What Should We Be Reading in Today’s English Classroom? | Jeannette Lee-Parikh, PhD | 9 Min Read

Late last year, another shot was fired in the perennial war on the role of the classics in the high school English curriculum. According to Megan Cox Gurdon, the Wall Street Journal’s children’s book reviewer, classic texts are being purged from the classroom (I have deliberately not hyperlinked it — you can find it behind WSJ’s paywall on your own). In one of the instances Gurdon cited, a Lawrence High School in Massachusetts banned Homer’s Odyssey. When there was the inevitable media follow-up, the English teacher criticized in Gurdon’s article explained that the 9th-grade ELA team chose to reimagine the 9th-grade curriculum, “to best meet the needs of our students[.]….[T[his year almost all of our curriculum needed to be reshaped…once we realized virtual learning would continue.” Ah, do I see the specter of COVID-19 — a virus that has even infected the curriculum! Which school hasn’t made curricular changes because of COVID-19?

What lies underneath the disappearance of the Odyssey in this instance is an intersectional response to student need, historical circumstance (COVID-19), and time. A teaching team looked at the type of time available in a specific school year and made decisions based on the particularities of their student population. 

If one steps back from the debates on the inclusion of classics in the curriculum, what is really at stake are ideas on what it means to be an American and a citizen of the West as well as what is a liberal arts education, and where is the time to prepare this ideal person. You see, educational institutions produce the public at large. And the question is: What is this public going to be?

I suggest that we step back from the classics debate to consider two of the underlying issues: the purpose of a liberal arts education and time.

What is a liberal arts education? How do independent schools prepare their students for a liberal arts education? According to the ancient Greeks, the ‘liberal arts’ were disciplines “deemed to be essential preparation for effective participation in public life.” The original core subjects were grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Early European universities were founded on this model; history, Greek grammar, moral philosophy, and poetry were added by the end of the Renaissance. These subjects reveal to us what the ancient Greeks and later Europeans valued. Remember: a country’s education system embodies the country’s values.

Today, when we talk about a liberal arts education, we mean an education that “emphasizes depth and breadth.” What are the implications for high schools if colleges seek students who are prepared for breadth and depth in learning? Well, for the most part, the intent of high school education in the United States exposes students to breadth. Students have to take classes across the major disciplinary categories: Science and Math (which can include Computer Science and Engineering), History, English, World/Global Languages, and some combination of the arts — Theatre, Dance, Music, Visual Arts. Try to find an independent high school (or even a high-performing public high school for that matter) where students don’t have to take classes in all of these disciplines before graduation. The spread of these disciplines then is the breadth that allows students to be prepared for the breadth and depth of college.

So if we at the high school level are in the business of breadth, what does this mean for our curriculum? What does it mean for the texts that we choose to teach, particularly in English classes? 

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock frets over time. This is a poem about anxiety and making choices. Prufrock constantly asks himself if he is making the right choices. He wonders if he is using, will use, and has used his time the right way to make the right choices. 

And this, dear reader, is really the question about the classics and contemporary diverse fiction: Do teachers have enough time, and does the curriculum have enough space for the right choices? The choices that will properly prepare students for college, to be American citizens and people who live in the West, the American public at large?

But what is time? Now, I am not a scientist. I live in the humanities, and my understanding of time will reflect my disciplinary home as an English teacher. In my Writing Poetry class, I explain to students that while in the West we measure time in an objective and universal way: 60 seconds equal one minute, 60 minutes equal one hour, etc, the experience of time is individual: chronoception, the subjective experience of the passage of time, as determined by our perception of an event’s duration, is a lesser-known but powerful sense. 

So when English teachers look at the school year and look at their students, they are considering how much time there is, who are the students, and how many books can be read together in that time frame given who the students are. This is a necessarily subjective endeavor because only the teachers know how time will pass given the specificity of their students.

The hard cold universal disinterested fixed non-negotiable fact is that the school year is not long enough for all the books that a department and/or team of English teachers think their students should read. So teachers, teaching teams, and departments make choices, which are necessarily subjective. These choices will, without fail, be informed by the biases of those making the decisions because all humans have biases. Let me repeat that: all humans have biases.

