First, a teacher’s confession. I’ve never read Moby Dick. Yes, I was an English major. Yes, yes, it was on Miss Zercher’s list. Yes, I do regret the omission.
But do I feel incomplete? Unfulfilled? No. Not for a minute. We readers and teachers all need not despair simply because we haven’t “read everything.” Experience is not all there is.
Nikki Giovanni, the poet, makes the point about writers. They don’t write from experience, she says. They write from empathy. Indeed, an author need not be the pimp, potentate, or preacher of the tale he tells. The author enters the character by stretching to understand.
So, with teachers. We are moved by empathy for the characters we meet. Those in the stories and those in their seats. Even more important, that same empathy enriches us. In a time with so little teacher satisfaction, one source remains: personal contact. But it’s harder than ever to forge contact with students preoccupied with survival and distracted by life’s chaos.
How do we make contact through content? Through the material we teach? Do we have to slog through endless pages with the Ancient Mariner, watching the crew fall one by one? Must students do battle with Beowulf and fell every word?
Do we need to teach the “classics"--and if so, which ones? And how do we teach the life-battered students in an urban, comprehensive high school? How do we work this audience of faraway stares and empty desks? How can the “classics” be relevant to students with limited reading skills and even shorter attention spans? Even the questions seem remote in the teacher-days cluttered with memos and bureaucratic discord.
We can wow ‘em senseless with video gewgaws; we can massage their tender minds sore with numbing cliches; and we can distract them with the latest classroom razzle-dazzle until their heads spin.
Or we can lead them trembling on tiptoe through the dark forest of dense and seemingly ponderous stories.
I use those stories. I try to use only the classics. Just last week, for example, we discussed a contemporary classic: The Adventures of Rocky. The plot revolves around a mythical hero who symbolizes courage, strength, and victory against tremendous odds. After many daring feats, he is cursed to wander, unsure if he will ever see home again. To some, he becomes an object of scorn; to others, reverence.
The fictional “person” in the legend is not important, whether it’s Rocky Balboa, Ulysses, Madame Butterfly, or Paul Bunyan. What’s important is what people see in him. In the heroes we create, we leave footprints in the cultural strata of our age, should posterity care to excavate.
The only classics are the issues played on the stage of human experience. Issues like forgiveness or revenge. Constancy or betrayal. Beneficence or greed. Living a lie or “living in truth.” Small or great, these are the issues that give dimension to all of our lives; from these, we learn to make decisions.
We get to distinguish good from evil--and, of course, take a side. We get to align ourselves with power--and suffer its eventual demise. We can live quiet lives of duty to friends and family, or we can risk it all on a moment of glory.
The lessons in any classic are ones of value, judgment, and choice--gambling on life, as it were. Characters are memorable for different reasons. Some, because they stride headlong into the storm; some, because they dare to walk away; and some, because they are tossed by every breeze. There is as much to learn from cowardice as from bravery.
They are many, these classic themes of life and literature. As teachers, we simply help students explore--help them explore both the choices and the consequences, not in some misty past, but today. The classics are here beside us and around us. In the newspaper. On television. In the lives we witness.
King [Michael] Milken [the junk-bond financier who has pleaded guilty to securities fraud] is a tale of greed as surely as King Midas. Nelson Mandela (Bound or Unbound) brought fire to the people.
Of course, we want students to read the venerable, old tales. But do they have to read every word? They probably can’t, and what is more, they won’t. They can learn about the Creation without reading the whole Bible. Or even the whole book of Genesis. We begin with just the story.
It is in the story, if at all, that we will wrest their attention. The more stories we know, the richer our lives and our teaching. We who teach can help make the connections between the story and the student.
With a story, we can tantalize them--seduce them, if you will. We cannot hope to match their fantasies of Saturday night, so let’s tease them with some tidbits. They know about loving someone to death, so Romeo and Juliet will still hold up. They know about threats and the desire for vengeance, so “a pound of flesh” may still do the job. Once they know the story, we can try the text. But not every word. A few lines here and a passage there.
Parents should not be alarmed that students are not reading Milton. Nor should they be consoled just because students are reading Shakespeare. Parents should ask about the connections. Are their children getting the stories? Are they discussing the issues? Those are the classics that count.
Oh, and Miss Zercher. Yes. I promise. Moby Dick. This summer.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1990 edition of Education Week as Human Issues Are ‘Classics That Count’