?  I’m sure some of you will tell me it was the best four years of your life.  For the rest, you probably remember staring at that questionnaire about Lord of the Flies wondering what that rotting pig head on a spike had to do with anything.  Better yet, why are we slogging through Huckleberry Finn as if it’s some great and spectacular commentary on the United States?  Haven’t ANY books been written since The Grapes of Wrath?  Have no plays been penned since The Crucible in the 1950s?

Really, go to high school in small town USA, and you’d think publishing died in the beginning of the 20th century.  Yet a full century later, and we’re still reading the same “significant” books in high schools across the country, held up by one all important name.

The Classics

So what are these Classics?  Everyone’s got a different answer, probably.  Some people adore them!  Some folks hate them and would rather choke down charcoal seltzer water.  (Or wait, is that a hipster thing?  I can’t remember.)  Ask the dictionary, and it’s a work of art with “recognized and established value.”

Ask my high school self, and you’re likely to get something like this.

Recognized by whom and who, exactly, establishes this value?  If that’s the only qualification, anything I read and recognize has value can be a classic, right?

Oh, wait, I don’t have a PhD in BS.

Apologies to anyone with a literary PhD, but this is the reaction most high school students have to your “Classics”, and a large part of it has to do with context.

In fact, we have absolutely NO context for most of what happens in any of the books and plays that I listed above.  The closest thing to us historically is The Crucible (a commentary on McCarthyism poorly veneered as the Salem Witch Trials, if my high school work sheets are to be believed.)  And that, good readers, was in the 1950s, a good 60+ years ago.


In reading, as in life, context is everything.  Context is the frame and lens through which we view the world, and without it, there is no understanding.  As such, when you ask a young person who functions within the context of a modern world where:

  • legal slavery is not an everyday reality but a historical anecdote and an exercise for fiction writers (who are then demonized for including it at all)
  • sexism is no longer codified into enforceable law or the larger majority of society, but rather piecemealed into individuals because hey, some people happen to see the world that way
  • war is a far away and silent boogeyman that only reaches home if you know a soldier who’s been deployed
  • on-the-street poverty is that thing that happens to other people in citites somewhere else

Most high school students (even ones with pretty broke parents like mine were) don’t have the context to truly understand what’s going on in these stories because we don’t LIVE in those worlds anymore.  None of us do.  So how are we supposed to be interested in a book that talks about the major socio-political challenges of a cultural structure that doesn’t even EXIST anymore?

Make It Real; Or Rather Unreal

I confess, not everyone sees the titles I listed above as end-all-be-all Classics.  Some would much rather pick up a work such as Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and until this week, I couldn’t fathom why anyone in their right mind would want to read about stuffy Victorian England and introverted Mr. Darcy’s obnoxious ways.

Thank you, Maria Grace for setting me straight with dragons.

Yes.  Dragons.

See, this was the last minute proofread, on sale the 27th of this month, and frankly, I may actually have to read the original now!  Why?  Well, because it’s the first book in a long time that made me laugh out loud.

It’s the first book that gave me an interest in the source material, because I have a context.  See, the dragons in Mr. Darcy’s Dragon don’t hold to the same cultural norms that Victorian England does.  So I can see more clearly the differences.  I can start to understand, perhaps in a small way, the reasons for those cultural norms.  I have a context.

Like Lord of the Flies and the context of young choir boys sent off to the horrors of war and returning monstrous shadows of themselves.

It’s time we teach the context of these Classics, or integrate some sort of interest before foisting them on high schoolers.  In addition, if we want adults who are truly prepared for the world they emerge into after high school, give us some required reading that’s been published in the last ten years.


We may actually relate to it.

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