Because we all have biases, it is imperative for teachers, departments, and schools to be mindful of our prejudices and how they inform our inclinations and disinclinations. We need to be aware and honest. We can practice the framework offered by #DisruptTexts: “We want teachers to interrogate their biases and to apply a critical literacy lens: Ask: How does this text support or challenge issues of representation, fairness, or justice? How does this text perpetuate or subvert dominant power dynamics and ideologies? And how can we ask students to wrestle with these tensions?” 

In interrogating our biases as English teachers and reckoning with the subjectivity of time, then and only then can we have an honest conversation about what is to be included and excluded and why, given the particularities of our students as well as this national, cultural, and historical moment. With such a lens, one can teach anything, but one should also teach a diverse range of voices, and a diverse range of voices includes the classics alongside writing from earlier authors who were marginalized and LGBTQIA+ writers & BIPOC writers, contemporary and dead, because we, at the high school level, are in the business of breadth.

The curriculum should be inclusive. Teachers and departments must see their students, and based on who their students are, design an inclusive curriculum where classics and contemporary writing are read and students see authentic representations of themselves both in the text and the author. The questions we should consider are: What classics and contemporary writing speak to the needs of our student population and the larger present historical moment? How do these texts speak to one another? What lesser-known earlier authors also explore similar ideas? The inclusive curriculum is a both/and proposition of making space in such a way that texts don’t take space in ways that reproduce historic -isms and -phobias. And since this is an inescapably subjective exercise informed by the values of those constructing the curriculum, there is no universal right answer. But there are wrong ones. The choices we end up with are the choices that reflect who we are and who we want to be. These choices reveal our values.

But, like Prufrock, we fret, because we don’t have the time to include all the breadth that we want to include. But…the assigned curriculum is not the only place for exposure to reading, and it shouldn’t be.

High schools and English teachers should also be in the business of returning students to independent reading, otherwise known as reading for pleasure. We need to remember that all reading doesn’t happen and shouldn’t happen inside and for the classroom. High schools should be spending more time developing programs that foster good readers outside of the classroom. A good reader, according to Maryanne Wolf in Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World is one who has an authentic, meaningful, and meaning-making encounter with a text. A good reader is one who is able to go beyond the author’s wisdom to discover the reader’s own wisdom: “[I]t is this form of reading that is our best chance at giving the next generation the foundation for the unique and autonomous life of the mind they will need in a world none of us can fully imagine.” Through this type of reading, Wolf explains, “the human species can best sustain and pass on the highest forms of our collective intelligence, compassion, and wisdom.” And this type of reading embodies the life of contemplation, Wolf asserts.

All of this arguing over what should be read obfuscates the more important issue of how we read and how our children’s reading lives are being reshaped by ubiquitous technology and therefore making us more anxious, like Prufrock, over the ever-dwindling time available for reading texts and the life of contemplation that is engendered by good reading. 

The classics are not going anywhere. They have thrived for this long, and they will continue to flourish despite all the hyperventilating from certain quarters in the media. Ultimately, the debate over the classics versus multicultural texts is smoke and mirrors. It is largely an anxiety that exists in the conservative media’s imagination. It’s like the perennial war on Christmas. I ask you: Is Christmas still celebrated in all its capitalistic glory and more subdued but still celebratory religious tone in the United States (and I pose this question as a lapsed but committed Episcopalian)? If one looks across English departments, one will see that the space for classics is fairly secure and teachers are finding ways to include diverse texts. Could more be done? Yes! But there is another, more complex issue, which is how books are included and whether teachers bring a critical literacy approach to reading with students what is included. With a critical literacy approach, for instance, one could challenge Jane in Jane Eyre for wanting to be an independent woman as she perpetuates the classism and racism of Victorian England. One could question why Jane gives up on her ambitions to take care of a man. One could consider how Charlotte Brontë valued education and this certainly comes across in Jane Eyre, but she doesn’t have too much sympathy for the poor under-educated masses. One could wonder why Brontë effectively stifles the rebellious female energy in the text and what this stifling reveals not only about Brontë and her time but also about us in the 20th- and 21st-centuries and our (at least mine) perennial love of this text. 

So, dear reader, instead of engaging in another kind of never-ending war, let’s put down our weapons and instead talk about reading and how to foster good readers in this digital age.

Jeannette Parikh

Jeannette Lee-Parikh English Department Chair & Head of Community Reading The Cambridge School of Weston (MA)

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