Thursday, April 9, 2020

It's Time to Rethink the High School Literature Curriculum

The high school curriculum should instill a love of books, not a fear.  ♦ 
When I was a kid, I loved reading. There was something so incredible to me about stories, the ability to turn words on a page into vivid scenes in my head. I frequently made my parents drive me to the library or Barnes & Noble to look for new releases and would often be working on multiple books at a time. Then, in high school, I began to lose interest in reading, when the time I spent reading books for leisure was supplanted by time spent reading books for my English class. I found these experiences to be much different. Reading for class forced me to go beyond the experience of simply enjoying a story. Now, I was introduced to literary analysis and forced to scan for themes, motifs, and symbols. I quickly found that Hamlet did not hold my interest in the way that Diary of a Wimpy Kid did. Reading became a chore, and I stopped looking for books to read outside of school. I felt defeated. This begs the question: how can we change high school English classes to instill a love of books rather than a fear of them? The answer, I believe, lies in contemporary literature.

While of course there's merit in reading the classics, incorporating contemporary literature allows for more accessibility, bringing in new perspectives that older books cannot provide. Books written within the last twenty years would be far more relatable and easier to read for an audience of high school students. And many students likely don't know what they’re missing out on in the current world of fiction.

There are those who would argue that Shakespeare’s plays and Greek tragedies are the most educational works of literature, so they should form the core curriculum of a standard English class. The question needs to be asked, though – are these perennially included because they're among the greatest works of literature, or just the most ubiquitous? The standard Western canon has dictated the way we teach entire generations of students, but who is to say whether Shakespeare or Hemingway have more literary merit than, say, Junot Díaz or Lauren Groff?

There's also an inherent problem with assigning books that use archaic language and deal with themes that high schoolers are not interested in: they just won’t read them. It ends up deterring their motivation to read and decreasing their interest in books altogether. More often than not, when faced with a difficult text, high schoolers will turn to SparkNotes or some other summary website, which ends up defeating the purpose of assigning a book in the first place. When the reading audience can’t even get past the language being used, it is impossible to pick up on the deeper nuance of the text.

Contemporary literature also offers the opportunity to bring more diverse voices into high school classrooms. Books that make up the standard curriculum are largely written by (dead) white men, and many students never see themselves reflected in the books they read. Better representation can lead to greater interest. Schools across the country are making strides to be more inclusive in many aspects; why not in the curriculum?

Incorporating contemporary literature in classrooms also allows classes to focus on current issues in and through fiction, encouraging students to be active readers post-graduation. English classes should teach more than just how to read a book; they have the potential to teach us why we should read. Books are more than just tools for analysis; they are reflections of varied experiences and lifestyles that can broaden our horizons and help us see the world in new ways.

The statistics on teenagers’ reading habits are clear: high schoolers today are reading far less than they were just thirty years ago. A study conducted by Common Sense Media found that the number of 17-year-olds who say they “never” or “hardly ever” read has tripled, from 9% in 1984 to 27% in 2014. Furthermore, this group's reading for pleasure was stated to not be more than once or twice a year. Notably, the books being read in classrooms in 1984 are likely the same ones being taught today, only now they have become even less relevant to high schoolers' daily lives.

Of course, there are factors at play other than the curriculum. The prevalence of social media and streaming content has given today’s teens far more to occupy their time than what was available in 1984. However, instilling an interest in books at the high school level could change their priorities. After all, while television and other content has become more accessible, so have books. You no longer have to leave your bedroom to purchase and read any book available on Amazon. There is a world of literature at teenagers’ fingertips . . . we just need to show them that fiction is more than the narrow scope of their English class.

  • About the Author
    Ethan Maguire is currently a junior Creative Writing and Media & Culture major at Miami University. He is the president of Sketch Writing and Acting Group, a sketch comedy organization on campus. He is otherwise unremarkable.

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