How Important Is Exposure To Classic Western Literature In Formalised Education? | INFJ Forum

How Important Is Exposure To Classic Western Literature In Formalised Education?

Discussion in 'History, Travel, and Culture' started by Night Owl, Jul 19, 2016.

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  1. Almost essential.

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  1. Night Owl

    Night Owl This Bird Has Flown

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    Let's talk about the role and importance people feel the classic works of Western Civilization should play in formal Western education. Namely primary (elementary) and secondary, but also tertiary education.

    I've been involved in many conversations where folks (who are teachers) older than myself bemoan the kind of literature been taught at schools, the casting away of poetry (especially exposure to notable poets), with popular teen books, magazine articles, and films, over represented in English classes and replacing exposure to the works of classic writers such as Homer, Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare etc. Also, I feel the Bible, even if treated just as literature should not be overlooked in the context of Western Civilization (and even the compilations of the Brothers Grimm). It would seem appropriate that both the old and the new should have their place. As for precedence, well that's all the more subjective (...I vote old).

    I get a sense that over all, with the expected exceptions, Gen X and Y (I don't like the term Millennial - yuk) have not been exposed to such classic works in their formal education unless they have gone out on their own initiative to immerse themselves in the rich springs of their culture.

    I myself am grateful for my grade 10 teacher who had leeway with the curriculum to expose us to various and poets and to Shakespeare. At the time I hated and loved it, but in hindsight it's been most valuable and rounding. On a curriculum basis the classics were solely introduced in Literature Class in yr 11 and 12, but I chose English Class (one could only pick one) since it allowed creative writing. It would have been good if exposure to the classics was sprinkled throughout my primary and secondary education - including exposure to classical history and mythology.

    I feel myself to be a victim of this post-modern culture of ignorance (in this particular regards anyway) and slowly have availed myself to get in touch with classic Western works and their authors which I feel helps me get in touch with my cultural roots. I do despise the sense of snooty elitism that can abide among those who fornicate with such nostalgia for the mere sake of it, yet it needn't be the case.

    In school were you taught a tapas of Western classics? What's your view on this in hindsight?
    How important do you think exposure to classic Western literature is in formalised education?


    I'll start another thread soliciting views on contemporary education today or tomorrow, as these two interrelate.

    [Novelty fact: This is by far (as in, phenomenally so) the least used forum, and yet a large chunk of threads I've started have been 'in' here.]
     
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  2. Gaze

    Gaze My word . . . hmm
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    Yes, classics should be taught with a balance of some modern literature which have the potential to be classics. I think it's important to have a foundation of early writing so we know why literature is what it is today, so we can appreciate the development of language.

    Growing up in the Caribbean, we were exposed to Shakespeare and other English authors include Bronte, Eyre, Dickens, Defoe, Stevenson, Verne, Carroll, Whitman, Crane, etc. Some I discovered on my own such as Frost and Thoreau found in the library. So, self education was a crucial part of exposure to some of these works. The King James Version of The Bible was hugely influential for me growing up, and helped me appreciate literature in ways other works didn't, especially Shakespeare.

    However, there were still limitations. English canon was narrow, and it would have been nice to be exposed to a wider variety of literature, not necessarily modern popular literature, but a more diverse background. Too often the classics are held up as perfect examples of good literature, without any context, or sense of why a generation that is far removed from the stories and language in which they are written should naturally be able to read, understand, and relate to them.

    Today, most people are more likely to connect with themes and language in literature because of how the stories and messages connect with their world. If there is no recognition of themselves whether in characters who look, think, and behave like they do, or connect with the story in addressing issues or subjects happening in the world today, they may find it difficult to see the value in the words on the page and embrace it.

    The luxury of enjoying books outside of the classroom is that you can be engaged by the story, and characters, and can find meaning based on your own personal journey, not just because it was required or because you were told, "this is a great work of literature, so you should read it."

