By: TJ Collins
I think the senior class can all agree that Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë felt as foreign as reading a book in another language. It is not that this novel is bad by any stretch of the imagination, it just feels like there is an impenetrable wall between the reader and the themes presented in the story. In short, it’s dated. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love English and literature; however, this love was not cultivated from books Wuthering Heights, or Romeo and Juliet.
Let’s talk about 1984, the quintessential dystopian future novel…oh wait it’s not the future anymore, and it hasn’t been for some time. The primary activity in class discussions regarding this novel revolves around drawing parallels from our lives to the book; however, it’s not as scary to us as it may have been for earlier generations of students. We have lived in this hyper-monitored reality for our entire lives, so reading about it being prophesized sixty years ago doesn’t faze us. Novels that portray a twisted future that can capture students interest include The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. Another book that I think is a necessary read for anyone in high school is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I don’t have any book in mind that this would be replacing, but I think that its themes of mental illness, trauma, and friendship are of great value for future generations.
So, what can stay? Books like The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird are all still relevant for different reasons. The Odyssey is the blueprint for the hero’s journey used in thousands of stories that have resonated with readers of my generation: Percy Jackson, The Lord of The Rings, and, of course, Harry Potter (I wholeheartedly think that they should teach one Harry Potter book each year starting in 6th grade and ending in 12th, but that is beside the point). The Great Gatsby, although a commentary on a bygone era, is generation-less through its portrayal of the unfortunate consequences of societal constructs and the sad reality of the American Dream. To Kill a Mockingbird remains, sadly, ever so current in this day and age. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that highlights racism of a specific time period but can stimulate meaningful conversation about racism today. This book also must be taught in a way that acknowledges its flaws, specifically its catering to the “white savior” archetype.
One unit that I feel does not need to be changed at all is the Transcendentalism unit in eleventh grade. While Emerson and Thoreau may feel tired and boring to read, to some, concluding this unit with the reading of Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer is a genius move. By reading Into the Wild readers are able to reflect on and realize the ideas presented in 19th century works in a modern, accessible light.
As for poetry, I think it is a great way to teach active reading, but English students have been reading the same poetry for two centuries. The best way to modernize the poetry curriculum and spark student engagement is to look to the modern poets – songwriters (I’m sure there are people who write poetry these days, but I cannot think of a single one). A key component of learning poetry in high school, specifically romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Keats, is learning about the poet themselves, and their circumstances to understand their state of mind when writing their odes and sonnets. Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) is songwriter whose story of his debut album is just as famous as the artist himself. After a life altering loss of love, Vernon locked himself in a cabin during a wild winter in the Wisconsin wilderness and came out with a pensive reflection of his solitude, chronicling his journey through the stages of grief. Other artists with vast catalogues of deserving work to teach from include Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, Stevie Nicks, and Springsteen.
As I wrap up my high school career and reflect on what I have read, I am pleased to say that I have enjoyed the majority of it. I think that the classics are the classics for a reason, but that doesn’t mean it is necessary to stay with the same books and poems in perpetuity. These works should be assessed periodically and replaced as they age out to add life and intrigue to the study of an ever-growing collection of English literature.