Canonical Literature vs. Contemporary Interests

I am, and have always been, a bit of a classicist. I enjoy things delivered in their pure form, or at least the pure form that was bestowed upon me. The problem with my traditionalist ways is that I am also fascinated with technology and the advancements that world has made in the past few decades. This causes a world of chaos for me that no one can possibly understand. I fought off getting an iPod for several year because I enjoyed having a physical CD and cover art. The same with cell phones, gaming systems, blu-rays, and other advancements in the technological world. I don’t know why, but I fight and fight until I conform. And then I fall in love. Out go all of the CD’s because they are useless. The cover art? Who needs it? I convert into this monster that must cleanse himself of outdated possessions. Ever see the “Obsolete Man” episode of Twilight Zone? Well for a brief time I become the dictator in charge of purging society of all things obsolete.

There are two internal struggles that I am currently facing, and both relate to my job in the classroom. The first is again a battle with technology. I enjoy my eReader (something that I just now am conforming to), but I am not ready to give up on paperbacks. There is something special about turning a page. The smell of a book when you first buy it. The feeling you get when you finish it. The other feeling you get when you lend it to someone and understand that you will never see it again. On the other hand, I can fit a thousand books on a small device that fits in my pocket. I can read it on the go, and then pick up where I left off on another synced device. I can mark the text without ruining the page. I can annotate and save interesting bits of writing. I think I know who will eventually win this war, but then what will I do with the multitude of bookshelves in my office?

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The second war that is waging in my mind is one that I have shifted views on throughout the years. Is the canon of literature really needed to get students to learn and value language arts? As you can guess, I used to think that all literature taught in the classroom should be under the heading “Classic.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But then I started reflected on what I was doing with my students. Why regurgitate what I did in high school? The world is a different place now. One of the greatest feelings I get as a teacher is sharing a classic piece of literature that I love, and having a classroom full of kids say it was great. The reality though is that students struggle with archaic language. Classrooms full of English Language Learners are expected to understand the nuances of Miller’s The Crucible as it pertains to the fear of communism in the United States (fun fact: all of my students ended up loving this play because they hated Abigail). What really got me thinking was a moment I had this year when I started teaching A Scarlet Letter to my juniors. I had forgotten how boring that novel was. I love Hawthorne, but man that book can be brutal for a teenager. Sometimes these classics actually hinder the progress I set to meet in terms of students’ academic goals. When literature is hard to understand, students tend to turn their back on it. What’s worse, many of them abandon reading completely.

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Now I am not sure if I can get my students to learn all that they need to know about literary criticism by reading The Hunger Games. Also, there are some benefits to reading classics in that they are classics. These authors have done magical things with words that not many others have done (or at least done well). Newer literature sparks interest in young readers, but can often lack depth. Like all things in life, perhaps the solution is a sort of balance. Using classics and contemporary literature to meet academic goals. Some teachers do book reports and think they are accomplishing this balance. That is a false sense of pride. All you are really doing is making reading a chore. We cannot abandon the canon, but we cannot keep doing the same thing and expect better results. Einstein called that insanity.

In “The Obsolete Man” episode, Romney Wordsworth (great name) is a librarian who is deemed obsolete by the dark 1984ish society in which he lives. He argues that books he is willing to die for are the foundation of society. They are fundamental needs that all people should have. Wordsworth’s idea is that words themselves have worth. As an English teacher, it is my duty and pleasure to deliver this same message to my students. So, in this battle I feel that there is no winner. Canon? Contemporary literature? Whatever. As long as people are reading.

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