Could the “classics” taught in high school disappear?


(THE CONVERSATION) — If you went to high school in the United States since the 1960s, you were probably assigned some of the following books: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth”; “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck; “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald; “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee; and “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding.

For many alumni, these and other so-called “classics” represent high school English. But despite the efforts of the reformers, both past and presentthe most frequently awarded titles have never represented the diversity of the American student body.

Why have these books become classics in the United States? How have they withstood challenges to their status? And will they continue to dominate high school reading lists? Or will they be replaced by another set of books that will become classics for 21st century students?

high school cannon

The body of books that is taught again and again, widely across the country, is referred to by literature scholars and English teachers as “the canon.”

The high school canon was shaped by many factors. Shakespeare’s plays, especially “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar”, were consistently taught since the beginning of the 20th century, when the curriculum was determined by university admission requirements. Others, like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, were brought into the classroom by current events – in the case of Lee’s book, the civil rights movement. Some books seem particularly suited to teaching in the classroom: “Of Mice and Men” has a simple plot, easily identifiable themes, and is less than 100 pages.

Titles become “traditional” when passed down from generation to generation. As educational historian Jonna Perrillo observes, parents tend to approve to make their children study the same books as before.

The last period of significant canon change was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the biggest generation of the 20th century, baby boomers, went to high school. For example, in 1963, a survey of 800 students at Evanston Township High School in Illinois revealed that “To Kill a Mockingbird”, first published in 1960, was by far the “most popular book”, followed by two books that had been published in the 1950s , “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Lord of the Flies” by Golding. None of these books were traditional yet, but they have become so for the next generation.

A comparison of national surveys conducted in 1963 and 1988 shows how several books introduced in the classroom when baby boomers were students had become classics when baby boomers were teachers.

During the 1960s and 1970s, teachers even reframed “Romeo and Juliet” as a contemporary work. Lesson plans at the time referred to its adaptations in “West Side Story” – a musical that originally released in 1957 – and Franco Zefferelli risque 1968 film version from the story of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. It became the perfect hook for ninth graders in a study of Shakespeare that would end in grade 12 with “Macbeth.”

Diversification efforts

english teaching teacher Arthur Applebee observed in 1989 that, since the 1960s, “leaders in the English language teaching profession have tried to expand the curriculum to include more selections from female and minority authors”. But by the late 1980s, according to her findings, the high school “top ten” still included only one book written by a woman – Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – and none by minority authors.

At that time, a raging debate was underway to find out whether America was a “melting pot” in which many cultures were one, or a colorful “mosaic” in which many cultures co-existed. Proponents of the latter view argued for a multicultural canon, but were ultimately unable to establish one. A 2011 survey of Southern schools by Joyce Stallworth and Louel C. Gibbons, published in “English Leadership Quarterly,” found that the five most frequently taught books were all traditional selections: “The Great Gatsby,” ” Romeo and Juliet”, “Homer’s”. The Odyssey”, “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller and “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

One explanation for this persistence is that the canon is not simply a list: it takes the form of piles of copies on shelves in the storage area known as the “book room”. Inventory changes take time, money, and effort. Depending on the neighborhood, replacing a classic may require school board approval. And it would create more work for teachers who are already maxed out.

“Too many teachers, probably myself included, are teaching from the traditional canon,” one teacher told Stallworth and Gibbons. “We are overworked and underpaid and struggling to find the time to develop quality lessons for new books.”

The end of an era?

Esau McCauley, the author of “Reading While Black”, describes the list of classic white authors as the “pre-integration cannon.” At least two factors suggest his dominance over the program is coming to an end.

First, the battles over which books should be taught have become more intense than ever. On the one hand, progressives like professors of culture #DisruptTexts Movement request the inclusion of books by Black, Native American, and Other Authors of Color – and they wonder about the status of the classics. On the other hand, conservatives have successfully challenged or banned the teaching of many new books dealing with gender and sexuality or race.

PEN America, a nonprofit that fights for free speech for writers, reports “a deep increasein book bans. The result could be a literature program that more closely resembles the political divisions of this country. Much more than in the past, students in conservative and progressive districts could read very different books.

Second, English language arts education itself is changing. state standards, such as those adopted by New York in 2017, no longer make the teaching of literature the main focus of English lessons. Instead, there is a new emphasis on “information literacy.” And while previous generations of teachers worried about distractions radio so what televisionbooks may have an even smaller share of students’ attention in the age of mobile phones, the internet, social media and online games.

“We no longer live in a world dominated by print and text alone,” proclaims the National Council of Teachers of English in a position paper 2022. The group calls on English teachers to place less emphasis on books in order to train students to use and analyze a variety of media. As a result, students across the country may not only have fewer books in common, but also read fewer books overall.

Why teach literature?

Over the generations, teachers of English have expressed many reasons for teaching the books, and the canon in particular: to instill a common culturefoster citizenshipto build empathy and cultivate lifetime readers. These goals have little to do with the skills emphasized by contemporary academic standards. But if literature is going to continue to be an important part of American education, it’s important to talk about not just which books to teach, but why.


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