HUNT COLUMN: On teaching the classics

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, December 7, 2022

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By Cathy Hunt
Troup County Board Chair

A recurring debate in the planning of English/ Language Arts curricula centers on the problem of how many literature classes high school students should take. Specifically, questions such as the following arise: “Why does a future accountant, welder, pilot, scientist, farmer, dental hygienist, etc., need to study British literature for a year? Won’t they be able to get along just fine without knowing anything about Beowulf, The Wife of Bath, Lady Macbeth, or Robert Browning?”

Though I love teaching and reading great literature, past and present, I have to say “probably” in answer to that last question. But I can’t give an unqualified “yes” without pondering the ramifications for our culture and heritage at large.

Dr. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., now Professor Emeritus of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia, was inspired to write his first book on “Cultural Literacy” way back in the 80s when he was astounded that his community college students in Virginia couldn’t tell him who Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were. (Fast forward to today and teachers of high school juniors and seniors feel a little queasy when they allude to the “boy who cried wolf” and are met with a sea of blank faces, or when no one in the class can point to Mexico on a wall map.)

After discussing the idea of cultural literacy in his first book, Hirsch and colleagues Joseph Kett and James Trefil published their first Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, or What Every American Needs to Know, in 1987. 

Based on their premise that “Community is built of shared knowledge and values” they stressed that their book “identifies the names, phrases, events, and other items that are familiar to most literate Americans.” 

The massive book has chapters on everything from history to fine arts to medicine to technology and to, of course, literature. It was a huge bestseller, as was the updated edition published in 2002. 

The idea is that literacy is more than learning to sound out words, growing a vocabulary and reading for basic comprehension — all of which are immensely important. It is also understanding the innumerable references to art, literature, history and science which are fed to us daily in print and on screen. Can we get along without knowing what it means when a man is described as a Romeo or a Don Juan or a Hannibal Lecter or a Don Quixote or a Dr. Frankenstein? Probably – unless we are in danger — but wouldn’t we be missing some important context?

One’s knowledge of the previous examples may be rudimentary, but even that level of learning elevates one’s understanding and aids in communication. 

But let’s get more specific. Should 16 year olds be expected to slog through the entirety of The Scarlet Letter as I did in high school? I certainly enjoyed reading it again as an adult much more than I did as a callow youth. As a teacher, I came up with a way to have the students read what I called the “action scenes,” while I filled in the ponderous philosophical chapters for them. We covered it in a week, and a future reference to someone being labeled with a scarlet letter would have meaning for those students. By reading a couple of chapters of Moby Dick and discussing the obsessive enmity Captain Ahab felt for the great white whale, the kids gleaned enough to help interpret an allusion they might encounter.

Allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, mythology and historical events are everywhere, every day. 

They enrich and edify. We need to keep exposing students to the classics while being sure to add modern, diverse authors to the canon, without spending a month on any one literary topic. This month, I hope you will not be an Ebenezer Scrooge spouting “Bah, humbugs” and grappling with the Ghost of Christmas Past. I bet you understand those references and how they bring a message to life.