“Parting is such sweet sorrow” from classics


Classic literature withstands the test of time for a reason. 

Traditionally, English classes at South centered on reading novels from European, typically British, authors such as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, to name a few. Rich with universal themes and artful manipulation of language, classic literature was the cornerstone of the English curriculum at South for decades. 

Recently, though, amid a national racial reckoning, South has made ongoing efforts to shift towards studying literature from authors of a historically, and currently, marginalized background. In particular, the junior year curriculum envelops “American identity”, entailing a wide array of novels exploring various ethnic and sexual identities. 

On one hand, contemporary novels tell relevant and timely stories and overwrite the notion that “great literature” is an exclusive — and old — clubhouse. On the other hand, the rise of contemporary literature means that many works of classic literature that laid the foundation from which the English language developed are being left in the past. 

Classics contain universal themes — of love, of want, of change, of coming of age. From “A Tale of Two Cities” to “The Great Gatsby”, these stories are somehow just as relevant and relatable to readers today as they were centuries ago. Classics are hailed, too, for pioneering narratives and methods of language manipulation that paved the way for authors that followed. Thus, it’s no wonder these stories are widely considered the blueprint of great literature. But perhaps it is due time we expand that definition.

Stories allow readers to see — to live — through someone else’s perspective. Whether it’s a racial, gender or sexual identity of which one does not have lived experience, students gain valuable perspectives and empathy from each and every novel. Yet, whether or not students can relate to the topic depends on how English teachers frame the discussion, as everyone can speak on a universal truth, but not everyone can speak on the experience of a certain marginalized group. 

Contemporary books, too, typically contain all the universal themes that classics have. Whenever it is written by a marginalized author, though, the minority experience tends to trump all other themes. But these stories are just as human — just as timeless. 

For these contemporary stories, class discussions shouldn’t merely revolve around minority identity, thus neglecting important conversations about the human condition. Contemporary novels on the minority experience should be discussed holistically with the same nuance and complexity devoted to classics.

Although classics are the books most often credited for their elaborate language manipulation, complex language use and relevant themes of identity are not mutually exclusive. Modern novels have the same symbolism, plot devices and complexities revered in classics, yet those aspects are often neglected in favor of surface-level themes. 

It is performative to select novels — sterile ones, at that — on the mere basis that it contains a certain minority’s story without considering the quality and complexity of the writing. Identities are not a mere box to check off, nor are they a quota to fulfill. 

Still, curriculums must maintain a balance between reading classics and contemporary literature. There is immense value in discussing both contemporary and classic literature — the past and the present — and they must be treated with equal fervor and sensitivity. 

Besides maintaining a balance, South must also continue providing options and variety for students. Expose students to as many voices as possible. South’s English curriculum is constantly progressing as more options for specialized senior electives develop, alongside an ever-changing curriculum. Continue creating opportunities for students to develop empathy and gain perspective; they are the learners and leaders of the future. 

Great stories are from countless settings and time periods, and great authors come from all different backgrounds. Let us redefine what “great literature” truly means.

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