One might argue that if provoking original ideas is the function of literature in the English classroom, then we should move away from classics in favor of high-interest contemporary novels written for teens. That can happen with good Young Adult Fiction, but when easy connections are present, it can be harder to get our students to go deeper.
For example, it’s easy for a high school student to read The Hunger Games and make connections between her life and the drama of Katniss, Gale, and Peeta. That might be interesting to them, but if we allow it to dominate the conversation, we are missing the point.
We cannot allow students to discuss what’s comfortable and easy; we need to expand our students’ understanding of what is relevant to them.
Digging into The Hunger Games
For example, a student might read about party-goers vomiting in the bathroom in Catching Fire, and think, “that is disgusting.” They can have the simple thought that they are repulsed by the characters and the party. The next step is to recognize that the party-goers represent the waste and wealth of the Capital, and that it serves as a contrast to the poverty and want of the outer districts. Students could discuss at length the way the people of the Capital take advantage of the outer districts, and how this scene demonstrates the excessive disparity.
But that is still not enough. The party-goers, the Capitol, the districts, the act of vomiting: all of it speaks for something more. The Hunger Games is an allegory for Western – particularly American – excess. The Capital speaks for the most wealthy, the party-goers speak for the incessant drive for more, and Katniss speaks for those who must go without basic necessities so the party-goers can have the more they crave. In that way, the novel makes us rethink something about our own behavior, and the society in which we live. It is a dramatic study in comparative humanity: of class and circumstance rather than race.
The problem with using The Hunger Games, and other high-interest, YA books, is that students can too easily get caught up in what makes it high-interest: the strong female teenage protagonist who sees the whole world against her, the familial bond that makes Katniss volunteer as tribute, or the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.
Students can have good conversations about those points, but they are book-club level conversations, not academic conversations.
It’s not enough if the interaction with a novel stops at a personal connection.
The Importance of the Classics
The work of the English classroom is to go beyond that, to recognize what the novel speaks to outside itself: to expand the students’ understanding of what is relevant to them. And it is the job of the high school English teacher to get students to understand that all literature is relevant, and “high-interest;” that relevance and interest is deeper in classic literature, but it is less immediate. It takes work to understand the universal truths the classics reveal.
When Ralph Ellison closes Invisible Man, “on the lower frequencies, I speak for you,” he does not mean African Americans. He means all of humanity, or any individual who has struggled to find his place in the world, whatever the obstacles he encountered. If our students can’t see how literature speaks for all of humanity, then we are either missing something or using the wrong book.
A student once told me that she was struggling with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because she couldn’t relate to it: “I’ve never run away and floated down a river with someone who became my best friend,” she said, earnestly explaining why she wasn’t enjoying the book.
Of course, she had.
She had been through a season on a sports team, unsure of what to expect from a big game, accidentally hurting friends feelings in the heat of the moment, but making unexpected bonds along the way, and feeling like its just her team against the world. Other students have been through the same bonding experience through music, theater, or just being in a difficult class together.
A student should be able to see that connection, and explore a classic text with an eye on what it has to teacher her about human nature or life in general. Then, when she is considering decisions that are not in the best interest of her team, she can remember and appreciate the strength it took Huck to throw away his letter to Miss Watson, fully expecting that he would go to Hell for hiding Jim.
Compared to that, it will be easy for her to tell her friends that she’s going to stay in and get some good sleep instead of go out partying, or later in life, to make the same kind of decision based on personal moral compass that Huck discovers on the journey.
The Importance of Complexity
Students might not have as easy entry into a classic novel, from which they are removed by time and culture; the English teacher’s job is to expand the student’s idea of what is relevant.
Classic literature has the “speak for you” moments that require some advanced thinking to unpack and apply to a reader’s worldview.
Students might not have an easy time seeing how those lines and those books apply to them – not as easily as they can connect with teenage protagonists struggling with teen problems. While we will always struggle with reluctant readers, we can encourage an environment that encourages reading on the reader’s terms, to explore whatever connected they are drawn to, whatever thoughts they have.
The most important thing is that students have their own personal, complex thoughts about the complex texts they read. Because of the work involved in understanding the text, classic literature forces a complexity in students’ ideas that Young Adult literature does not. A major problem, though, is that almost anything that can be said and thought about classic books has been posted online somewhere.
Students can read summaries and analyses and pretend to have thoughts that they didn’t really have. In this post, I address a strategy for making the internet work for the teacher: creating a way to use internet sources to push students’ thinking.
Collins, Suzanne. Catching Fire. London: Scholastic, 2009. Print.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. London: Scholastic, 2008. Print.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Lodi, NJ: Everbind Anthologies, 2002. Print.