Hamlet, Atticus and all the other guys in the Literary Canon

The big question for all teachers of English today should be: why am I teaching this?  When I went to high school in the 1960’s we read Dickens, Tennyson and Shakespeare.  Today, we still teach Shakespeare, and the most popular novels are To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies.  All of these texts have merit and may have wonderful writing but I think that the last 2 texts are no more relevant to today’s student than Dickens or Tennyson was to me.  I have heard many teachers, often relatively young ones, talk about what a “rich” experience the novels were for their students.   I doubt it and I suggest that the richness was on the teacher’s part who has put in hours of prep and found all kinds of interesting material.  It’s hard to separate our own deep connection with the text from the students’ or as one of my colleagues, Dave, likes to say “It worked for me”.

After a hiatus of about 10 years, I started teaching TKAM again to grade 10 students.  My preparation was extensive; the materials available for the text are many; my classroom is decidedly multi-cultural and I am pretty sure that all the students got the main themes and the historical significance.  But the response to the novel was not passionate or emotional for most of the students.  Did they like it?  Probably, most of them would say yes but were they moved or impressed by it?  I’d have to say no.  All this suggests that the novel , as wonderful as it is, is dated and does not have the power it had in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Like Dickens, it is a product of its time.  When I compare my students’ response  to The Kite Runner, I know that I am right.  With The Kite Runner, I have 17-year old boys telling me that it is the best book they have ever read, or the only book they ever finished in school.  Is it a better book than TKAM? No, of course not, but it is more contemporary and written in a more accessible style for the average reader.

We are living in a world where the printed word is becoming less important and where the average student barely reads.  Are we going to keep slogging on, trying to impress them with “great” books or are we going to lure them in, little by little, and hope that as adults they will become life-long readers?

I will reserve my thoughts on the other classics for a later post.

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One Response to Hamlet, Atticus and all the other guys in the Literary Canon

  1. Dave says:

    This is a good one.

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