WHERE HAVE ALL THE CLASSICS GONE? REINTRODUCING THE CLASSICS IN THE SECONDARY LANGUAGE ARTS CLASSROOM
Fifty years ago, English Language Arts (ELA) courses immersed American secondary-school students in the classics, the undisputed texts of cultural literacy that demonstrated the artistry and genius of the English language. These works evidenced a mastery of plot, imagery, tone, and rhetorical eloquence--skills teachers wanted their students to possess. These works also illuminated a historical moment or a concept of religious, social, or philosophical significance.
However, American students today experience fewer of the touchstones of cultural literacy and read more Young Adult literature. Pedagogical practices in the United States have shifted to a student-centered classroom in which the students’ desires and interests take priority over their educational needs. Because students did not want to read longer, canonical works, teachers took the road of least resistance and chose texts that the students are more willing to read instead of devising classroom practices to make “inaccessible” texts accessible. In many ELA classes--especially in middle schools--students now solely read short stories and poetry because a novel requires too much time and effort. The quality of the literature that they read is also diminished. The curriculum is also far more content-based because many ELA classes have become service courses to deliver Social Studies (SS) content. Therefore, the literature in ELA classrooms is often selected based on how well it relates to the SS curriculum rather than how well is develops a sense of literary appreciation and understanding in students. This new approach is unacceptable. ELA should not be a service course, and the literature taught should be selected more for its literary qualities rather than its relation to other subjects in the curriculum.
This shift in pedagogy is also due to an attempt to make the canon more inclusive. ELA teachers have included the works of lesser-represented peoples, but, sadly, teachers have chosen most readily available works by under-represented groups rather than choosing the best works those groups produced. It is important to include the best literature available to our students, a balance of both canonical and contemporary authors, to ensure that our students are developing a sound appreciation and understanding of literature.
Debating aesthetics and the current, ever-evolving canon will not be part of my paper. These subjective concepts do not further the scholarly debate concerning team-taught curricula. Instead, I will focus on developing an ELA curriculum that serves both the literary needs of American students as well as the needs of schools. The ELA and SS curricular tie is an unavoidable fact. In many ways, this connection allows students to develop a deeper understanding of their SS content. However, this often leaves the ELA classroom with mediocre literature that is only being used to teach SS. American ELA curricula should include more of the great works that are both rich in quality and content. Time-tested classics that instill literary appreciation and illuminate a historical moment will serve students better in the long run. By not exposing our students to great works of literature, we are depriving them of the intellectual currency and cultural literacy held by successful adults. The purpose of literature is to teach and delight. We need more works that delight and entertain while teaching rather than choosing works solely on how well they tie into Social Studies.