    In other words, there has to be some rhyme or reason for the books read, and not simply a blanket expectation that they should be read because they are put on a pedestal as a member of the classical literary canon. There are quite a few books often held in high regard as good literature, but the writing or language is tedious or monotonous. The story may be significant, but the writing is difficult to wade through. That could be one reason why some classics are not as popular as they once were.

    Since I'm not from the US, my only regret is not having read classic works of American literature early on such as Grapes of Wrath, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Invisible Man, 1984, On the Road, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.
     
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    #2 Gaze, Jul 19, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2016
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  3. invisible

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    The most important thing is to select the right historically significant texts and teach them in a way that communicates what they are about and why they are important - what they achieve as works of art that is essential to human beings, and why these things can't be achieved through other types of human endeavour. And the most fundamental concerns are elsewhere... what kind of facility to continue to engage with written texts in future are students taking away from all of this?
     
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  4. invisible

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    Night Owl, I can understand your frustration. I was taught Shakespeare every year at school from when I was 11. To me it seems like one Shakespeare a year, one canonical text a year, and a comprehensive unit of work on poetry for older students are probably sufficient at this pre-university level of study... but it also seems to me that those things are very important. The rest of the texts should maybe be more contemporary works that the students can learn from, and also things that they can really connect with.
     
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  5. Bellosome

    Bellosome swimming against the current
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    hmm.. growing up in Asia, we weren't really "obliged" to do book reports or read classics. we were taught more on the proper construction of sentences, usage, adjectives,nouns,theme writing etc.

    Reading classics was actually more of my choice. Personally, I am envious of those who are/were studying abroad-- not because the quality of education here is bad, it's more of we weren't exposed to these things. To me, classics has a different approach on writing. (this is from my pov), like the overall context, word usage, more use of imagery, it has a different depth in it. Classics, takes as where the author wants us, as for modern literature, it's more of how the story relates to us. (not that it's a bad)

    and as I am not an English speaker, having read some classics, i was able to broaden my knowledge on understanding English literature -- and my vocabulary (which isn't really much hahaha)

    as i was typing this reply, I've realized that i read classics to learn, i read modern literature to enjoy. plus, it's easily accessible. As for the classic ones, not everything is available (where i'm from)
     
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  6. invisible

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    Part of what we are talking about now reminds me of a discussion I had with an old friend. My friend is very bright and went on a full scholarship to Cambridge to write her doctoral thesis. After she finished it, (and came back to this part of the world), I chatted with her about the text she focused on (which I had read in the meantime). I was telling her "It was so intricate." She said "These dense components that people claim are boring contain purpose." I said "What is it with the idea that it is necessary to be incessantly entertained by a work of literature, that a work of art has to justify itself according to how entertaining it is. It's totally masturbatory." I don't think I will forget the expression of surprise on her face until I die. She genuinely hadn't considered it that way. That is something that is really deeply integrated to our cultural concept of what it means to consume literature. No one is surprised when mathematics and sciences aren't entertaining, but they think it is valuable to study those things anyhow. There is not a very good guiding sense in all of this of what it is about literature that is valuable, or why we should study it. I have worked super duper assiduously for my understandings of literature, but I'm not sure that my accomplishments are very appropriately appreciated by society.

    When I think of literature (and arts more broadly), part of what I think of is that it is the scholarship of subjectivity, of the experiential processes of being. Sciences are not capable of dealing with this problem that is so essential to human beings. When I am reading, part of what I am doing is forcing my consciousness into an alternative state of being. You may not be actively enjoying it, but if you are engaging with it, you are learning, you are nourishing your mind, and you are growing as a person. None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with reading for pleasure! But in terms of education, I think children need to be taught to recognise the doors of understanding opening in their minds when they read, and to value that outcome, rather than to be taught to derive pleasure from reading. Whether this necessarily involves the "Western Canon" or not...
     
  7. brightmoon

    brightmoon Community Member

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    I'd make on comment on this topic, but @invisible summarized my thoughts on it very nicely. I have nothing else to add
     
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    Night Owl

    Night Owl This Bird Has Flown

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    @Gist and @invisible sounds like your education was commendable on this front (Western front lol).

