Classic literature may be overrated but it is necessary, argues Sruthi Radhakrishnan

A couple of weeks ago, there was furore in the UK. The reason — the GCSE (the UK’s secondary education) removed To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Crucible from its syllabus in a bid to give way for more English authors. This erasure of great American classic literature gave rise to a question. Do we really need to study classic literature in school?

A quick look at Indian XII English syllabus shows that not much has changed since its inception. There is still Arms and the Man by G.B. Shaw, him of the legendary wit and prolific drama. But India, surprisingly enough has quite a few American authors on its school reading lists. There’s Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird. Mark Twain has long been a staple in Indian schools, and almost every child has grown up reading Huckleberry Finn’s adventures. There is of course, the token Indian English writer R.K. Narayan too.

Classic literature in school is mostly taught for one purpose, says Revathi Ramanan, program manager, Teach for India. “It’s for the language skills and the vocabulary used. Indian syllabus still has a good deal of classics and children should read them.

But, she adds, children generally don’t like reading such books. “Of course a lot of them don’t enjoy it. But every year, there are a few who come back to read more, the few who actually come into the library to take more books. As teachers, it is our primary duty to make children read classics.”

A Dickensian world may not exist in exactitude in India, but the struggles that are faced by Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are all too relatable for a majority of Indian kids. These books aren’t for those children who have all the access they can dream of, but for those who come from homes without books, or parents who don’t read. School is the only place where they’re exposed to literature.

Dulcie Balachandar, a retired English teacher says this also helps students understand different cultures. “And the time they lived in. It offers perspective. This is how students will learn comprehension.”

The onus to make this enjoyable for students lies on the teacher, she says. “The teacher has to create interest in the subject, whatever the subject may be. They have to know what they’re teaching, be thorough with the text.”

Revathi remarks that pedagogy too has changed in India from “rote learning to critical thinking”. The biggest arguments made against classics are that they’re ‘overrated’ and ‘outdated’. “I too think they’re overrated,” says Revathi, “but students should still read them first and then form an opinion. It’s like medicine, or healthy eating. You’ll only realise it’s worth after you grow up.”

But, the ‘outdated’ argument deserves some re-examination, and definitely needs to be put to rest. “Ancient works are classical not because they are old, but because they are powerful, fresh, and healthy,” said Goethe once. Classics reflect life as it is, and add something to the world — enriching existing literary treasure and bringing forth a writer who doesn’t fit the mould, but instead speaks to the world “in his own peculiar voice”, as Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve said in his essay What is a Classic.

Dulcie reminisces her schooldays when they had to read Shakespeare unabridged. “We loved it thanks to the teacher. She made us all interested in it. We had Pride and Prejudice, and we had character studies. We could understand what Elizabeth Bennet felt and relate to her. Now the method of learning has changed. I fell in love with Jane Austen in school. Then, more importance was given to comprehension, reading skills and writing, too.”

Classics, she says, may be outdated, but it is the teaching that brings the relevance. Now, though, it is time for us to pick up a Moby Dick or a Tess of the D’Ubervilles and get lost in the worlds authors create for us.