In the late twentieth century, there was a move to replace classic western literature used in most schools and universities with a more diverse reading curriculum. The new curriculum would place an emphasis on ideas present in today’s society, such as the struggles of a Mexican immigrant trying to gain acceptance in a new school, or a lesbian and the conflicts she has with her family.
The new reading curriculum emphasized multiculturalism, and how we should embrace ideas from all cultures. However, in replacing the classics curriculum, educators have removed important parts of America’s heritage. It is important to be well versed on contemporary society, but we need to be able to compare it with the societies of yesterday.
To learn about the role of women in the early nineteenth century through the eyes of a contemporary historian is much different then learning about the same subject through the eyes of Jane Austen. In addition, classic books provide the framework by which we can build our own personal world view and analyze the problems of today. The classics are an important part of American education because they not only reveal the ideas that have shaped the world, but they also provide a foundation which we can use to develop our own opinions on many of the issues facing us today.
In many ways, the replacement of classic books has backfired. Today, Americans are interested in the plight of minorities, such as the African American. We constantly hear about how horrible it was for the slaves to have to live on southern plantations, and the sorrow they had to face when a husband was separated from his wife, or a mother separated from her child. However, the contemporary books written today cannot present the issues surrounding slavery in a way that the classics can.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by a person living during the abolitionist era, does present the horrors of slavery in a way that no other contemporary book can. The autobiography of Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery, tells of a former slave’s struggle for equality in a hostile world. History books can talk about the struggles of the blacks during this era, but only the writings of abolitionists and African Americans that were alive during the era can show children the struggles that they faced.
C.S. Lewis, in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” wrote: “The child who has met Mr. Badger [a character from The Wind in the Willows] has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.” The classics present humanity in a way that contemporary books cannot.
This not only applies to the struggles of minorities or women, but it applies to the problems that are faced by all people, whether they are minorities or not. “You think your pains and your heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world,” wrote James Baldwin, “but then you read. It is books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive.”
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield tells the story of a man who was abused as a child, and his efforts to live a comfortable and normal life. In Jane Eyre, the heroine Jane Eyre, attributes her nervousness to her aunt, who unjustly forced Eyre into the horrible Red Room, a room where Eyre thought the ghost of her dead uncle stayed. Oliver Twist describes the struggle of a poor orphan who tries to rise above the level of his criminal companions. The classics show that the problems of today are not new, and that a person can still be happy despite his circumstances.
The classics also reveal the ideas that have long been the foundation of American government. The writings of Plato and Aristotle are the foundation of many of these ideas. The writings of John Locke are considered by some to be the main influence on American government, however, with the removal of the classics from American schools, few know what Locke believed. Understanding our own culture is necessary. If we do not understand our own culture, how can we understand other cultures?
The classics also preserve traditional values that have survived for hundreds of years. Todd Gitlin, in “The Liberal Arts in an Age of Info-Glut” wrote: “Faculty members in the liberal arts need to say, ‘We don’t want to add to your information glut, we want to offer some ground from which to perceive the rest of what you will see. Amid the weightless fluff of a culture of obsolescence, here is Jane Austen on psychological complication, Balzac on the pecuniary squeeze. Here is Dostoevsky wrestling with God, Melville with nothingness, Douglass with slavery. Here is Rembrandt religious inwardness, Mozart’s exuberance, Beethoven’s longing. In a culture of chaff, here is the wheat.’ “
In other words, in today’s culture, we need to study ideas and principals that have endured for centuries. In today’s culture, everything is transient. We follow whatever is popular, and not what has withstood the test of time. Once we understand the ideas that have lasted for centuries, then we can call ourselves educated. These ideas are the deciding factor between a person who went to school and a person who is truly educated.
Once we have read Walden, we realize that there is a world outside that of the cosmopolitan city. Once we have read Jane Eyre, we realize that patience can bring about unexpected results. Once we have read a classic, a book that has survived for centuries, we realize so many things that we have never thought of before. Each new idea opens our eyes, each new idea gives us a new perspective on life.
Today, we live in a culture of great technological advancement. We invented the computer, and thus made information more accessible. We have found cures to some forms of cancer. We are healthier, we live longer, yet, we are becoming intellectually fat. Many contemporary writers, especially fiction writers, are merely appealing to our desire for wealth, prestige, and power. The classics create a longing in us, a longing for a different world, a better world.
Contemporary books create a different longing. C.S. Lewis addresses this when he writes in “On Three Ways to Write for Children,” “The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes- things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would happen if the reader had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two types of longing. The first one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.” It is the classics that cause the askesis. If you remove that from a child’s education, you are removing an intellectual stimulus.
The classics are an important part of education. It is important to teach children about their cultures, and to encourage them to be accepting of other people. It is important for them to know what is happening in the outside world. However, this knowledge should not replace the classics. It is the classics that make children think and make their minds mature.
Once their minds mature, then they can contribute to society. The classics do not force a child to conform to old-fashioned beliefs, nor do they teach them to be Euro-centric. They teach them that there is much more to the world than the clichéd problems of urban society. “The makers of literature are those who have seen and felt the miraculous interestingness of the universe. If you have formed … literary taste … your life will be one long ecstasy of denying that the world is a dull place” (Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste and How to Form It).
Works Cited: Gitlin, Todd. “The Liberal Arts in an Age of Info-Glut.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. 1998
Lewis, C.S. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: Harper Collins. 769-773
A Book Lover’s Diary. Ontario, Canada, Firefly Books Ltd., 1996. 50, 59
c. 2008 Sarah Schwab. Permission to use granted by the author.
Sarah is a gifted 15 year-old (at the time of this writing), home-schooled student from Orcutt, California. Sarah is currently a junior at Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth’s On-Line High School, and an AP Scholar with Honors. Sarah is a member of the National Home-School Honor Society and was recently awarded an Environmental Hero Award, a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, and a California Legislative Assembly Resolution in her name. Sarah’s hobbies include: church activities, volunteering, cooking, swimming, running, knitting, writing, reading, collecting classic books, and she is the vice president of her own non-profit youth tree planting organization – The Tree Amigos of Orcutt.