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Many English classrooms have gotten away from using classic literature, opting for more current material, which seems to ring truer across our youth. Although current material is important to teach, it's amazing to see the relevance that classic literature parallels with today's world.
Material like The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfect example. We live in a ‘picturesque’ world, where young adults are constantly posting selfies at just the right angle, chasing the newest trend, the proper group and the best clothes, constantly comparing themselves to others, to a fault. This piece of work is based on the vanity and self-absorbency of a young man in Victorian society. Readers will find the destruction of his life so similar to young adults today, noting that this was a prevalent issue even in the late 1800s.
Another piece of literature that parallels today's society is The Great Gatsby. This tale also shows how destructive 'keeping up with the joneses' can be and how materialism can rule our world. With Jay Gatsby at the helm throwing extravagant parties every night and continually entertaining facades until his world comes crashing down around him, youth can relate to how quickly so-called ’friends’ disappear when there are no more parties to attend, or when the latest trends can’t be topped.
Pulling in some William Shakespeare with Julius Caesar reminds us that jealousy and greed destroy nations and create dissonance among family members, and that when we allow others to make decisions for us in order to get into their good graces, it causes a great many struggles of some kind, most of which lead to destruction of some kind. This theme holds true across any Shakespearean works, including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and even The Taming of the Shrew.
Jane Eyre tackles the challenge of self-esteem and how important it is to love oneself and trust instincts that we know to be truthful and create confidence and integrity. We see Jane Austen grow into her own, just as the youth of today struggle within themselves. She constantly questions her choices and the ideas of the people in her life. Our students need to understand that it is okay to do this. They need to realize that questioning things in our lives is what makes us grow and mature, and that even as adults we do this. We are continually growing.
All of the above themes consume our youth of today. Literature can help establish that there is nothing new under the sun and years ago young adults faced the turmoil of today. Our youth can draw parallels with the lives of these characters and understand that most of the things they are going through are very normal and relatable. Plus exposing our students to classic literature prepares them for higher order thinking and college readiness. They begin to understand a different form of the English language and are being taught to analyze material and develop opinions of what has been read.
How does your English department support the use of literature in the classroom?