    @Gist, a great post. And you touch upon a good point that although the Classics play an important role, and are almost essential, it is helpful to have exposure to works that fall outside the Canon, be they old or new, and even to other mediums (such as film), to provide a more holistic education, and to help equip people with critical thinking and analytical skills that are relevant to life today. You had the opposite problem to me.

    @bellisima I guess I'd be surprised if they introduced Western Classics into Asiatic curriculums, even in an English class which, as a non-native language, is a language enabling class, as opposed to the format and function English classes play in native speaking English countries q:
     
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    #8 Night Owl, Jul 20, 2016
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  9. OP
    Night Owl

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    @invisible you made some really great comments!

    Yes, doing so by connecting the work in its historical context (and exploring that context), exploring the perennial humanity of the piece, applying it to today, and doing so with some passion to really bring it alive. One truly needs a guide like Dante had Virgil, to lead one through most classical works to really milk the utmost from such a teat. (Good end/footnotes can somewhat substitute for a personal guide lol).

    Pure gold. What an insightful way of looking at it. Thanks for sharing it. It's so, so true. I'm sure this literary, or rather, artistic hedonism has gradually but exponentially intensified since the modern age where entertainment has become seen not as a privilege but as a fundamental inalienable human right. On top of this, since the industrial revolution, but namely post-WWII, an economical mindset has become all pervasive, so that art itself, and hence literature, has become reduced to a commodity - a good to be used to satisfy and meet the demand of the consumer. The reader has gone from authentic reader (if ever there was such a thing) to a consumer. You're spot on.

    Personally I committed myself to reading works such as the Divine Comedy and Ovid's Metamorphoses, not out of a desire to be entertained, but to encounter great art, to learn, to immerse myself in living history, in my cultural roots, to expand my horizons - not as an archaeologist digging into the past, but in order to ground me in my humanity, and assist me in my journey forward. For me, the Divine Comedy really required a devotion-like commitment, and at times parts encroached on tedium (especially when obscure historical figures in hell or heaven are mentioned), but I stuck with it, and am glad I read it. Was I entertained? Well, partly, but not really. Yet as you allude to, that's asking the wrong question. It was so much more than that. It also reminds me how superficial it is to solely judge a book as 'good' if it entertained one. Sure, I think a certain aesthetic quality to any art is important - it has to be approachable and engaging on some level - but ultimately it's about journey, and good art takes one on a journey that is rich and deep, whether it's short or long. And for me reading The Divine Comedy was a journey in every sense. An imaginative, conceptual, cultural, historical, and spiritual journey. And I think such language of journey applies to any text one reads, but there is, in my experience, something a little more sacred and grand about certain works, classical works - especially those heavy with time. One is making such a journey in the footprints where so many others have gone before, and yet, one arrives at the same destination having a completely new and different experience than those that went before.
     
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  10. Vict

    Vict mechanical and habitual agent

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    Good question. I'm taking survey of english literature this and next semester because it's the one of the basics for an english degree. I avoided it for a decade by taking nearly every other lit course.
     
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  11. invisible

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    Thanks for your writing Night Owl!!!! I hope you don't mind me contributing just a few stray thoughts.

    Whether a piece of art contains a perennial humanity is a very interesting question, maybe a chicken-and-egg type question (whether we just see it that way because it has had such a tremendous influence over the culture that has informed us). I have no idea how to go about thinking about it properly, it is well beyond my skill as a scholar to think about that properly... but it is very interesting.

    You have really caused me to reconsider my use of word "consumer". I admit somewhere along the line I had just adopted it interchangeably with "reader", had come to identify myself as a "consumer", and had never given it much thought again. But thank you for the insight, you're right, it's a different thing.

    People have told me there is a significant branch of philosophy dealing with aesthetics. I am always really interested to check it out. If only I could get all this western canonical literary fiction read that is stacked up in my wardrobe, I could eventually move on to something like that!

