I get it. Reading the works of William Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Thoreau is hardly exciting for most high school students. Why should we care about a story or essay some dusty old guy wrote 200 years ago? On the surface, these literary classics that we study in English class seem to just be old stories about old people in olden times that have no actual meaning on our 21st century lives. In reality, these works are still exceedingly influential and meaningful to us.
Literary classics are integral to our English curriculum because they encapsulate human themes and emotions that transcend time or culture. Take Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”, for example. Emerson argues that people should be self-reliant and act as individuals in society instead of conforming or following the crowd. These themes are still incredibly relevant today, and will be for many years. It doesn’t matter if you read “Self-Reliance” in 1819 or 2019; the themes of the self and individuality still apply to every single one of us regardless of time period. Similarly, examples of these universal themes can also be found in the works of Shakespeare. Hamlet’s themes of revenge, immorality, and consequences are all things that we can relate to, learn from, and analyze. “Romeo and Juliet” teaches us about the power of love, youthful innocence, and the individual against society—themes that are applicable to our teenage lives today. The expectations that the Montagues and Capulets respectively have for Romeo and Juliet are something that today’s students can relate to through their own parents’ expectations of them. All of this to say, there are themes all throughout classic literature pertaining to the human condition that we can each connect to on a personal level.
There is a case that we should not read any books at all in English classes and instead focus on developing analytical skills. This argument, however, is paradoxical by nature. We read these books in order to develop analytical skills—analyzing the word choice, diction, tones, and themes, just to name a few. Classical novels and literary works are filled with complex passages that allow students to grow their analytical skills by analyzing something that they may not necessarily be familiar with. If you played baseball your entire life, and are asked to write an analytical essay about the baseball novel “Moneyball”, for example, it would be easy. You would never really grow any skills or improve analytically as a writer. Analyzing a work like “The Odyssey” would put you into a potentially foreign situation, forcing you to grow and learn to analyze things outside of your comfort zone. The ability to go into a text and pick out complex and important themes, prose, or language, even across an entire novel, is a vital skill that students need to have.
Few high school students would be ecstatic to read and analyze works of Shakespeare or some other long dead classical writer. What many don’t realize, however, is how similar some of these stories are to our own lives. Individuality, love, and consequences are just a few themes in classic works that we can relate to through experiences in our own lives. They encapsulate aspects of the human condition, and what it means to be a human being. There’s a perception; a misconception that the classics are nothing more than dusty old books. That’s just not true.