Letter to the editor: "Classics vs. Contemporaries"
Reading Time: 4 minutes
This letter to the editor is written in response to “Classics vs. Contemporaries” by Elma Khan, published in Volume 113 Issue 11.
Raisa Aniqa is a junior at Stuyvesant.
English class is not just about you. It’s about literary analysis. The personal essays you write are analyses done through the critical lens of your identity. You are the subject matter, yes, but you’re also a tool, and your job is typically to empathize.
While it is nice to see yourself in what you read, English class equips you with an understanding for those who are dissimilar to you, and hopefully an appreciation for craft and the beauty of words. It’s easy to write about characters who are just like you, because you know them the way you know yourself. It’s significantly harder to write about your odyssey with The Odyssey when all you remember is your hatred for Odysseus—but rather than making things up, if you instead write authentically and critically, you’ll see just how worthwhile reading an ancient epic can be, and uncover that it is in fact its relevance that bothers you.
To call The Odyssey outdated is flippant and inaccurate—there is no expiration date on misogyny and hubris. Despite the writer’s claims that “[m]any contemporary novels outwardly denounce the toxic and deplorable stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression that classical novels are filled with[,]” we are currently in no way facing a shortage of Odysseus-esque sigma men, in literature or in reality. (To say that “they are actually acknowledged and criticized throughout the course of the [contemporary] novel” is too idealistic and general.) Similarly, The Picture of Dorian Gray will remain relevant until the last container of anti-aging cream is all used up, and Romeo and Juliet until human beings absolve themselves of the ability to feel love and hatred. And of these three books, only one is ancient.
An appreciation of classics requires understanding that relatability is more than just a shared racial and sexual identity. It includes mental health struggles, familial tensions, Jungian complexes, and even just the inability to make good decisions. You can read Bonjour Tristesse and think Cécile is an unlikable brat, but also find that her desire to grow up yet remain her father’s beloved daughter strikes a chord with you. In The Odyssey, instead of Odysseus, you might relate to the women in his life who are reduced to either sexual objects (Nausikaa, Circe, the slave girls) or holy Madonnas (Athena, Penelope). Characters do not have to resemble you to be relatable. An equally rich and purposeful analysis can be made from finding a genuine point of relation between you and a character who is otherwise completely different from you. The purpose of a personal essay is to write authentically, and that can be accomplished by writing about the otherwise mundane, minor, or unconventional.
That being said, if your discontent with classics is in part over a lack of diversity, then allow me to direct you to this list: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Maurice by E.M. Forster, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and so many more. The classics—including many of those taught at Stuyvesant, though perhaps not enough—are diverse. Get out of the habit of thinking they’re not.
Yes, many classics are written by “deceased, European, straight men[,]” but it is dangerous to say this of all classics and plainly ignore monumental works of literature by/about women, people of color, and queer people that have shaped the western literary canon into what it is today. To do so frames marginalized identities as modern concepts when they are anything but. Our identities are far from new, and some of the best classics reflect that.
For English classes to succeed in shaping young minds, diversity must be a priority—not just so students can see more of themselves in what they read, but so they can have more compassion for the world around them. It’s a lofty goal that cannot be achieved without looking at the past as we do the present and future. Students must grasp the relevance of the world before it was theirs, and the easiest way to do that is through understanding that there is nothing more relatable than being human, that the essence of our humanity transcends time.
The inclusion of contemporary novels is necessary, but cannot come at the expense of classics. Too often classics are misunderstood as ancient, and thus defunct. But they would not be considered classics if they did not withstand the test of time. They would not still be taught if there wasn’t value to be found in the past.
English class is not just about you—it’s about the world. And the world’s history is just as important as its present.