What is it that makes a literary work a classic? Why do we continue to read a classic down the ages? The answers to both questions will underpin the reason why we should teach students of all classes the classics. To be a classic a work of literature should appeal to all generations and different epochs. A classic explores those themes which are everlasting, the themes of love, sacrifice, hate, redemption, patience, and so on. These themes never end and never change! Charles Dickens’ rendering of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol strives to sensitize the reader towards disabled or special children. Phil Squad the servant in the novel Bleak House draws our attention towards how the society discriminates between those who are healthy and those who are not. It requires the vision of the second ghost in A Christmas Carol to bring about a transformation in the attitude of Mr.Scrooge towards Bob Cratchit, his family, and particularly Tiny Tim. Thus we observe how A Christmas Carol attempts to explore a sociological issue which existed in Dickens’ times and exists even today.
Should we teach the classics, in senior classes say from grades ninth to twelfth? For this I would like to take the example of Robert Frost’s Poem, The Road not Taken. If we can call Robert Frost a Modern Classicist, then I guess his poem, which is taught in class ninth in India is relevant because it highlights the need to make the correct decisions and choices that students should make early in live regarding the streams they would like to take up and careers they should take up in life! Robert Frost took a decision early in life, and “that has made all the difference.”-The Road Not Taken. Today we are as concerned about giving our students proper guidance about the streams they should take, and we hire counselors to guide them. There are various important themes that are expressed in these poems and they concern us even today. Take for example the Poem Ode to The West Wind by P.B. Shelley. The poem used to be taught in class in class tenth in English in India, but has unfortunately been removed from the English Communicative course of the CBSE Board. The poem, Ode to the West Wind in another Classic has a very important message for the young reader, namely, the message of Hope, the thought that one should never be disheartened by one’s failings as the best is yet to come. Shelley draws inspiration from the four seasons to draw out this message. Today in times when many of our young learners suffer from depression and low self esteem, it makes sense to read such classics as Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.
It would be a good idea to introduce one Shakespearean play in the class twelve CBSE English Core syllabus, and it could be one of the easier and lighter comedy plays like As You Like It or even Merchant of Venice. I am sure that the students would like reading these plays, especially as they would be able to connect to the themes in both of these plays! Some of the poems already taught in the class twelve English core syllabus are good enough what with poems like the Road Side Stand which highlights the issue of exploitation of poor people by the rich, the existence of dual standards of Government treatment for the poor and the rich, duality of treatment and fund allocation for rural development projects and urban development projects. These are topics which would interest any aspiring student of Economics!
An article Titled: “Shakespeare and Wordsworth can boost your Morale”, appearing in The Times of India on the fourteenth of January 2013 states, “ Reading writers like Shakespeare and Wordsworth can give a , ‘rocket-boost’ to your morale and provide better therapy than self-help books, a study of the human brain has found.” Reading of classics which are more serious in nature has the ability to catch the reader’s attention and prompt self-reflection according to the article. So then, what kind of reading can prompt reflection and stimulate the higher thought processes if not classic literature? While no doubt reading of non-fictional works like charts, essays, thesis papers and treatises might have their own importance being more contemporary, but then the purpose doing them in class might go no further than mere data interpretation. These non-fictional works might also have limited contextual value in the sense that the data and issues presented in these theses and treatises might soon become outdated unlike, of course, the classics which continue to be read even today!
Today, we talk about teaching important values in school. We talk about introducing gender studies. We talk about sensitizing students towards environmental issues, what can do this better than the Classics? A play based on these very issues would be more interesting than a plain drab treatise on moral values. What makes the case for retaining or even increasing the amount of Classics in the class’s ninth to twelfth even stronger is the fact that these classics have a strong Human Interest element, they are all about being human! Today students question the relevance of reading Shakespeare or Dickens in senior classes, but then, what would they read if not the classics? I guess they are confused having been fed on so much of chatting on social networking sites and playing of so many video games that they have somehow lost the ability for higher order, critical thinking. But then of course we can’t afford not to give them any reading materials, can we? One of the main purposes of reading is to analyze, interpret text, deduce, identify the main idea, and of course to be able to understand the message that the writer is trying to impart to us! Researchers at the University of Liverpool have studied the effect of reading classics on the brain using scanners and they have come to the conclusion that doing so, “prompted in shifting the mind to a higher gear encouraging further reading.”
Apparently, the benefit of reading good classical literature far outweighs the need to remove the same from the K-11 and K-12 standards. The sociocultural approach towards the reading of classic literature is the need of the day especially in times where the youth is so confused, stressed, and struggling to understand how to make a balance between the gifts of technology and a culture that is fast changing into a more global one. The anthropological approach towards the teaching of classic literature highlights the importance of reading myths as, “the expression of a community mind which has enjoyed long natural growth, so that the sense of togetherness becomes patterned and semantically significant.”-Poetry, Myth, and Reality, an article by Philip Wheelwright. The Psychological plea for the teaching of classical literature at the senior levels in school is that it “involves the effort to locate and demonstrate certain recurrent patterns.”- An Introduction to Literature, 1968- Random House. The influence of Freud’s Psychology on some of the more modern classics cannot be ignored. The issue of sexuality in modern times are reflected in some of the works of D.H.Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann!