These high school ‘Classics’ have been taught for generations – can they ever go out?

This article is by Andrew Newman reprinted here with permission from The Conversation. This information is provided here because the topic may be of interest to Snopes readers; It does not, however, reflect the work of Snopes fact-checkers or editors.

If you attended high school in the United States at any time since the 1960s, you were probably assigned one of the following books: “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” and Shakespeare; John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”; “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald; “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee; and William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies.”

For many students, these books and other so-called “classics” represent high school English. But despite the efforts of the editors, when this time passed, the titles often given to America’s diverse student body did not appear.

Why did these books become classics in America? How did they avoid problems in their situation? And will they continue to dominate the high school reading charts? Or will they be replaced by another set of textbooks that will become the textbooks for students in the 21st century?

Canon High School

The set of books that are often studied, widely distributed throughout the country, is referred to by literary experts and English teachers as “the canon.”

The high school canon was established by many factors. Shakespeare’s plays, including “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” have been taught since the beginning of the 20th century, when the curriculum was determined by university entrance requirements. Others, like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, have been brought into the classroom by current events — in book form. and Lee, the civil rights movement. Some books are well suited for classroom teaching: “Of Mice and Men” is a straightforward, easy-to-understand topic and is less than 100 pages long.

Titles become “traditional” when passed down through generations. As education writer Jonna Perrillo notes, parents tend to teach their children the same books they did.

The last major change in the canon was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the largest generation of the 20th century, the baby boomers, went to high school. For example, in 1963, a survey of 800 students at Evanston Township High School in Illinois indicated that “To Kill a Mockingbird,” first published in 1960, was the “most enjoyable book loa,” followed by two published books. in the 1950s, JD Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies.” None of these books are traditional, but they are books for the next generation.

A comparison of national surveys conducted in 1963 and 1988 shows that textbooks introduced into the classroom as boomers became regular textbooks in the when teachers become boomers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, teachers revised “Romeo and Juliet” as a new work. Scholarships from that era point to his adaptation of “West Side Story” — a musical first published in 1957 — and Franco Zefferelli’s risqué 1968 film version of Shakespeare’s tale of lovers. star It became a good hook for ninth-graders in the study of Shakespeare that ends in 12th grade with “Macbeth.”

Strive to Balance

British education professor Arthur Applebee noted in 1989 that, since the 1960s, “leaders of the British education industry have tried to expand the curriculum to include more choices by women and minority writers.” .” But at the end of the 1980s, according to his knowledge, the high school “top ten” had only one book by a woman – Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – and nothing by small writers.

At that time, a debate began about whether America was a “melting pot” where many cultures had become, or a colorful “mosaic” where many cultures coexisted. Proponents of the latter theory have argued for a multicultural canon, but have been unable to establish one. In 2011, Joyce Stallworth and Louel C. Gibbons, published in the “English Leadership Quarterly” of Southern Schools in 2011, found that the five most frequently taught books were traditional choices and all: “The Great Gatsby,” “Romeo and Juliet,” Homer. The Odyssey,” Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Another explanation for this continuity is that the canon is not just a list: It is a collection of copies on shelves in a library called a “library.” Changes to the database require time, money and effort. Depending on the district, replacing an old item may require school board approval. And to increase the activities for the reasons that are more important.

“Too many teachers, myself included, learn from the traditional canon,” one teacher told Stallworth and Gibbons. “We are overworked and underpaid and find it difficult to find time to develop good studies for new books.”

The end of another era?

Esau McCauley, author of “Reading While Black,” describes the list of classic novels by white authors as the “pre-integration canon.” At the very least, there are two reasons that indicate that his influence over the curriculum is over.

First of all, the battles that the books are taught are more intense. On the other hand, progressives like the founders of the #DisruptTexts movement demand the inclusion of books by Black, Native American and other writers of color – and they question the status quo. of the ancients. On the other hand, conservatives are against teaching new books about gender and sexuality or race.

Conservatives sought to ban books written by Toni Morrison. Leonardo Cendamo via Getty Images

PEN America, a non-profit organization that fights for free speech for writers, reports a “significant increase” in book bans. The result may be a literary study that is more about the political divisions in this country. More than ever, students in conservative and progressive sectors can read very different books.

Second, English language education itself is changing. State standards, such as those adopted by New York in 2017, do not make the study of literature a core part of the English class. But there is a new meaning to “reading knowledge.” And while previous generations of teachers expressed concerns about the distractions of radio and later television, books are becoming less and less popular among students in the age of the telephone, the internet, social media and online gaming.

“We will no longer live in a print-only, text-only world,” said the National Council of Teachers of English in a 2022 policy statement. teaches students how to use and analyze different types of media. Therefore, students in the country not only have few standard textbooks, but they are likely to read few books at all.

Why study literature?

For generations, English teachers have cited many reasons for studying books, including the canon: to cultivate a common culture, to cultivate familiarity, to build empathy and to inspire readers. alive. These goals are not related to the skills emphasized by current educational standards. But if literature is to continue to be an important part of American education, it is necessary to address not only the books to study, but the teachers.

Andrew Newman is Professor and Chair at Stony Brook University (State University of New York)

This article is reprinted from The Conversation, an independent news organization dedicated to unlocking expert knowledge for the public good.

The Conversation

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