Do we still need to read and teach the classics?

Aug. 30, 2020, 12:58 p.m.

For the purposes of this article, classics are defined as literary works that “meet some common high standards for quality, appeal, longevity, and influence.”

“Classics are still important to read and analyze and be studied, but there is a very skewed, Eurocentric lens that is portrayed amongst the books considered to be classics,” Ceci Gao, a rising sophomore at UC Berkeley, said in an interview with The Daily, bringing up the dilemma more and more students and teachers are facing in an era when the need for diverse narratives is increasingly being pushed to the forefront. 

Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and as the reality of being a person of color in this country comes to light, many agree on the need for diverse narratives in school curricula. 

Cameron Adams ’24 estimates that 90% of her high school literature curriculum was written by white men, 9% by white women and just 1% by BIPOC authors. Though from an “incredibly diverse area” in Rancho Cucamonga, Adams has never felt that she, her family or her friends were represented in the books taught in school. 

“The displacement of not fitting into a protagonistic mold is a feeling that sets in more deeply than we realize,” Gao said. 

Not only are many students of color not seeing themselves represented in the books taught in class, but for some, it feels as if white culture is being pushed upon them and they are being told that this is what’s right or what’s good literature. 

In Adams’ case, even on the rare occasions BIPOC authors were included in the curriculum, they were confined to the summer reading and only a couple days would be spent analyzing and discussing them. On the other hand, weeks and months would be spent reading and analyzing “the same old, tired ‘classics’ that don’t represent the people, time or experience of its audience.”

“It gets exhausting only getting to learn about white [or] Eurocentric culture,” Victoria Gorum ’23 said. “Enough is enough.”

“We need to allow everyone to feel represented by the books we read in school, both in terms of the stories that are told and the authors themselves,” she added.  

Fifth-year Ph.D. candidate Mai Wang expressed similar experiences and feelings.

“In my experience as an undergraduate and graduate student in English, the books that we’re taught to value are largely written by dead white men,” she said. 

From what she’s experienced, books by minority authors aren’t seen as of the same importance.

“Students, particularly students of color, are eager to read books that reflect their own experiences and their communities,” she added. “They’re hungry to learn more about the histories of various immigrant groups and minorities in the U.S., whether through novels or nonfiction.”

Especially in a country made up of so many different cultures and peoples, the importance of teaching diverse perspectives is apparent. 

“Diverse voices are key to our cultural heritage as a nation and should be a part of any curriculum,” said professor of English Shelley Fishkin. 

In a Google search for “classic literature,” however, most books listed are written by white, male authors such as Herman Melville, Charles Dickens and William Faulkner. These names are familiar to almost anyone who has taken a high school English course in which the “classics” are often staples. A couple white, female authors are among them — Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, for example —  and very few BIPOC authors. This lack of diversity brings up the question: In today’s society, what should the place and value of the classics be? 

The lasting value of classics

From Wang’s and Gao’s perspectives, the classics still need to be taught and read because of their content, even though their authors are not a very diverse group. 

“Texts like ‘War and Peace and ‘Jane Eyre’ have enduring value and contain deep insights into the human experience,” Wang said. 

“Some literature that falls into the ‘classics’ category is, simply put, good literature that students can learn from,” Gao said. 

To Gao, the classics are also important as a way to learn about our history of suppressing BIPOC voices and examining and understanding the country’s racist past. As an example, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee has a central theme of race and while it “is ultimately a book that silences Black voices by inserting a white savior character, it is key in analyzing how the white savior complex often plays a role in heightening racial tensions and repressing the ability for BIPOC characters to vocalize their own opinions and claim self-agency.” 

When classics are racist

Gorum and Adams believe some classics still have value and should be read, but also take into consideration the added complexity of the matter when classics not only present a singular, white narrative but also are considered to be racist in and of themselves. 

“Sure, we can still teach some of the classics,” Gorum said. “I don’t mind reading Shakespeare every now and then, but was it necessary to, for example, include three [or] four of his plays in my school’s curriculum? Surely we could substitute at least one of them for a book that teaches students concepts that are more applicable to today’s society.”

“We need to have real conversations about things like race, class, gender and how these aspects of people’s identity influence their experience,” she added. “Books like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ shouldn’t be students’ only chance to read about anti-Black racism, especially since the book is inherently racist itself.”

Throughout Adams’ high school experience, she encountered more than one white teacher that forced their class to read through and analyze literature written by white authors and containing racial slurs. 

“[They saw] nothing wrong with subjecting their students to vulgar language purposefully made to dehumanize them,” she said.

She vividly remembers reading Faulkner’s “A Rose to Emily.” The constant repetition of the n-word in a way that she described as aggressive eventually reached the point where she couldn’t finish reading it. Her white English teacher didn’t understand why she couldn’t read it and later called her to talk over the work privately. Thinking he was going to apologize, Adams was instead met with her teacher trying to validate the use of slurs in the work, telling her it would help her understand racism. 

“It was unfathomable to think a grown man with a degree in literature didn’t understand the effect that words could have on its reader — he had no idea why this text was disrespectful towards me, his Black student,” Adams said. 

“Some classics do have literary value, so they could be read,” she added. “However, we as a society have to be critical in deciding if word choice used in a book really outweighs the harmfulness of the slurs and racism in the text on our students.”

Diverse literature and classics: Two nonconflicting values

In the case of classics that are not outright racist, Wang believes their value does not conflict with diversifying the books taught in school. Instead, Wang believes that books that don’t seem to speak to modern-day students should be replaced, freeing up space in curriculums for more diverse authors so that “the best books [are] taught side by side.”

“In my experience as a teacher, I’ve learned that some classic books don’t really speak to students today — Canterbury Tales, the poetry of Alexander Pope, for instance — so they should no longer be so prominently featured on the syllabi of introductory courses,” Wang said. 

“When students are bored, they also shy away from taking more humanities courses,” she added.

Fishkin does not “draw a dichotomy between ‘classics’ and ‘more diverse narratives.’”

“In my last monograph, ‘Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee,’ I focused on literature that I valued as important and wonderful,” Fishkin said. “Writers I included were male, female, gay, straight, white, black, Asian American, Native American, Chicano, Jewish American … All of them merit our attention and gratitude.”

Gao also believes English curriculums have enough room to accommodate for “all-encompassing curriculums — the classics and BIPOC authors’ literature which is not yet considered [classic].”

“More simply, a class’s focus can include the classics, but it doesn’t have to be solely on those — it can certainly make room for more diverse voices in literature,” she said. 

In a similar vein, Gorum believes curriculum should include books that teach students to both live and interact with people who are different from them as well as develop their language comprehension and literary analysis skills. She put forward “Beloved” by Toni Morrison as an example of a book that will challenge students while also conveying “the brutality of slavery and [shining] light on an extremely ugly part of America’s history.”

The need to prioritize diverse literature

While there is room for both diverse voices and classics, Gao also believes that diversity should be prioritized.

“Traditional ‘classics’ should definitely be put on the back burner of English classrooms right now,” Gao said. 

Because of the silencing of BIPOC voices in society, media and literature, Gao believes diverse stories are “even more important to reach, discuss and learn from in modern-day classrooms.”

“We need to ensure that [these students] won’t be the ones ignoring, preserving or enabling racism, but being anti-racist in all aspects of their lives, starting with their education,” Adams said. 

On a personal level, Gorum believes reading diverse authors and listening to diverse perspectives “contribute more to [her] personal growth and education than the classics ever have.” She acknowledges the value and her enjoyment of the classics but says that “there is nothing that teaches you more about yourself and the world and people around you than truly listening to someone share their personal story.”

Looking towards the future, Gao sees a place for the classics as inclusive of diverse narratives. 

“Ultimately, long term, I think classics would be important to read, but only once we’re able to redefine classics to more aptly include well-written literature that represents a diverse array of experiences from BIPOC authors,” Gao said. 

In order to reach that point, the very definition of “classics” may need to change. To Adams, the nature of classics is exclusive and directly associated with “solely white authors.” As a solution, Adams believes that schools need to rethink what it means for literature to be “masterful, world-shattering and universally valued” in a way that includes the perspectives of marginalized groups. 

“Works like that do exist,” Adams said, “they just don’t currently fit society’s archetypal definition of what it means to be a classic.”

For now, though, Adams agrees that “diverse literature needs to be at the forefront of our curricula” and that classics should be in the background “indefinitely.”

For some, this opinion is only amplified by the current political climate.  

“Especially given the charged political climate of the present, it would be cheating students to not teach literature that is politically and socially relevant to current movements and events,” Gao said. 

Gao believes that the educational reform of demanding more diverse narratives comes from a necessity for students to be taught to live in a world full of people and experiences different from them “by default.” 

“It’s apparent, especially now with global attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, that people are not familiar with the necessity of equity for BIPOC people,” Adams said. “When we don’t have these diverse stories in our schools, we deny our children the multitude of perspectives that these works carry that they could use [in] the real world … to interact with every person from every background.”

For communities that lack diversity themselves and foster environments that “implicitly preserve racist ideas” or blatantly promote discrimination and inequity through laws and practices,  Adams believes the need for diverse literature is even more important. She sees diverse literature in schools as a way for students to be exposed to perspectives that show the harmfulness of practices and laws that students hadn’t realized were wrong because of the environments they grew up in. From there, Adams believes diverse literature could enable students to “take agency to create an anti-racist environment for their communities.”

“It’s obvious that the texts that we’ve been reading for the past couple decades are not producing the necessary change to create equity for our world,” Adams said. “There is a persistent idea of a singular narrative in the classics, by white people, for white people, that negates BIPOC experiences and sustains racist ideas simply because they were written by people from the past.”

“We can start right here, right now with works that represent our students as they are without trying to loosely connect issues exclusively affecting white people in the 1800s to them,” she added.

Despite differing attitudes towards the exact place and value of classics in the modern-day classroom, all five interviewees believe they shouldn’t be thrown out completely. 

“Powerful literature can be a catalyst for future writers of all races, and that is one reason why we need to make sure it keeps getting taught,” Fishkin said. “Walt Whitman was of crucial importance to Maxine Hong Kingston … Mark Twain was a major influence on [Ralph Ellison].”

Contact Joelle Chien at joelle.chien2 ‘at’

Joelle Chien is a high schooler writing as part of the Stanford Daily Summer Journalism Workshop.

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