Seattle Times: The Changing Face of High School Reading Lists

Bookslut linked to this interesting article from my local paper, the Seattle Times, about high school reading lists.

Schools' reading lists get a rewrite

Largely in response to their more ethnically diverse student bodies, high schools in the area are broadening their literature selections to include more contemporary writers, more women and more minorities.
In the past, advocates for teaching the great works of Western civilization insisted the classics were essential to develop citizens in a democracy. Nesting remembers hearing in college the argument that you must read "Hamlet" to be a completely realized person.

"You know, you don't," she said. "There's no one book you need to read to become a human being."

I think it's great (and essential) that they are choosing more modern books as well as classics for high school reading. But I'm going to quibble with the statement about Hamlet.

Reading Hamlet isn't necessary to be a 'completely realized person'. But it is necessary for being a completely culturally fluent person in English-speaking society.

Hamlet is one of the iconic pieces of literature; not because it's so awesome (which maybe it is and maybe it isn't) but because it is so pervasive. References to Hamlet are ubiquitous.

To be or not to be. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. The slings and arrows of outraged fortune. Music hath power to sooth the savage breast. Alas, poor Yorick. There more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Frailty, thy name is woman! Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!

If you haven't read Hamlet you won't, at some fundamental level, get it.

I am probably more aware of this phenomenon than most because of the years I spent living in a foreign country.

Every culture has a shared heritage of words and stories. To be fully fluent in a foreign language you need to have access to this shared culture as well as the vocabulary lists and verb declensions. Otherwise you won't get it a lot of the time.

To give an American example, someone says 'I cannot tell a lie', and everyone laughs, and if you don't know that story you're left feeling like an idiot.

Hamlet is one of the keystones to our culture.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I take this side of the argument, not given the project I've embarked on.

Maybe I should tackle Shakespeare next?


Maxine said...

Completely agree with you about Hamlet.
I read the complete works of Shakespeare (incl sonnets) at the age of 18. I had an exercise book, and I wrote in it any poetic bits I especially liked. (Now I would do it on a blog I suppose.) Of course (viz. Rebecca) one has to keep seeing the plays (or re-reading) to remember them. (If you are like me, that is.)
This year, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK is doing the complete works in one season -- not all by their own company, most of the plays are by guest companies. But when I first read of this it did remind me a bit of your project -- maybe the head of the RSC is a bit like you!

ThursdayNext said...

The English teacher answers, YES! YES! Tackle Shakespeare! The canon is still important. I advocate multicultural literature, but the allusions in new texts are of the old.

Very happy to find this site this afternoon.

mapletree7 said...

Hey, I'll take any flattering comparisons to the head of the RSC that you want to make....

I actually have seen the Complete Works of Shakespeare as done by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. All 37 plays in 97 minutes. Very funny.

I'm inclined to wait to tackle Shakespeare until I've finished with Dickens. But I've got almost a dozen Dickens books left.

Sounds like a good plan, actually. To the bat-library!

Banana Martin said...

Please note:

nowadays, you don't need to read any real literary masterpieces, if you can, instead, take a class on them.

As always frustrates mom when she talks about grading her class' crappy papers or the fact that none of her students have taken out the books she reserved for them at the library -- the only time I ever went to the library was to take out book that we never ended up using anyway and that if we did, I didn't read.

To get straight As in a liberal arts education, all you need is: either a copy of the book in question or to have read said book. And, of course, pay attention, show up, and make sure the teacher knows your name. And turn in good homework.

You get my point.

Honestly, I don't know if I've ever read Hamlet all the way through. But I took several classes in which it was taught. I know I took a different class where we "read" King Lear (for which I bought Azimov's guide to Shakepeare, and read more of that than the play), and feel that I know King Lear at least marginally now, even though I'm fairly certain I didn't read the whole thing.

mapletree7 said...

We did Hamlet in my junior year, I think, so I'm pretty sure I've read it. I have a visual memory of looking at the page, trying to find the quote from Star Trek IV. And I know I've seen several productions, from good ol' Mel, to the full-length Kenneth Branagh version, to some abysmal British production which, on browsing IMDB, I conclude was probably the 1969 version with Anthony Hopkins in it. They showed us that one in class.

King Lear I reviewed earlier this year. But I didn't read it. I listened to it.

I'll do the same - listen or watch unabridged productions - with as many of the plays as I can. I find it easier to concentrate on the words when they are being spoken by someone. When I read, my eyes try to skip all over the page. It's one of the downsides of being a speed reader.

I do get your point. But in the case of Shakespeare's plays you get a pass to just watch the movie if you want.

It's how they were meant to be enjoyed, after all....

dan said...

Yeah, I agree that in the case of dramatic works, one can be educated without having read them, if one has seen them in full form.

I don't know if there are that many books that fit into the category of "must-have-read"'s, actually; I think there's more theatre than literature in that category. But that may be because I've seen much more classic drama than I have read classic literature...

Sarah said...

i totally agree with you on shakespeare, currantly the our government (Australian) is contemplating taking Shakespeare out of the curriculum. they say that it is too hard for us which i think is rediculous.
We are currantly studying post modernism in class and i think the trust nothing question everything attitude is rediculous. BRING BACK THE CLASSICS.