    I have never read any Dante, I always think of his work as "that Italian stuff", which is me making pure nonsense. I have read other monoliths though. Metamorphoses blew my mind. The Aeneid, The Odyssey (never read his blockbuster about the city falling though), erm... probably a few other translated classics (motivated mostly by a desire to find out more about sensational figures like Cassandra and Medea)... and reading most of it was a blast, a giant party. But I agree with you, all books are not equal, and you can really learn a lot by these works, they are so foundational, and they offer so many different perspectives. But I think that in general most of what I've read was composed from the 18th century onwards, and I think that I mostly thought it was just as good (maybe sometimes slightly more tedious).

    BTW, footnotes and annotations FTW! :)
     
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  12. the

    the Si master race.
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    I'm not sure, I think it would help if you told me what makes a classic a classic.
     
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  13. invisible

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    I think this is interesting. I think classics are usually properly defined as something that has survived from antiquity, but now it seems like anything can be a classic. I used to get asked this all the time in the bookstore and I would be like "OK, are you looking for texts from ancient times, or English literature?"

    Associated category, "the canon", the clearest definition of which I ever read being something like "a text that is consistently studied in universities". Maybe something that has steadily been regarded as having been of major historical significance and has had a great deal of scholarly criticism done on it.
     
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  14. invisible

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    There is more to "classics" than "antiquity" though isn't there. It's meant to refer to "advanced thought" that is pre-Christian. It is also has connotations of contrast against Romance, in terms of idealising emotional discipline as opposed to emotional freedom.
     
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    Night Owl

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    '′Classic′ - a book which people praise and don't read.' - Mark Twain
     
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    Yes I had hoped there was a serious answer though.
     
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    Night Owl

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    Alright. Serious hat - on.

    Ultimately 'classic' is a subjective label applied by a sort of social consensus to a work of literature which is "judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind" (definition of "classic" as an adjective) and "a work of art of recognized and established value" (definition of "classic" as a noun).
     
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  18. In the Wings

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    There's an assumption in the idea that classical literature is important that classical literature is the only type of literature in which Big Ideas can be explored or discussed, and I just don't think that's accurate. The entire Song of Ice and Fire series probably incorporates themes in both Romeo and Juliet and The Iliad, for instance, while adding in ideas of its own. Divergent and The Hunger Games both have themes worth talking about, too.

    The main advantage of classics, really, is that you know what to say--they can be standardized and tested. But, I think that if a hypothetical English teacher were to be keeping up with book trends and discussing them with others, it wouldn't be hard to find something that kids don't already have some aversion to.
     
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    Night Owl

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    A valid point for sure. I'm never an either or sort of person, but an and person. I like to see both a sampling of the classics and contemporary literature in education. The themes covered in Divergent and The Hunger Games are very worthwhile. Of course I emphaise the old as opposed to the new, some prefer to emphasie the new rather than the old. A point of agreement might be at least that to some extent, old and new works ought to be covered.
     
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  20. invisible

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    George R R Martin's works arise from both their generic situation and also a 21st century milieu that includes a vast historical context (they are medievalist aren't they?)... and that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the difference between them and the works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a fundamental part of English language culture, he is just massively THERE. Although I'm sure there are many valid comparisons to be made, and I think it is a potentially awesome idea to teach them in schools, Martin's works aren't an appropriate substitute for historically significant works. To start with (and to put it crudely), from the point of view of a literary scholar, offering those works as a replacement for historical works is kind of like saying "Oh, don't bother about basic anatomy, let's cut straight to electrolyte imbalance in dialysis patients, it's far more interesting and relevant to what we really want to achieve".

    This comes back to issues about the way that literature is evaluated. We don't decide to refrain from teaching certain important aspects of science or mathematics subjects just because kids have previously formed an aversion to them, do we? That attitude to teaching is sloppy and lazy. If students derive pleasure from learning, that is ideal! But it's also beside the point. What's more important is that they are able to engage with the material, develop comprehension of it, appreciate its significance, and that they will be confident in their abilities to approach similar complex materials when encountering them in future.
     
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