Classics vs. Contemporaries

There is an erroneous emphasis on classical literature in the English curriculum, but we need to make room for all that contemporary literature has to offer.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Ashley La

I’m sure we’ve all been there before. After reading a ridiculously complicated classical text from the 1700s in English class, you are asked to write an essay comparing your own personal growth with the character development of the protagonist. However, when you start brainstorming, your mind goes blank. There are barely any parallels between yourself and this character written more than 300 years ago. So, you decide to lie. You concoct an elaborate sob story to relate to the book because you know your teachers will eat that up. From The Odyssey to Romeo and Juliet to The Picture Of Dorian Gray, ancient classics pervade almost all high school English classes. However, these outdated books often don’t resonate with students, who would grow more as English students when analyzing modern literature.

Not enough modern-day conflicts are addressed in ancient literature. Contemporary literature helps students understand relevant issues in modern society, such as climate change, drug use, and human rights violations. For instance, A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder by Holly Jackson, published in 2019, is a young adult murder mystery that demonstrates the inhumane cruelty of rape and the harmful effect of abusing drugs. Furthermore, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, published in 2017, was featured on the National Book Awards Longlist as well as five other awards because it challenges systemic racism and stereotypes. Another example is the Newbery Medal winner Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, published in 2019, which dismantles the stigma around speaking out against child sexual abuse. In a world where abuse, racism, and sexism are present everywhere, it’s important to read literature that reflects on these topics so we can fight against them. This is not to say that classical literature does not address these issues at all. Novels such as Lolita and My Brilliant Friend both address consent and rape, but these books constitute a minority of syllabi.

Furthermore, classics fail to portray a diverse cast of characters, as most of these books were written by deceased, European, straight men. This lack of racial and gender diversity also fails to represent a large part of Stuyvesant, where the majority of students are people of color. Students deserve to see themselves in the literature they read. Though the name of the sophomore English class changed from European Literature to Foundations of Literature in 2022, this is so far merely a cosmetic change as many of the books have remained the same in the curriculum. If these are the books that make up the majority of the school curriculum, then students will subconsciously assume that works written by writers of color are not of the same caliber as white authors. It implies that Eurocentric works are the “foundation of literature” when that is historically false. The foundations of literature actually lie in the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia circa 3200 BC, where priests wrote hymns to praise their gods.

Eric Grossman, Assistant Principal of the Stuyvesant English Department, noted in an e-mail interview that changes have started being made to the syllabus to “expand the realm of works.” The issue, however, is that “most teachers believed that the course was well-planned out and that jettisoning their more effective units would be a waste and a shame.” Funding the purchase of so many new books at once is another hurdle when it comes to incorporating contemporary novels into curricula. It would be helpful if the English department notified students of certain book changes because these efforts aren’t noticeable to the student body solely based on the course name.

Many contemporary novels outwardly denounce the toxic and deplorable stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression that classical novels are filled with. In works written by outstanding writers such as William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, misogynistic and racist comments are rarely acknowledged, much less resolved; instead, they are excused as the “norm” of the time. Of course, modern books can include sexism, racism, and homophobia, but they are actually acknowledged and criticized throughout the course of the novel. This is something that most books in the syllabus lack. It is important to note, however, that these issues can be analyzed in classical works if teachers facilitate meaningful conversations that acknowledge and analyze the issues present between the lines on the page. In an e-mail interview with Foundations of Literature teacher Lauren Stuzin, they describe how they think about the norms and events described in the texts in comparison to modern-day norms, which allows students to really see the inequities present. When teaching The Odyssey, for example, Stuzin deconstructs the problematic aspects of the poem and points out that “often Odysseus is framed as a heroic king, who fights his way back home against unfair and enduring obstacles. [While the] idea that Odysseus is good and noble may have been common among Ancient Greeks, Odysseus actually manipulates and seduces a minor while he is naked; he cheats on his wife; he pillages cities, steals ‘plunder,’ and presumably rapes ‘wives’; he sacrifices his employees’ lives for his own; he taunts monsters and gods to boost his ego, allowing his entire crew to be murdered; he strangles the elderly woman who nursed him; he degrades his wife; and he hangs 12 enslaved teenage girls for being raped by his enemies.”

Reading modern literature can help us see ourselves in the characters’ situations and find relevance in English class rather than fabricating our connection with the novel just for a good grade. If we are assigned novels that we can relate to, we can find more interest in what we read and be passionate about our classes as well. This can heighten our appreciation for literature and English class. I’m not saying classical literature should be completely removed from the curriculum, as we can still gain insight from society during the time period of the book’s publishing. However, it isn’t necessary to emphasize such outdated novels; two to three classics serve enough of their function. English class is not meant to be a boring space where we simply do what teachers tell us to do; it’s meant to be a space where students can learn about the world and themselves. Modern literature has so much to offer if we can actually pursue it in school. How can students learn about themselves when they are forced to read novels with protagonists from the Shakespearean era? As the world evolves, we need to grapple with issues more relevant to modern society rather than look back and decipher dusty, old novels.