Reading Classic Novels Provides an Important Element of Education for High School Students


Claire Guttormson

Sofia Farwell has been making her way through The Color Purple by Alice Walker for her 9th grade Advanced English class.

“I am enjoying it very much” said Farwell. “The style of writing is not something I normally read in a book. It’s very distinctive.

She is reading it for a project called ‘Classic Choice Novel’, in which students chose a classic work to read and present on. 

It is a project that reflects a major part of high school English classes which is the reading and discussing of classic literature.

“There’s a benefit there that sometimes contemporary literature doesn’t provide” said Wauwatosa West English teacher Kelly Hetzel. “Through reading these books you can gain some insight to experiences that you’ve never had and build empathy for real people and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about classic literature.”

Art is a connector between people and books provide a beautiful example of this.  

“Reading something that gives you a very clear insight into a person’s head, that is not you, but that you can relate to, is so powerful.” said Wauwatosa West English teacher, Amanda Fraizer. 

Many books have that power, contemporary and classic. Yet, while contemporary works can act as bridges through space, only classics have the power of being bridges through time.

“In addition to it being a good story, these books are going to hold these really strong beliefs that have lasted over time, and still are true today. “ said Fraizer. 

Brutal fights for power did not die with Shakespeare, just as excessive self-indulgence was not tied to the life of Fitzgerald. The themes written about centuries ago have yet to fade from relevance. 

While this notion can be reassuring, it can also be proof of lack of progression in society considering many of these books were written by white men in an old world. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, is a beautifully written and moving story, yet it is full of degrading language. Misogyny fills it’s comma heavy paragraphs and antisemitism is buried deeply in the witty dialogue. 

This might not mean that Wilde should not be read in school. Rather that a lesson can be learned from this text, one that is not only of youth, innocence, and repentance, but also the presence of hate in our history and current society.

“You don’t just acknowledge it, you point out the oppression, you point out the lack of equity among characters and use it as a way to critique, and shape our future, without honoring it as a good thing.” said Hetzel. 

That bridge between time which is found in old texts, does not let readers, students, separate themselves from history. Both the good and the bad. The reality and the dream. 

“As a teacher I get to help students decide for themselves: Is this right or wrong?  Literature is a thing [through which we can] learn our past and our past isn’t always pretty.” said Wauwatosa West English Teacher Thomas Norstrem. He then went on to say, “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”

Students have picked up on this lesson and embraced it. 

“I think read [classics] to understand, and so we can maybe recognize the same problems in our modern society” said Farwell. “but to draw a line somewhere, if the book is entirely derogatory”

History is a loaded subject, so it makes sense it would stretch into other classes, even English. Yet the history is only a part of classics’ appeal. These works have survived for a reason. 

“It’s the language and the accessibility of the characters in the story,” said Norstrem. “when I read [classic writers’] stuff, I see them laboring over the right word and the right sentence in the right place.”  

More than just covering relevant themes, the stories told through classics appeal to modern readers simply because they are entertaining and told well. 

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot, the stories of these characters are ones that people today, even students, find themselves invested in. Which is both an indication of the timelessness of a good love story, but also a sign of Austen’s craftsmanship and care. Care that perhaps is not seen in contemporary works. 

“I’m pretty critical of contemporary stuff. I don’t see the craft in it that I see in the lost generation* [..] Come on, have a little care for the language that you’re using to help the story!” said Norstrem. 

There is much that is enjoyable about contemporary novels, but there is a certain charm to the language used in classics. Something about the way people cry or exclaim every other thing that they say, or insist on flinging themselves on to surfaces instead of simply sitting. 

These books have the power to teach their readers, especially young readers, so much.

“A lot of classics, after reading it you feel changed in some way.” said Fraizer. 

That change could come from the history or the joy of the language but either way there is a great significance to reading classics, especially as high school students. 

*Group of American authors who came of age during World War I

Looking to read a classic? Wauwatosa West English teachers recommend:

Here’s (some of) what students are reading: