How important is classic literature in modern society?

I resent English teachers as much as the next high schooler for the endless supply of challenging jargon and old English terms that haunt the chapters of classical literature books we always seem to be dissecting. We are taught that these pieces teach us something that authors of the present time seem to be unable to grasp. If one was to ask me, this is extremely difficult to accept. 

I can admit that—simplifying this process of course—these people, men mainly, created the modern aspects of literature. They invented the rules and norms, and they tested the boundaries to all that we are now capable of and equipped with within the realms of literature. I can accept that in reading a small selection of these pieces I am in some sense gaining a greater grasp of English and writing in general. This remains true in almost all reading. When all of the text I am being forcibly fed seems to be these classic pieces, however, it is simple to identify the obvious issues in the content taught in standard English classes. 

Yes, the content of the books varies ever so slightly. Different tales of heroism and triumph, as well as failed endeavors of the American dream, fill the pages of the books we all appear to have read at one time or another. My issue with the material is the fact that the authors fit overwhelmingly into the same category. 

To list off a few of the novels I have been tasked with the past few years, I offer these: To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, Old Man and the Sea, A Raisin in the Sun, Of Mice and Men, The Scarlet Letter. The list goes on.

Of the eight titles listed above, six of the authors are men, and seven are white. 

I am in no way an expert in statistics, but my basic geometry knowledge leads me to believe the balance is slightly off. 

As students approaching our young adult lives, we are continuously taught that it is important to establish strong morals and ideals that you can stand for as an individual.

As students approaching our young adult lives, we are continuously taught that it is important to establish strong morals and ideals that you can stand for as an individual.

From the grassroots of who wrote the words we learn from, we receive the underlying concept that white men tend to be the most successful writers and that their words and stories are more important than anyone else’s. 

This battle is one not easily won. Because of the societal standards of women—and basically, anyone who was not white—in the time periods we pull these pieces from, it is difficult to find many substantial pieces of literature written by a diverse group of people. Nonetheless, if we are taking from the idea that these pieces are important because they established the rules of English, I can assume published novels of the present time maintain the same rules, as they learned from these monumental works. And, if they don’t follow the same grammatical structure, it shows simply that modern writing has moved on. These rudimentary teachings no longer hold major significance in literature. 

Along with the teachings of the rules of English, these stories also are credited for their preaching of morals and integrity. 

As much as the next person I can appreciate the sentimental side of nearly all of these pieces. I understand the importance of the American dream and hard work as well as the next well-read sixteen-year-old. Yet, in every case, I don’t find these teachings relevant. 

To further investigate one novel in specific, I suggest The Scarlet Letter. If you haven’t had the pleasure to read this novel yet, fair warning, I am about to spoil some of the details. Mainly, this story teaches about guilt. The main character has a child with a man that isn’t her husband (Dimmesdale), and she is forced to wear the shame of her sinful and horrible action openly. Dimmesdale is not identified as the dad right away, but his guilt basically eats him alive, and he dies. 

This tale seems innocent, enlightening almost. However, I am confused by many aspects of the plotline. 

First off, while internally Dimmesdale was being punished, it was far too obvious that much more blame was placed on the child’s mother as opposed to its father. I can only sympathize so far with “it was just the times” when “the times” discriminated against just about anyone but the white male. I would just prefer this isn’t an underlying theme in everything I read. Immersing myself in the past is the task of history class. If used as a tool to understand the past, these pieces are relevant, but as a teaching strategy for literary skills and morals, novels such as these miss the point.

This novel was written in the 1850s. To offer some historical context, at this time humanity was still about ninety-five years away from the microwave, women still wore domed skirts and petticoats, and, oh yes, women were still nearly seventy years away from voting. 

It’s true that American culture bases much of its laws and regulations based off of the belief systems of this time, but I would prefer to learn from authors who existed in a time where women were seen as more than an accessory of their husbands.  

This is a drastic example obviously, but you get the point. 

My next statement may seem laughable after the point I just attempted to make, but I am not trying to end the teaching of classic literature. I can acknowledge its various intellectual benefits. Regardless, I think it is important for teachers, and class curriculums in general, to diversify the authors and points of view they are drawing from for the good of all students.