A Note on “literature” From Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian

Excuse me, may I have a rant? Well, regardless of your answer, I am going to take one, anyway.

Since roughly around, oh, Sophocles’ time, people have been complaining that “kids today,” don’t have an appreciation for the classics. That education is slacking off. That students are coming out of school with less knowledge, and are less literate and well-read than previous generations.

Before compulsory, tax-funded education, schooling was a privilege usually reserved for those of wealth, and of those children, mostly males went to school. Good old sexism and classism at work. Whole segments of the population were illiterate, or barely literate. But the students who went to school had hundreds of years of the written word at their disposal. Latin, Greek, Virgil, Ovid. Really, when’s the last time you read Ovid? He’s a poet. He wrote smutty stuff, if it encourages you at all to check out his work.

Students learned by rote, and while all had received the same education, not all carried it with them in the same way. In other words, not everyone was automatically scholarly, nor did they stay in the hallowed halls of academia once their education was complete.

And let’s face it, even in the 20th century, not everyone was cut out for the type of education being provided. Students dropped out early, or just decided they were “not for school learning.” We have a much higher retention rate now, despite the constant fretting over drop out rates. And illiteracy dropped from 20% in 1870 to less than a percent a century later. Obviously the educational system, for all of its flaws and troubles, is, to some degree, working.

So why aren’t we reading Ovid in the original Latin? Why do we offer an “easy language” version of Shakespeare’s plays to high school freshmen? Why is The Scarlet Letter as feared as Wuthering Heights? Why are the books on the reading lists such painful reading for our kids today?

First, I would like to point out that in days gone by, books were a precious commodity. Up until the 1800s, very few were in print. Choices were limited.  Books were read over and over, even after the advent of movable type, simply due to lack of reading material, and the cost of purchasing copies of books, which were printed and bound by hand until the 20th century.

Second, we produce more information and data each year than in the whole history of the world, combined, up to the advent of the computer. There are a lot of materials vying for teens’ attention. I also am attracted by shiny covers, characters who are like me, and that I can relate to, and situations I have been through.

Which leads me to my third point: “The Classics” as they’re taught in schools today are almost universally stories by privileged white European or American men, with the exception of people like the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley. This singular view is hard enough for a teenager to swallow. But also consider: these books were written, originally, for educated adults, in an era where the reader spoke in a way similar to the author, and had cultural touchstones similar to that of the author.

Sure, that’s the point of education, teaching students about these books, but that’s why they slog through them with absolutely no joy. And I think we’re doing them a disservice by pretending that all of the world’s “great writers” were European, and probably male. Male is the status quo. Fiction written by men is “literature.” Fiction written by women is “women’s literature.” We don’t teach minority and female students that they can be great writers by exposing them to great books, nor do we teach white boys that people other than straight white boys can write great literature, which, in and of itself is a disservice.

The Lord of the Flies is held up as a piece of literature that reflects the destruction of a society without consequences. All of us are doomed to give in to the demons of our nature, and so away from civilization the last vestiges of humanity fall away and we become animals. Except, that’s only what happens when a bunch of privileged European white boys find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Our literature curriculum gives far too much power to to the white male experience as somehow being universal. Kids will disconnect when there is nothing in the book they are reading that sounds like them or looks like them. It becomes a story that happens to someone else, far away and long ago. Something unimportant.

We live in a fast-paced world thanks to the Internet, and language evolves quickly. Yesterday’s noun becomes today’s verb. Even our sentence structure is changing rapidly. It is slowly becoming acceptable to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and even remove articles and adjectives from sentences and still be understood. “Because reasons” is my favorite example.

And this language is vivid, it is fast, and it communicates ideas, concepts and moods very quickly. “asdfasdf” conveys a sense of excitement so overwhelming that the author is incoherent with joy and can’t type anything thoughtful about the subject.

So kids stumble over language written hundreds of years before, especially the many layers out-of-use words and phrases in things like Chaucer and Shakespeare. Even Oscar Wilde and Hemingway are from another time and place that can be difficult for a modern student who speaks a variety of situational vernaculars to grasp.

And instead of blaming the curriculum or the passage of time, we blame the students. We blame the teachers for not beating a love of Hawthorne (who was super misogynistic) or Steinbeck (who basically stole Grapes of Wrath from the female reporter who called her stories in from the midwest, while he sat in his cushy office in New York) into our children.

There are over a million books printed each year. And for every reader there is a book. But maybe not this particular cart full of books. Some of the books, perhaps. But not all of them. And not the way we teach them now–as if students are just not trying hard enough to understand Elizabethan English. Maybe we need to remember just how fast the world moves. Maybe we need to remember that students ARE reading. Just not what you think they should be. Harry Potter still counts. That fan fiction they stayed up until three in the morning reading still counts.

Relate it to that. To the modern world our kids live in. Bring Shakespeare forward, before you take the kids back in time. They’re excellent at meta, just spend a few minutes on Tumblr and you will see that. Let them tear Macbeth to pieces and read it as the comedy it was obviously intended to be. Let them ship Horatio and Hamlet (Ophelia didn’t have to die, I say!) and let them bring something to the work, if you want them to take something away as well.

We’re living in the future. Our literature education should be worldly, and of the whole world. It should make our students experts in the classics while allowing them to show their own expertise. Because Richard III really does deserve a Coldplay fanvid.