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?