Should we still read classic books at school?

I watched an excellent programme yesterday about Toby Young’s quest to open one of the first “free schools” under the coalition government’s policy. I wish him well with his plans.

The thing that sparked the most discussion in our house was the comment made about the sort of books that he thought the children at a school he visited should be reading.

I was very much on the side of the student in the programme. The books to be read should be those that were of interest to the students and that sparked an interest in reading. My wife on the other hand was completely in Toby’s camp that the books to be read should be more along the lines of classic works.

When I was young I used to read a lot and I used to really enjoy reading. I read entirely fiction and a lot of Enid Blyton. I bought lots of books and I was a regular visitor of the town library. My love of reading meant that I picked up quite a variety of books and read tales of Odysseus, for example, when age 10. I can vividly remember staying up reading all night at the weekend as I loved what I was reading so much.

Things changed when I got to secondary school. Here we began to have set books we had to read as part of our English lessons. Some of these were ok but many were so called classics and very hard going with little interest to me. We’d then dissect them into something they often weren’t meant to be (even in the author’s opinion) and all the pleasure of reading was killed. I rarely read a book between the ages of 14 and 20. Since age 20 I have been reading, albeit irregularly, but the subject matter has been 80% non-fiction.

My wife on the other hand goes to a regular book group and reads 2 books a week!

This is perhaps where the big difference is between me and her. I have always been a very slow reader whereas she reads extremely fast. Our brains work in completely different ways in how we read as well. For example, when doing a cross word together she always does the “easy ones” first stating that they stand out. Meanwhile I wonder how she could have found the easy one that is 13 down when I’ve only worked my way half way down the across clues. She can take in all the clues at once whereas I read them one by one.

For me therefore, reading classics that didn’t interest me took up so much time that it meant I didn’t have chance to read anything else and I lost the love of reading. Whereas for my wife reading the classic might not have been enjoyable but she was done in a few days and on to something better.

We agreed to disagree on the debate in question.

The other question that springs to mind though is what makes a classic? and who is it that gets to decide that a book is a classic? Is there really any merit in force feeding children Dickens and Shakespeare and pointing out why it’s considered so good? Should we not be spending time making sure that children have a real grasp of the English language, have the skills to write letters, reports and other important documents rather than worrying about literature? When it comes to literature is the best teaching not to get children interested in reading so they can take a view on what’s good themselves? Literature is after all an art and is utterly subjective – how can there be a right answer?

3 thoughts on “Should we still read classic books at school?

  1. Hmmm. I can see what you mean about the classics. Upon having made us write a list of our favourite books when we were eleven and had started secondary school, my English teacher decided that I hadn’t read enough classics and sat me down with Silas Marner. I now hate that book. That said, books like Dracula and Frankenstein are classics and I had loved those.

    I think there’s a need to find a balance. I don’t agree (as an ex English teacher) with forcing year 7s with literacy issues to study a Shakespeare play in the original language, and yet that’s what the national curriculum would have us do.

  2. Agreed. There is no harm in suggesting classics and some people will enjoy some of them. I just don’t believe they should be force fed. Children should discover a love of classic books themselves through exploration of the wealth of literature that’s out there – and if it’s not for them then it doesn’t matter!

    A true classic will span generations, ages and different groups of society.

  3. Interesting view. I must admit I think one of the greatest gifts I can give my children is a love of books. Part of that is to get them to be willing to look at classics too.  This is only a small part though. Classics weren’t necessarily written for children and I honestly think that the standard, scope and imagination of modern children’s literature beats all but the best adult work

    How did I get my children interested in reading.  Well I must admit it isn’t giving them a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. It’s by giving them access to a massive amount of different books and watching and talking to them. I have realised that I can’t tell exactly which books are going to press their buttons. I can blanket cover them with books (see red house books and the book people to keep the cost down) and then react according to their likes and dislikes (I do still get it wrong). But once they are into books, boy are they into books. 

    My latest ploy is to get my oldest boy (11) to read Pride and Prejudice. Given he doesn’t want to go to his school disco this week as “it’s boring and I only end up standing around the side” (yes I did point out that’s what boys do!) I think this will be my greatest achievement. He’s clearly not interested yet in social intercourse between men and women.  

    Despite this my planned route to success is:
    1. The enemy (Charlie Higson) – virus strikes adults. Turns them to zombies. Children struggle to survive. 
    2. Dawn of the Dreadfuls – prequel to:
    3. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies explaining how the zombie menace got loose in Regency England. Incredible book using 85% of the original text but squeezing in (in context!) zombies. 
    4. Pride and Prejudice – to spot the missing 15%!
    We’re just at stage 3 having been derailed by the tremendous “hunger games”. 
    To try and bring this back to topic. Classics are classics for a reason – they have a depth that appeals to an advanced reader.  They can appeal to all but they are not necessarily a starting point for children. However, children can get something from them and fingers crossed for Pride and Prejudice. 

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