Why do we still study “the classics”?
This is the question I pose my students whenever we’re about to tackle Shakespeare, or Dickens, or a ‘scary’ piece of older Western literature. Inevitably, they— bless their poly-blend socks— begin by attacking this question with what they think I want to hear:
‘Because it’s still relevant today.’
‘Because there are still lessons we can learn from them.’
‘Because they’re historically important.’
‘Because the English department hates us. Like, just admit it, Miss.’
Look, they’re not wrong (mostly). But they aren’t actually answering the question of why we do it. I tell them so, and it always leads to a much more interesting discussion about what classic actually is. On this, they start to differ pretty wildly:
‘It has to be old.’
‘It has to be famous.’
‘It has to have a good moral message.’
Really?Lolita? Perfume? Lord of the Flies?A Clockwork Orange? Really?
‘It has to be universally enjoyable.’
What makes you say that?
From here, I ask them to write an exploration of what they think makes a classic a classic. If they’re super-duper keen, I get them to read a translation of Italo Calvino’s ‘Perché leggere i classici’, but by this stage they’ve already started formulating their own responses to this without needing to read an essay by an old dead white guy.
And that, at its heart, is the question which Ireally want answered: why are so many “classics” written by old, dead, (usually) straight white guys?
That’s not to say that there’s no value in texts written by that particular demographic. Of course there is. I have a Shakespeare tattoo from my lit-nerd version of young rebellion, so golly, I hope so. But why do we, societally, place so much value on those specific texts?
That’s a huge question in and of itself. And it’s incredibly condescending to think that teenagers might not be able to help us answer it.
Any English teacher right now can tell you about the surge they’re seeing in their students engaging with young adult literature. It’s not surprising; why would it be a leap to think that kids want to see themselves reflected in the media they consume? What’s really interesting, though, are the types of stories they’re choosing to engage with.
I work with boys, and the appetite for YA fiction either written by women and/or are about the female experience is honestly huge. They’re certainly spoiled for choice: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100, The Hate U Give, Tomorrow When the War Began…it would be very easy to keep going, especially now that publishers are cottoning on. Screen texts have followed suit— The Hunger Games, Divergent,and The Hate U Givehave all been adapted into film. The television adaptation of The 100is currently airing its sixth season. Tomorrow When the War Begangot both. Original YA TV series are gaining traction as well: recent successes include The Society, Atypical, Sex Education, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The point here isn’t the average teen’s list of media consumption, but what’s actually in it. And the answer might be surprising; these shows and books, especially the more recent, don’t just explore female experience, but ‘otherness’ in general. Race, gender spectrums, sex and sexual fluidity, disability— admittedly with varying degrees of success and sensitivity. The 100has an openly bisexual protagonist and a number of multi-racial straight and gay relationships (importantly for a futuristic text, accepted in-world without fanfare), and tackles the issue of living with disability in a mid-scarcity post-apocalyptic narrative lacking effective support and medical care. The Society examines sexual fluidity intersecting with disability, as does Atypical. Sex Education explores the intersections of sexuality and race, and Sabrina attempts all of the above alongside critiques of gender and patriarchal religious systems. That’s not to say they all do so well, exactly— the criticism of Sabrina has been especially rigorous, and they all focus on white protagonists— but they do share a recognition of the desire for narratives outside what has come to be accepted as the standard.
It’s reasonable to assume that much of the audience for these texts consists of people living the intersections of those experiences. That said, I’m not pulling these examples out of nowhere— these are the books and shows which my overwhelmingly white, affluent, male students are choosing to engage with, and to share with me and with each other. They are actively seeking out narratives which offer windows into experiences outside their own, and tellingly, outside the hallowed canon of Western literature.
Certainly there are instances within teaching this canon that allow for broad discussion of difference. My Year 11s are currently finishing up a unit on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and it’s been thoroughly enjoyable discussing the Big Question of the Bard’s sexuality with respect to the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady. It opens up discussions about power and society, and whose voices get published and censored and centred and studied and why. Especially in Australia.
That has essentially been my jumping off point for this week of archival study. An article I found in the
Spring 1988 issue of Lilith calls this Euro-centric focus the ‘canon of significance’, and it’s challenged and explored pretty consistently— but anything that does challenge it is also considered to be of niche interest. It’s not a coincidence I found this terminology in a feminist publication. But if we have students actively telling us they want to hear from other voices, it begs the question of how we could do this better.
The study of classics, at least within the context of my school, ultimately comes down to what it tells us about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going. To that end, my research has been geared towards building a unit of work that offers students a framework for discussing, with a fair degree of autonomy, a) what a “classic” is; b) what the modern Australian voice might look like by comparison; and c) how to go about discussing these as part of a landscape of multimodal literature, rather than as existing in isolated bubbles that they can forget about as soon as a SAC is over.
In an Australian context, that covers an enormous range of voices. There certainly isn’t just one, and I want my students to actively engage with that concept. So the week up until now has been focused on narrowing my scope down to something manageable that’s still meaningful. My original focus was on intersectionality and intertextuality overall; from what I’ve looked at this week, I think the lens is narrowing to the crossovers between migrant voices, queer voices, and female voices. My text list for this unit now looks something like this:
- Looking for Alibrandi
- The Hate Race
- Foreign Soil
- Growing Up Asian In Australia
I’ve been looking primarily at material that builds the field of understanding of where these voices sat in the Australian setting during the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, and what factors led into their being afforded increased validity. The archives have offered up some gems, such as these from the YWCA’s Immigration Regional Coordinating Committee Minutes:
…All of them?
I sent this one to my family, many of whom are now upset that they never got an outstanding migrant award.
There are several other examples, too many to reproduce here without getting repetitive, of very long discussions about whether it might, in fact, be useful to ask the migrant women in question what would actually help them in adjusting to their new home. While these isolated bits and bobs are very entertaining, they also provide really useful insight into the language and attitudes of their eras towards migrant women, particularly since they were usually coming from well-meaning women themselves. These are significant in terms of realia I can use with my students and discussing the intentions versus the impact of decisions around engaging with voices who don’t fit the “classic” paradigm— precisely what we come up against in challenging the Western canon itself.
From the perspective of my own ongoing research paper, I intend to look further into the Euro-centric model of schooling which encourages these ties to British and American texts, and why as a teacher it often feels as though the teaching of Australian texts is quite forced.
So that’s where I’m sitting right now. If you’ve made it through this absolutely over-long blog post, well done! I’ll leave you with this absolute gift from a glossary in a flyer packet I found in the Dianne Otto collection advertising joint events between women’s liberation and homosexual support groups: