When I go out to eat, I often eavesdrop on the conversations of my fellow diners. Not long ago, I listened in on a particularly interesting discussion that involved two teachers. They were discussing a familiar quandary among English teachers: What are the virtues of teaching classical literature to a generation who just doesn’t get it? It’s a question I’ve asked myself from time to time. Do my students need to read Hemingway? Does The Scarlet Letter possess some profound effect over their future happiness and success? Or are they so far removed from the characters in events in classical literature that it’s doing them no good?
After opening this can of worms, I realized that this hero worship of our artistic predecessors extends beyond literature. If I searched the words “best bands of all time” online, I would be hit with hundreds of sites extolling The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. Nirvana might sneak in there at some point, but still, you’re looking at a twenty year gap between them and today’s musicians. Does this mean that our generation is devoid of artistic merit that will be discussed and taught about in schools? Or are we romanticizing a bygone age because we’re too cynical to believe that contemporary art, music, and literature will ever be as viable as the classics?
I don’t know.
Let’s talk about it anyway.
My motivation to reach closure on this subject comes from my work as an educator. I want to help students become successful members of society, and helping students understand the mysteries of reading, writing and literature is a big part of that process. The hardest part about this endeavor is to show young people how a book like The Great Gatsby applies to their lives. Sometimes I’ve thought it would be easier to drop it and teach something by John Green, but I think there is value in exploring the style of a previous generation and discussing its impact on today’s society. The ability to perfectly encapsulate the generation in which they lived is one of the reasons that Fitzgerald, Whitman, Hemingway and Shakespeare are timeless authors. This might be why English teachers love them so much.
I’ve noticed that most students don’t share this affection, however. And that’s okay. I teach them lots of things that they don’t love. I would never completely abandon the classics, because they not only show us so much about the past, but they show us how we got to the present. I also believe that the focus and attention that the classics require are beneficial skills to help combat the dwindling attention span of the American teenager.
That being said, I don’t want students to think that there is no good literature being produced today. Teachers should foster a love of reading in their students, and if we convince them that worthwhile literature expired when America rose from the ashes of the Great Depression, then it kills their motivation to get out and discover the voices of their generation. This is why I’ve never joined in any Twilight bashing. It doesn’t fit my own definition of great literature by any stretch of the imagination. But the vampire revivalism that followed in its wake proved that it was culturally relevant, and the plethora of paranormal YA literature that was produced as a result of its popularity proved that it did influence the literary world. Isn’t cultural relevance and literary influence part of the reason why we hold onto the classics? And did I just inadvertently put Stephanie Meyer on the same playing field as Jane Austen?
At the end of the day, I’m the kind of English teacher who struggles to reconcile an interior struggle between a traditional book snob and an anarchic punk rocker. I see the classics as the foundation of contemporary literature, but at the same time I want to tear that foundation down to show that this generation can create meaningful art and literature just as well as any other. I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet, but I’m open to suggestions.