In defence of classics- again!

thoughts orangutan

Prepare yourself, for I am about to say something *ground-breaking*, *momentous*, *lifechanging* even: classics are worthwhile and important. I know, I know, you can stop the applause now 😉 I’m pretty sure I’ve made my defences for classics before and talked about their upsides. Alas- this seems to be the perennial problem of our age that won’t go away. Every week or so, I still see people telling others not to bother reading classics. And I despair whenever I see someone using these horrible, terrible, NOT GOOD arguments. So, it’s about time to put down those swords, grab the much-mightier pen, and let’s break this down, shall we?

“They’re pretentious”- I hear many-a misled individual moan. Here’s the kicker- complex/beautiful/unusual language *is not* automatically pretentious. In fairness, I think there are multiple reasons for this misbelief, starting with the fact that they can be written in archaic language, which is less accessible to the modern reader. Now, where the mistake is being made is that using complex words and a style from 200 years ago DOES NOT mean the author’s intent was to impress upon you its importance in some hoity-toity way. Hard for the modern reader ≠ pretentious. A lot of classics were aimed at the “mass market” (as much as that existed) in the same way a popular paperback might be today. It is a truth universally acknowledged that poor people went to see Shakespeare back in the day 😉 This is not to say that there are no pretentious classics- BUT (and this will come as a shocker) classics are not all the same and come from a range of genres- as was brilliantly pointed out by Pages Unbound.

“There’s no benefit/it’s the same to just watch the movie”- erm no. I mean, I’m not sure I have to explain the difference between reading a book and watching a movie to a bunch of bookworms 😉 Let’s just say, I think we can all agree that there’s endless complexity when it comes to books, it stretches the brain and this is particularly important when it comes to children’s development. Because, yes, classics may provide more of a challenge, but that is really beneficial when it comes to education. You wouldn’t expect an athlete to get better only competing at the lowest level. The language of classics alone often makes a huge difference as well- you can’t just cheat the system by brushing up on sparknotes. There are so many literary devices that you miss if you don’t read it on the page. I’ve heard it said recently the difference is much like looking at a photo versus a painting- the depth is so much greater when you can see the layers for yourself.

“They’re elitist”- seems to be a very pervasive point of view at the moment. Unfortunately, it hurts the very people it pertains to help. Somehow, it’s supposed to help people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to tell them they don’t need to read classics- yet in truth this race to the bottom mentality stands in the way of self-improvement and stops poorer kids from levelling the playing field. Not only will it be impossible to out-compete people who have top-notch educations with this attitude, but it also means our societies will be less educated for it. In the words of headteacher and founder of the Michaela Community School, Katherine Birbalsingh “They are denying a decent education to black kids, because being able to understand Shakespeare is a right that my kids deserve and knowing who Mozart was and hearing his music is a right that they should be able to access.” We should be fighting for underprivileged kids to get good educations, not standing in their way! And on that note…

“They’re all written by old white men”- ahh the criticism that historically speaking Europeans were European. Aside from the what do you actually expect to come out of Europe? counterargument, I do think that there’s other problems with this outlook. One, you may need to re-examine the last few hundred years of the European literary canon; two, I will always advocate expanding your horizons and considering reading *outside* the Western canon. Go on, I dare you 😉 Though there are benefits of reading in the original language, which I’ve mentioned, you can still get access to the ideas and learn something new. But, even if we were to assume all classics were written by “old white men”, it doesn’t actually reduce their merit, make them less valuable or stop them being important for the reasons already stated.

“They put children off reading”- well, I wouldn’t say this is true for a lot of children, as Briana @Pages Unbound wrote about in: “Why I fell in love with reading because of old boring books”. I feel much the same way and many, many literature students will tell you the same thing. Unfortunately, I can’t say that every teacher will be brilliantly inspiring. Plus, there is always the matter of personal taste (although I will urge people put off by a few books not to throw out the baby with the bathwater). Now everything I’ve said so far might indicate that I want children reading classics, whilst playing the violin and sipping tea. Truth is though, I prefer to take the middle ground when it comes to the “what kids should be reading” debate. There should be a balance in children reading for pleasure and for educational purposes. As Krysta @Pages Unbound pointed out in her post “The Unacknowledged Nuances in the Argument for Choice in School Reading“, left to themselves, children will never pick up certain types of books and will nearly always go for the easy option. While it can seem quite prescriptive, the real trick with reading lists is to find a balance- a lot of teachers try to find a mix of well-written/enjoyable/imaginative reads etc. But they’ll also understand that there have to be progressively more challenging books. After all, in the words of George R R Martin:

a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone

Classics are the *ultimate* whetstone. And on that weird analogy, I’d like to ask you if you think classics have value? What other defences do you have? Let me know in the comments