The classics have dominated English curriculums for decades, ignoring the works that emerged in and about the world students live in today
By Yasmine Abdeldayem
There was a moment in my sophomore year at CSI, when I was completing assigned readings for a literature course and thought to myself (without any offense intended toward the disturbed Edgar Allan Poe), I think I’m sick of reading.
Not sick in a disgusted manner that would imply that I was fighting the urge to douse all books in gasoline, light a match, and say “sayonara” to the pastime that sparked my interest in pursuing an English major. It was the kind of sick that develops from deprivation.
Think malnourishment, but instead of carting around an emaciated physique, I had ravenous eyes that roved syllabuses for any text that was published past 2000.
Even if the supply of classics is relatively scarce on my personal bookshelf, it’s easy to understand why they’re such a major part of higher English curriculums. The intricate metaphors are a gold mine for critical thinking, the plots are rooted in values that offer historical insight, the green light represents Gatsby’s unattainable dreams.
The classics will always have a place in learning, just as addition and subtraction will forever be stuck in the foundation of elementary math.
But having a place is different than how the classics typically exist today: eating up spare space in curriculums, cutting off recent decades of literary works in the process. In a 2018 study of the 15 most assigned books from 30 U.S. colleges, 14 of those books were published before 1950.
Historical texts are crucial for contextualizing the world that we live in today, but if students are to accurately make comparisons, wouldn’t it stand to reason that literature written in modern decades holds just as much relevance?
If we’re talking about the early feminism woven through The Scarlet Letter, then toss in Speak by Laurie Halsie Anderson. Or go a step further and put all the spotlight on Speak because it stands sturdily alone, in its exploration of a girl’s trauma and isolation after she was raped.
The evolution of literature and humanity is intrinsic to English studies, yet we frequently get trapped in the before and neglect the profound stories that were curated in the times we’re living through today.
In academic settings, the idea of what is truly profound in literature can become restricted to Shakespeare and Dickens. But if profoundness is simply insight that strikes deep, thus determined by the impact it has on an audience, then it’s worth examining popular literature on account of the extraordinary reach it has.
We need to be willing to accept and analyze the media that gets carelessly tossed under the umbrella of pop culture, rather than dismissing it as superficial or lesser than the works that have cycled through curriculums for generations. If people are resonating with a medium enough for it to top bestsellers lists and garner film adaptations, I want to dig into why.
Being an English major is understanding that stories unearth layers of humanity that are blind to the naked eye. To allow such broad omissions is accepting a partial comprehension of the field, the diverse authors of the world, and the readers.
In one of my English courses this semester, we read Middle Eastern folktales, compiled in 1,001 Nights. Simultaneously, I was reading Hafsah Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame, which combined modern media tropes and inspiration from pre-Islamic Arabia.
I wondered at the possibilities of class lectures extending to the vibrant cultural representation that modern readers widely embrace today. Moving beyond classics isn’t abandoning the integrity of the English field, it’s enriching it with the fresh voices of generations students can hear themselves in.