This morning I read an article by Alison Flood at The Guardian called “Books That Send Me Back To School”, in which she discusses the literary works that she remembers from her school days and what part they played in her education. This is a topic that causes me both joy and disappointment. The former is obvious since I’m a reader and writer myself with an interest in literature, but the latter is another matter.
When I think back over my own English education it’s true that much of what my classes covered in high school has been lost to memory (like so many other parts of that strange time in life). The works I clearly remember covering are:
- A Christmas Carol
- The Old Man and The Sea
- Julius Caesar
- Lord of the Flies
- The Lure of the Labrador Wild
- The Pearl
When I move beyond this list it becomes much harder to remember any novels or other works that school English classes had made available to me. I don’t doubt that there may be a couple beyond this, but I just don’t remember them. When I think about the classics that’s about it.
Now looking back on my education, this is a rather paltry selection. Thousands of years of the literary arts and this was what was deemed worthy study? Sure Piggy, Simon and the other unfortunates in Golding’s work were entertaining and compelling; the struggle between Santiago and the marlin in Hemingway’s novella is masterful and illustrates an incredible perception into human character; Shakespeare’s works are timeless in their relevance (though this is being challenged by those who question the Bard’s place in a modern canon); and I would take any opportunity to read of the twisted familial relations of ancient Greek texts.
But where are the other classics? When I was younger I wondered why Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird weren’t covered in my classes (these are currently taught in the school in which I work). I read no Mark Twain, no Hardy, Austen, Orwell, Vonnegut, Wilde, Bronte, any Russian authors, anything medieval in nature, Beowulf, Shelley, and the list goes on and on. There was so much more out there I could read, I knew it, but had no idea where to start. As a teacher today, I know there is a limited amount of time and flexibility in English courses and other learning outcomes must be achieved, but when I think of the vast store of great literary works out there, I feel a little cheated with the ones presented to me as important. Book clubs would have been a welcome alternative, but were a wholly alien concept to me growing up in a small, outport community.
In more recent years, I’ve become a bit self-conscious about the gaps in my reading of the classics and have been attempting to plug them. I can’t place this concern solely at the feet of the education system here and nor would I want to: perhaps I should have been asking my teachers more questions about other authors, other novels they found gripping, perhaps I should have widened my own reading. My point is to question the current canon of suggested and required texts for school courses, not for the exclusion of those currently present, but to consider ways of getting kids to read more, even if it is on their own time. Making use of school libraries as places where students can find entertaining and valuable reads (and time to read them), rather than what seems their primary role as sources of internet access and the ills of misdirected surfing. This trend I’ve seen developing quite freely since becoming a teacher.