A Classic Case

Today I have a contentious argument – I like those!  I’d like to think that someday I will be able to posit an opinion so outrageous as to attract a fatwa from the bodleian,  a thousand words from ‘Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ or denunciation from the pulpit by an archbishop.  Maybe if I add lots of tag-words…..

Classics are rubbish.  There, I’ve said it!   Discuss.

courtesy Microsoft clip art

Why, at this critical time in the history of the book, when there are so many more immediate methods for stimulating imagination, do we insist upon cramming our children with verbiage generated a thousand or more years ago?   Why do we force them to plough through the’ Iliad’ by day when there is nothing more certain to drive them into the tender clutches of ‘Call of Duty’ by night?  Do we seriously believe if Homer were alive today he would have ignored the potential offered by the Trojan Wars as a video game?

To achieve competency in English we still ask impossibly young minds to wrap their brain-cells around Shakespeare, to scuff for crumbs among the dry dust of Proust, or to ferret for some modern references – anything they can recognise as topical – in the damp burrows of Tolstoy.

courtesy Microsoft clip art

What, in heaven’s name (small ‘h’ – I’m an atheist) apart from scholastic self-justification motivates an examinations board to set books like ‘Hard Times’ (Dickens at his worst), essays like Lamb’s ‘Dissertation upon  Roast Pig’, or plays like Willy’s ‘Julius Caesar’ as a barometer for literary prowess?   It is as if they have an entire library somewhere of ‘Pieces Best Forgotten’ to draw upon.  It is – forgive me – as if they actually want to put nine-tenths of the population off reading for life.

I find myself wondering if that really is the answer; that literacy is meant to be some elitist club that is a privilege of the few, rather than a means for enjoyment of the many.  If, like the mediaeval monks, academia tries to maintain a language which, while not incomprehensible, is forbidding enough to put the majority of readers off within a few pages.

There are plenty of contemporary or near-contemporary authors to challenge young minds, so let’s junk Jane Austen:  let’s dispose of Dickens, give the Brontes the bullet, and chop up Chaucer.  Let’s stop dressing  Hamlet in business suits and consign him to a nice quiet archive somewhere.  In short, let’s move on.   Of course – this is not ‘Fahrenheit 451’ – the authors of the past should still be available, but as a matter of choice, not for ramming down our throats in the name of education.  Let us ban from syllabus anything thick enough to prop up the leg of a table (apologies to James Michener), and bring forward the works of authors who have been dead for less than fifty years.

Then we run less risk of putting a young reader off the magic of the written word for half a lifetime and alienating an ever-increasing number who are all too willing to have their imagination force-fed with images, rather than invent them for themselves.

2 responses to “A Classic Case”

  1. Hear hear! I am so with you on this one. My boys used to love to read Captain Underpants and other nonsense, but I didn’t care, because they loved reading. If I had restricted them to only the classic stuff, they probably would have snubbed their noses. Yes, they’ve read the classics, and sometimes it was even their choice (The Hobbit, Frankenstein), but the important thing is, they learned that reading is fun.


    1. Sorry Carrie – I’m so behind with everything at the moment I’ve been neglecting my post (among other things). But yes, I remember the nonsense! Bedtime stories began the love affair with the written word (Kipling – the animal stories for me) but I also recall the books I was given to take away and sample as I wanted. I only wish I could recall their authors now. Their consummate skill was in placing humor at just the right level to tickle the imagination of a child, and they taught me to read in a way that engendered a lasting romance with writing.


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