English teachers and librarians frequently lament the disinclination their students feel toward classic literature-specifically, anything written before the twentieth century. Not only, do they believe, that today’s young adults need the short-snappy-immediate prose (if one can call it thus) of cell phone texts, but they will no longer read classic literature on their own, for pleasure’s sake, unless it’s assigned-and even then, teachers are forced to test against Cliffs Notes and scan for the internet for proof of plagiarized papers. With random predictions forecasting the doom of paper and the downfall of traditional libraries, is it a waste of time to subject teens to the likes of Homer and other historic authors during this Information Age when bite-sized information is the rule of the day?
For many students, who do not hesitate to complain, the language of past writers is too hard. Since people no longer speak or write the way Shakespeare and Jane Austen did, it makes little sense for them to study these archaic modes of communication. After all, they could be developing Power Point presentations which will surely be something more relevant to their futures. Of course, the “too hard” theory is something English teachers should never succumb to or accept when they rush to defend centuries-old literature. The vast majority of students may not go on to become experts in Medieval Literature, but they can each benefit from the self-discipline a reading of Othello, Beowulf, or Crime and Punishment provides.
Though surely, self-discipline is a timeless trait that goes beyond a study of English Literature; it could be gotten from a myriad of other disciplines such as Geometry, Computer Programming, Graphic Design, etc… So, getting to the question of relativity-are works of classic literature still relevant to high school students today when, as statistics show, they are reading record-breaking modern texts like Harry Potter and the Twilight series? And certainly people around the world (and we may as well talk globally in this day and age) are reading the 175,000 books that publishers are publishing annually; they certainly wouldn’t be publishing books of any sort if no one bought them.
A portion of these 175,000 published books are paperbacks-reprints of successful books, many of which happen to be classics (at least for now). But rather than veer into the virtual world of statistics, it may be insightful to revisit some classics to check out their value first hand, or at least through the lens of this article. The following classics continue to be relevant in terms of content and more to people today.
Moby Dickby Herman Melville symbolizes the dread of teens stuck in American Literature classes everywhere. Why, when none of them are like to go a-whaling should they spend weeks reading and discussing this particular work that seems so far removed from their contemporary lives. There could be a discussion of why the novel is singularly important to the foundation of American Literature, but the simple relevance the novel has can be summed up as a study of good and evil, humankind’s relationship with nature, and the need to interact successfully with fellow mankind. Its themes are timeless and no one has yet to convey them as profoundly as Melville did with this particular work.
In 1995 South Carolina-born Susan Smith was convicted of murdering her three-year-old and fourteen-month -old sons by strapping them in the backseat of a car and driving to a ramp on a lake where she released the brake and watched as the car deliberately plunged into the water with her children and sank. Theories for the horrendous murders abounded, but a murderous discontent and a new man were in part of her life at the time of the incident. In 431 B.C. the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides first produced the drama Medea. The character of Medea does the unthinkable-she kills her own children to rob her cheating husband of his offspring. Horror, in its inexplicable guises, is still a part of human civilization and how much better to plummet its motivations than within the harmless pages of a book? And why not begin at the beginning of Western Literature with a poet who catalogued human motivation like no one else.
Teen pregnancy is not a new concept; had you asked Thomas Hardy in the late nineteenth century he could tell you all about Tess and how a youthful indiscretion resulted in pregnancy which indirectly led to her own untimely death. Nor is Hardy’s text an indictment against promiscuity; indeed, he favored Tess among all his classic heroines. Instead, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, written at the end of the Victorian era, is an indictment against society, religion, and the people in Tess’s life who shunned her with their morality, a shunning which resulted in her downfall. It’s true the Victorians, even the late Victorians like Hardy, tended to be verbose and employ the English vocabulary on a grand scale, but little can rival the power of Hardy’s heroine except, perhaps, Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote a little American tale of his own fallen woman titled The Scarlet Letter. Should teen girls be thinking about the ramifications of unplanned pregnancy in the twenty-first century? Millions are spent on educating them; there’s no reason that Hardy and Hawthorne couldn’t help.
But before this examination turns into a discussion of fallen literary women, consider the relativity of a character like Homer’s Achilles who appears in the Iliad. Forget the fact that he’s the son of a goddess (Thetis, Greek goddess of the Sea); today’s fantasy-fed, vampire-loving teens will swallow that anyway. Achilles is a warrior sent to Troy to fight in the ten-year conflict it took to win back Helen, the Angelina Jolie of the ancient world. Achilles, in his grief over a fallen comrade, breaks the rules of warfare and damages his own sense of honor. With America currently at war in multiple locations, a study of Achilles is not only relevant, but possibly essential and possibly it always will be so long as peace remains an elusive state.
Luckily ancient Greek texts of the Iliad are adapted into English, but persnickety English teachers still require students to read Shakespeare in its original form. Its true writers no longer write in iambic pentameter, except by chance and even then it goes unnoticed, but the Bard’s characters are as relative today as they ever were. For example, King Lear raises a passel of ungrateful daughters. Loyalty, treachery, villainy, loves-these are often at the heart of Shakespeare’s plays and they never go out of style despite the language barrier. Once students get a handle on the language, more times than not, they become fascinated at the connection they have to history through this language and how the characters remind them of themselves and others.
And perhaps it comes down to that-the reading of others, others who have, thus far, stood the test of time. When teens read and discuss characters they make judgments that could and probably will influence their own judgments as adults. There are many quips and quotations that warn of the failure to understand history like those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it. Classic literature is relevant because it offers the opportunity for readers to empathize in depth, understand at length, and tune out of their own universe for a while. Tuning out of technology can bring calm, discipline, and refreshment to minds that seem to be born to multitask. Certainly one can cry out the modern relevance of a slew of classics from Pride and Prejudice to Moby Dick. Until kids develop their own taste for literature, it could be the situation could be likened to eating their vegetables-they need to do it because it’s good for them.
2011 Moira G Gallaga