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In Which I Reiterate The Experience And Context Issue

A photo of the Oxford University Classics editions of Persuasion, Sense And Sensibility, and Pride And Prejudice

I had the most amazing English teacher. Once, when we were watching an adaptation, she paused the video, telling us to look at the brooding eyes of the handsome actor. I think she realised we weren’t really watching. On my last day of school I told her that my dreams were just dreams and she told me that I shouldn’t let go of them.

But it was her unapologetic admission in class that made her memorable to me. The inevitable day came when a student asked how we could be so sure an author had meant to say such-and-such through their book, how we could know for certain that what we were being taught was correct. Our teacher simply said we didn’t, and that we could only ever assume and suppose, no matter what other teachers said. Our future classes were better for it.

At that age it was impossible to truly appreciate that what you were being taught was the result of many years and many opinions – the compilation of the studies undertaken by those who have gone before us and who know the text better than we do, maybe better than we ever will. Indeed in my case it was only through blogging – studying the texts for myself and for discussion – that I came to recognise themes and hidden meanings. And maybe we can’t say for certain that we are right, but we can say we’re pretty damn close.

It’s interesting, and I think this applies whether you’re actively writing about books or not, how we mature in our interpretations to see all those meanings. In this way it’s sad that so many classics are introduced to people at school, before they are old enough to truly understand them, because they might then miss the wonders that dissecting a text, for study or leisure, can bring. I know that my writing here surpasses anything I ever thought at 15 years of age, simply because I know more about the world.

And it’s this, our knowledge, that allows us to understand themes, and see what our teachers saw in the books. We can know we’re right about being a theme in Rebecca because we can empathise with the heroine’s need for love and to fit in. We can understand why Jane Austen’s work doesn’t require a lot of action because we can appreciate the social context in which she was writing.

Knowledge is important, but even more than that, surely caring is paramount, too. We can know a lot of facts but if we don’t care about them, we won’t be inclined to study and again I think that’s what can set us apart from our younger years. I’m looking at this from one, biased, perspective of course; in my ‘time’ in my year group there were no passionate advocates of literature (or if there were they were silent about it), we were yet to reach the appropriate maturity, and I know that grades were everything, the actual lesson of no lasting importance.

How reflective of your own experiences is this? What do you think about the teaching of classics at school?



June 23, 2014, 4:09 am

I think it’s a waste of time trying to teach classic novels to bored teenagers. There are more appropriate books around these days; books school students will actually enjoy and still be able to analyse and make meaning of. Classics are best read when we’re ready for them.


June 23, 2014, 10:05 am

I only remember studying Shakespeare, An Inspector Calls and Of Mice and Men at school, and surprisingly I still love them now. I am glad I never studied Austen etc.. as I feel I read all of them at the right time for me, when they would have the most meaning.

I think what you teach students should depend on the class, as you are right, not every kid is going to be ready for the classics. They can seem pretty dull when you’re that young.

Tracy Terry

June 23, 2014, 12:40 pm

We studied Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare and George Orwell’s 1984 for our O’ level English. Only impressed by Orwell, the other two went way over my head to the point where I was put off Shakespeare until my mid thirties and the mere mention of Chaucer still gives me nightmares and that comes from an avid reader, I can only imagine how those not so much into books must have felt.


June 23, 2014, 1:36 pm

As a college teacher, I was always passionately devoted to introducing first-year students to the classics. I remember being in high school and having one of my teachers say I was the only person she’d ever met who would like reading The Faerie Queen, so of course I did. I think there are a lot of self-fulfilling prophecies about what young people can find meaning in.
On the other hand, I gave up trying to teach Death of a Salesman to anyone under the age of 25. They’re not old enough and most of them have not been intimately involved enough with the figurative “death” of a parent or grandparent. The “helicopter parent” generation have sheltered their children from their own failures and disappointments, so the current college generation isn’t equipped to feel for Willy Loman…or for Blanche DuBois, in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Literary Feline

June 23, 2014, 5:58 pm

I was one of a few students who enjoyed reading most of the required classics. I ate them up. I had enough of a love for reading to want to and to appreciate them. I did get bored, however, with the degree to which some of my teachers dissected a book. While with others, I found it quite enlightening and fun.

I have mixed feelings about required classic reading in schools. I think it’s important and necessary–I think children can benefit from it. I think though the selections must be more in line with the students being taught. I’m all in favor of offering choices. And I think it’s important to get away from the “must read classics and only classics” idea that some schools have. They also should be able to read books that they can more easily relate to, including more contemporary works. It will hold the students’ attention and interst better, I think.


June 24, 2014, 3:58 pm

I think classics in schools are important. It teaches one to think in different ways, to empathize with people in a different time and place.

I do think it is important to choose the juicier classics, such as Canterbury Tales or The Odyssey, to hook younger readers.

Jenny @ Reading the End

June 26, 2014, 5:40 pm

Eh, I think it’s impossible to predict when a book’s going to work for this kid or that kid. I had some wonderful, very engaged teachers of English lit when I was in school, and I loved some of the books they taught and hated others. I think a strong teacher maximizes the likelihood that kids will enjoy whatever the book is, but in the end it’s probably down to taste.

(I shall never love The Things They Carried. Or The Mayor of Casterbridge. It was just never going to happen.)



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