I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid and I’m pretty sure quite a lot of people in the bookish community can relate to that. But one thing that I wasn’t particularly fond of was all the assigned readings we were made to do in school.
With one or two exceptions, most of the books that were assigned to me were boring or slow and quickly became a topic for everyone in school to crib about. Actually school is a huge reason why I still can’t get myself to pick up as many classic novels. I always used to wonder why we couldn’t be assigned some fun or in the very least interesting books to read so picking up a classic by choice was out of the question. And I’m guessing that’s how most kids felt about books in general.
Up until a few months ago I had given up on this topic entirely. I just accepted that schools had to make children read old classics that would bore them and there was nothing to do about it. And then funnily enough, I came across some wonderful classics during my first year in university. These were books that had me stuck to the couch for hours, they made me smile and laugh and I also learnt so much discussing their themes and characters in my classes and I just kept thinking why I couldn’t have had this in school?
So I did some digging and I have a lot to say and possible rant letters to write to education centers…
Note: I’m mostly talking about the scenario of classics as required reading in India because I can’t speak for other countries but please let me know in the comments if all of this holds true for your childhood.
To start with, what are classics?
I honestly thought that classics are old books written mostly by white men so when I looked up an actual definition I was pretty shocked.
Classics are an expression of life, truth, and beauty. They must be of high artistic quality, at least for the time in which they were written. Although different styles will come and go, a classic can be appreciated for its construction and literary art.
This is one of the many similar explanations that I found and I’m honestly so angry. This completely changes my outlook.
To start with, if a classic can be taken from any time period, why are schools only picking up the older books like The Invisible Man or The Three Men In A Boat? Why aren’t they picking slightly less dated and diverse classics? Because here’s the thing, even if I include the biography of Helen Keller, my education board never made us read any classics that weren’t written by white people.
Reading diversely is something that never came to me on my own because of the nature of publishing but also because white literature was thrust upon us. I was going through some lists of must-read and top classics and stumbled upon the works of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. Now I have no idea if I would have found their works to be equally boring or difficult to understand but in the very least we would be learning about diverse narratives and different countries and cultures. I mean if I have to read something that is dense and difficult to understand then at least it shouldn’t be white.
Also, thinking back, what hits me the most is that none of those classics were by Indian authors despite the fact that we lived and studied in India and hailed our culture. I can’t speak for every school in the country but most schools, especially my school tended to stick Indian literature to Hindi classes and the only way that it infiltrated our English classes was in the form of short stories. I don’t get why we couldn’t have been reading classics like The Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. It’s strange how our education systems push us towards English literature and then complain about the younger generations not being in touch with our culture.
Another important thing that I want to bring up is the content of the classics we are required to read. A classic means any book which was a masterpiece in its time and I’m fine with that because the definition of a masterpiece can differ from person to person. But correct me if I’m wrong, aren’t stories and books supposed to evoke themes and topics for students to discuss? Aren’t these books supposed to facilitate discussions about new and important things and impart us with lessons we can apply in our lives?
So bear with me for a second as I dissect what the classics I remember studying were about and what they taught me.
Three Men In A Boat
About: The adventures of three idiotic men with their dog filled with anecdotes and crazy hilarious stuff.
What I Learnt: Grown-up men can be idiots.
The Invisible Man
About: An invisible man who gets discovered while trying to reverse the process
What I Learnt: umm scientists can be stupid too?
About: a blind girl and her life
What I Learnt: well okay at least this one taught me to not give up on life and face adversity and all.
But the thing is that the questions that were asked about these novels and the parts that were focused upon were not thematic. They were focused on the details of the story and the events, asking us for a book summary and not what reading these books taught us. I kid you not, in one examination I was asked something along the lines of what a character did in chapter six and I ended up losing all the marks because how was I supposed to remember the chapter numbers?
Now I’m not saying these books are terrible. Three Men In A Boat was actually funny even though it didn’t teach me anything. My point is that these are books one can read on their own, not books that teach us important lessons. Helen Keller could have had a lot of potential for thematic discussions but none of my teachers ever touched on that. They didn’t encourage us to think about the book, only to get a gist of the plot so that we could answer the questions put up by the education board.
What is the point of this?
Aren’t we already doing this for the other stories we’re made to read in English class?
In my first semester at my university, I read Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and my professor spent three hours discussing the themes and Jewish parallels behind it and questioning a family’s ‘everlasting love’ and the sort of treatment one is given if they express a change in themselves. We discussed racial discrimination as well as anger and violence based on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. After I read Frankenstein my professor gave us fascinating insights on how the novel tied into the themes of gender and sexuality and that was honestly one of my favorite classes of the whole year. This semester I read a Greek play about feminism and how women stood up against men to demand that they stop a war by denying them sex.
I honestly have so many more crazy classic stories! If 16 year old me were to watch me laugh while reading The Canterbury Tales she would have thought that I were insane.
In the end what makes a difference is the kind of classics we’re being told to read and the approach teachers have to them. Not only does there need to be a change in the classics that children are made to read in schools but teachers themselves need to make an effort to foster discussions on the themes and meaning behind the books rather than fixating on the plot itself.
Because children could actually enjoy reading classics. They could fall in love with reading. If only the education boards and teachers can see that.
What have your experiences with classic novels been like?
Do my school experiences sound like yours as well?
What are some classics that you adore and which taught you something important?