I’ve been studying English literature at third level for almost three years now and only recently I’ve begun to hear other students in my course complaining about studying classic literature. To be fair, I thought I would hear it a lot sooner than this but the same comments seem to be coming from every other person every day.
Before starting our course, everyone was fully aware that we would be studying a considerable amount of classic literature, especially at the beginning. However, it is now getting to the stage where many people are questioning if we need to study it so extensively, or maybe even at all.
There are plenty of obvious and valid reasons for classic literature being taught in universities. Students need to learn the history of English literature and why it is the way it is. English teacher, Sally Law, summarises this in an article for the Guardian by saying,
“…studying classic literature from the Western canon (Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and so on) affords students of English the opportunity to understand, analyse and evaluate language quite different from their own. Structures, trends in punctuation and in the way we speak have evolved through the ages and being aware of these developments really helps us to understand better, language in its current context.
If we didn’t read and study texts from the past, and only looked to the best seller list, how would we know of this evolution?”
However, with this being said there is more to English literature than “Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and so on“. When I first began my course, I thought that we would only really be studying classic literature for the first few semesters in order to understand the context and history of fiction but now, almost three years later, not much has changed and we still study almost exclusively classic literature.
I believe that we need to keep classic literature as one of the main components of English literature courses, but we also have to start incorporating more modern texts as well. As important as classic literature is, we need to keep students interested in what they’re learning and that won’t happen when they constantly have to translate a text from old English to a more modern form of the language.
I don’t seem to be the only one with this opinion either as Sally Law continues, “While we must safeguard the teaching of classic literature or risk depriving our young people of the wealth of knowledge, enjoyment and sense of heritage and history to be gained from our classics, we should also be open to the idea that more contemporary texts, of varying titles and formats, have a justifiable place in the curriculum too.”