What is the role of classics in the life of a contemporary young reader? Not quite as important as it was just a generation ago when I was a child, to be sure, but still it is a regular requirement of classroom curriculum, especially in courses such as Reading in the younger grades and Literature in the higher ones. I have three children, two godchildren, and one nephew in all different grades of school, not to mention what I have viewed/heard regarding the children of my personal friends, and I think it is safe to say that classics do hold their place firmly within the school system. What I do see changed, from my generation to this one, is that children are not so prone to choosing to read classics, or many books for that matter, of their own accord to read on their personal time. Going to the library, either at school or in the city, was such a big event for me when I was a child. I do not see that in children today, at least not after they reach a certain grade level (I would hypothesize upper elementary grades to be the cutoff for reading for entertainment purposes only).
What role should classics take in the life of a contemporary young reader today? My answer is hugely biased on my own love of reading and the experiences I have had with it. I was a voracious reader as a child and thoroughly loved becoming engrossed in a good book. I read many classics by choice, and to this day I still remember how those books made me feel; to what worlds those books took me to, so it is easy for me to say that I think classics should take a more prominent role in the lives of our young readers today than I believe they do. So much has changed in the way of technology that students seem more prone to venturing in those areas rather than they do in reading itself. And who can blame them?
Children love stimulation and visuals, and instead of having to create them themselves through their imagination during reading, they are given them via things such as video game graphics and the Internet. To me, the children are missing out on learning to stretch their imagination. They are being deprived of fictional worlds that they create in their mind’s eye while reading and instead given visuals by someone else. I think they are also missing out on relating emotionally to things, as I feel characters in a book tap our emotions in a million ways, when they resort to mostly playing with video games or watching television/a computer screen.
Should classics still be read today? Absolutely, yes! Classics offer us a window into another world. They allow us to think outside of our normal venues of thought. They tap our imagination and introduce us to characters that are beloved by people outside of our own generation. They provide a generation bridge, so to speak, and allow for great educational opportunities to teach within a classroom. Many times, too, classics introduce a new culture or environment to the readers allowing them to further their knowledge basis by such introductions. They might generate curiosity to learn more about these periods in time, or create interests and newfound loves for things outside of their normal scope of activity, such as, and very importantly so, reading for enjoyment.
Should classics be taught in other ways? I see no harm in doing so. Using a movie to aid the reading of a book, or creating a play in a classroom based on reading that is being done can only help to further the enjoyment of some books, and even sometimes give the students a further appreciation of the author’s work if the other methods being taught do not satisfy them as much as the reading does. Alternately, different teaching methods can also help to further enhance a students’ understanding of a story, if the reading content is hard to understand for whatever reason (Shakespeare immediately comes to mind). It is my firm opinion, however, that other methods of teaching the classics should only be done in supplemental fashion, and not in lieu of the actual reading itself lest the student be deprived of the actual event of reading the book. Yes, alternate methods may get the story to the student faster, but in the long run it also, I think, deprives them of the true gift of reading and getting all from a story that the author intended.