Required Reading: School Curriculum & The Classics

School is back in session, and with that comes projects and, thus, increased demand for the classics. You know them. To Kill a Mockingbird1984The Great GatsbyLord of the FliesBrave New WorldAnimal FarmShakespeare with HamletMacbeth, and R&J being ubiquitous. Etc. These have been staples in schools for decades*1. If you’re a data-driven person, this Ontario Book Publisher’s Association report will confirm many of the above titles.

There’s good reason for these books to be studied in schools: they’re well known, easily accessible*2, and, since they’ve been used for so long, easy to plan a project/course around. That last bit also makes them tired, as something can only be analyzed for so long before it becomes rote and meaningless. Plagiarism also becomes an issue; try searching for Romeo and Juliet essays, and you’ll find plenty of “examples.” There are plagiarism checkers, sure, but a student who doesn’t want to analyze the play has plenty of options for avoiding it. This is true for all the classics.

If I seem overly critical of having these books in*3 the curriculum, it’s because of one thing: I read them for school, and now I have no desire to ever reread them. Perhaps it’s just a me thing, but reading a book (or play) with the express purpose of picking it apart does not endear me to it. I actively despised some of the readings*4, and it took me ages to get through them. Most I read and can still recall some plot from, while others are entirely gone from my memory*5. Of all the required reading I did throughout high school, only one book actually grabbed me, and I finished it in a single sitting: Frankenstein. I wish I could say why this one of all the books I was made to read was enjoyable to teenage me where the others weren’t. Perhaps it was simply the thrill of getting to read sci-fi, which is in my reading for pleasure wheelhouse, for school. But then I think of The Chrysalids and A Wrinkle in Time, and I realize that can’t be the only factor. Perhaps Frankenstein deserves a reread.

I’ll also cop to enjoying Macbeth, though that one wasn’t a one-night read. Murder, revenge, guilt, witches, a dynamic power couple, something about it just worked for me in a way that Hamlet, which has some similar elements, didn’t. My teenage take on Hamlet? Whiny prince gets everyone killed. Want a less tragic take on Hamlet and Macbeth at the same time? Try Wyrd Sisters for the same story beats but with Sir Terry Pratchett’s signature wit.

If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you can probably guess that my reading tastes tend more towards the light-hearted and entertaining side of things. I fully admit this*6, but I did*7 branch out even then. I picked up Don Quixote after class covered Man of La Manchaand I decided to check out the source. And yet… I can still sing a few bars of songs from the play despite not having heard them in years, but my memory of the book is only what could be considered common knowledge. Tilting at windmills is powerful imagery*8 and seems to have overtaken any other recollection of the story I may have had. So, I guess while school certainly played a part in my indifference towards the classics as pleasure reading, there’s at least a part of it that’s built into my brain. 

I know part of the reason for this: very few of the classics I ended up reading are contemporary. The themes may be timeless, but the stories are a product of their time, and without that background knowledge, they just don’t resonate with me as much as school would have liked. I can’t be the only person with this hangup, so how about opening up school reading to more recent novels? This has the added benefit of adding new voices to the mix. At least one teacher in that Reddit thread suggested The Hate U Give instead of To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s mention in the same post that GR 11 reading focuses on Indigenous authors in some boards, so perhaps Son of a Trickster or The Marrow Thieves could be given some focus. This gives me hope that at least some schools/teachers understand the issues with focusing solely on the classics.

Another option? Give one assignment a year where the reader can choose what they want to write about after clearing the idea with the teacher. Let this include graphic novels, especially for those who are reluctant readers. They may put more effort into their projects if they enjoy what they’re reading. Still want those graphic novels to have “academic merit”? Try suggesting Almost American Girl for a story of integrating into a new society, Displacement for WWII Japanese internment camps*9 or Monster to see life through the eyes of a teen on trial for an accomplice to murder. 

So I’ve made my thoughts on school and the classics known. How many of you read these same books? Did you enjoy them or now reread them every few years? Or are you more like me and have zero desire to lay eyes on them ever again? Do you think an updated reading list for schools is necessary, and what books would you make students read if you could? Let me know in the comments!

*1 Yes, that’s a Reddit thread, but thankfully this isn’t an academic paper

*2 And according to that Reddit thread just more physically durable

*3 Or should I say be?

*4 Wuthering Heights and Hamlet

*5 The Chrysalids

*6 And welcome suggestions in the comments if you’ve got anything similar to the content of those posts 😁

*7 And still do, occasionally

*8 And metaphor

*9 Pair this with We Are Not Free for a novel on the topic

About Adam

Adam is a Digital Creation Specialist - Children who never has enough shelf space for his board game collection, wall space for his photographs, or stomach space for his baking. Once he’s got a book in his clutches (preferably a fantasy, or humorous non-fiction one) absolutely nothing else is getting done that day. Working in a library is a blessing and a curse to his free time.  |  Meet the team