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What should be read in English lit classes?

By Elizabeth Held
Thursday, November 5, 2009
| 2 comments
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Mark Twain (pictured) once said, “I don't believe any of you have ever read 'Paradise Lost,' and you don't want to. That's something that you just want to take on trust. It's a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic -- something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

Ironically, this description apparently now fits Twain.

One of my professors gave us a list of the top 25 most common books taught in English classes at 25 liberal arts colleges.

In the 1964-1965 school year, it consisted of the “classics.” Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson and Whitman.

But by 1997, new names like George Eliot and Toni Morrison start popping up, knocking writers like Twain down the list.

He’s become a classic, and now, no one wants to read him.

The main point of the article is that English departments are no longer teaching literature; rather they’re “championing causes.”

It raises a lot of questions about how we decide what is “literature” and what is taught in classrooms.

I remember in high school talking with an English teacher about how the curriculum used to only feature dead white men, a complaint routinely leveled against English curriculum. The curriculum had been revamped in the 90's and now featured lots of female and minority writers.

He was concerned that they had swung too far in the opposite direction. Eschewing the classics, like Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar" for Kaye Gibbons' "Ellen Foster."

I understand his concerns. I don’t think it should be possible to major in English without having taken a Shakespeare course (as is now par for the course at many schools).

And for American students to make it through high school without reading any Twain is, in my eyes, shameful. He’s the quintessential American writer.

But, in my eyes, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is also an important piece of American literature.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad I’m not the one writing the curriculum.

Books you loved in school? Hated? Leave a comment.

 
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November 5, 2009
4:44 p.m.

[ Suggest removal ]
mhowie says...

I think the problem is that there are always more good books being written, but there's only so much time in a school year. No, I didn't read Twain in college -- I read it in high school. As long as at least a smattering of the classics get in there somewhere in high school, it's about the best we can do, I think. (Not that you shouldn't try to get some in in college, too -- but would you have us not read Toni Morrison, simply because she's more contemporary?)

November 5, 2009
5:09 p.m.

[ Suggest removal ]
grant18 says...

I think the best test of the quality of any liberal arts school is the number of times that students are required to write essays answering questions that begin with "Compare and contrast . . ."

Ms Howie is entirely correct that the genre or era in which the question is framed is much less important than proving that the students are gaining the ability think for themselves.

Personally, I like to read mid-19th century English romantic novels (Trollope, Hardy, et al) and late 19th to early 20th century naturalists (Zola, Norris, Dreiser, et al). But last year I read "My Name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish-born recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature) and I was surprised to find that his extremely interesting & exciting novel could reasonably be assigned to either classification.

 

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