Should high school readers be assigned classics originally written for an adult audience?


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

Here is a link to the current prompt, which includes instructions on how to participate if you have thoughts of your own to share. You are, of course, as always, welcome – encouraged, even – to leave a comment down below as I love hearing what others think. 

Also, I encountered the following article, which I understand to be from a Canadian school newspaper (in blog form, apropos of the Information Age), which seems both related and wholly different: The Lisgarwrite – Four Years of Shakespeare. I draw attention to it as (a) it was by someone currently attending school, and (b) an acknowledgement that my view cannot possibly encapsulate all perspectives on this or any subject. 

It’s difficult to answer this question from my own perspective. I consider what books are to be assigned the least of the education system’s problems. Having survived high school, by not attending as much as I could get away with, I’d summarise it as “a place to make average people slightly smarter, and smart people a lot dumber.” My ideal high school would have left me the hell alone so I could get on with actual learning. 

However, the average student is not me and, pleasing everyone being an impossibility, high school should benefit the average student. My own curriculum was quite light on classic books. There were plays – Death of a Salesman and Macbeth. We, inexplicably, watched the 1992 film version of Of Mice and Men. The books were Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

So, one classic and one contemporary. The classic, Gatsby, is one that I loathe (see here). Private Peaceful, though, is useful to consider for present purposes. It is about the First World War, its message that war is pointless and inhuman, told in the first person, and written for a young(er) audience. It is precisely the type of book a school would be expected to assign. But it is interesting because there is an almost exactly equivalent classic that could be read instead. It also is about the First World War, it too illustrates war’s pointlessness and inhumanity, it is even also written in the first person, but is “for adults”. Can you guess the one I mean? 

Of course, I’m referring to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front

Now, what are the benefits in choosing Private Peaceful over AQotWF? I can think of one – it’s “easier”. That, in truth, is not even a benefit, as I’ll discuss shortly. I will concede a further benefit: Private Peaceful is an original English text; All Quiet is a work in translation (from the German: Im westen nichts neues). Still, why not choose Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That if the original language is the issue? Anyway, I do want to stick with my initial choice. 

What are the benefits in choosing All Quiet on the Western Front over PP? Well, the inverse of the above, it’s “harder”. As Krysta points out in her post on this question (linked above) YA literature tends to spell out its message, subtext eschewed in favour of mere text. Remarque does not provide easy answers or conclusions. His brief preface reads to the work reads, in full: 

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” 

That the average high school reader might find even this passage an insurmountable obstacle is not a reflection on the book or its worth, but on the endemic problems in education today hinted at above, and illustrated by Krysta again in her post. 

But there is benefit – huge benefit – in carrying out difficult tasks, in reading the “hard” books. It is only in trying difficult things that one can ever hope to achieve them. I’ve opened my copy of All Quiet at a random page (152, as it happens) and there is an underlined passage. (SPOILER: the central character and narrator, Paul, has just killed a man in close personal quarters for the first time). It reads: 

“But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I see that you were a human being like me.” 

I do not intend to disparage Morpurgo. In fact he is a wonderful writer and I enjoy his work. But there is more depth, more to unpack, in this single passage from Remarque than in the whole of Private Peaceful

Particular to these two works, it must also be stated that Remarque’s account is necessarily more authoritative. Morpurgo did not fight in the Great War; his work is doubtless well researched, and authoritative in that sense, but as a genuine insight into what it was like to live and fight and die in those trenches, there is no more qualified source than Remarque*. 

Okay, however, this raises a different problem – what relevance does World War I have to the contemporary high school reader? And expanding on that, what relevance do the classics have? Why, indeed, should this and other “old books” be the focus of English class – history, certainly, but why English? 

And honestly, I think this is a fair question. But why distinguish between a classic and a contemporary book? Just what the hell is a classic? The book I’ve been discussing will be a hundred years old in less than a decade, is it merely a matter of age? Or, is it a matter of style, content and depth? I must argue for the latter. Therefore, there is no reason not to consider a contemporary work a classic too –  a modern classic, when it ceases to be modern, must surely be a classic, no? “Modern” ultimately just serves as a descriptor of the work’s age.

Modern classics have the benefit of being more immediately, more obviously, relevant to a modern reader (shocking, I know). From the “classics” we can discern general truths about the human condition and, often, gain valuable insights into historical life and events. But from “modern classics” we can discern general truths about the human condition and gain valuable insights about modern life and events. Which is best for the modern reader, the modern high school reader? Surely it is the latter. 

So, to answer the question. Should high school readers be assigned classics originally written for an adult audience? 

Yes, they should. There is huge benefit in reading works “intended for adults”. If students cannot grapple with these texts then schools must be taken to task. But “classics” should not be interpreted in a narrow way. It will always be difficult to find a book that appeals to all students, but a conscious effort should be made, if books must be assigned, to choose those with relevance to the modern reader but with the same scope for study as “the classics”. 

I have an entirely different ideal scenario in my mind, but it is, I fear, a pipe dream. For that reason, I will content myself with the answer I have given. So what are your thoughts on this matter? Leave a comment below, or visit the page linked above and contribute that way. 

*To be clear, there are equally qualified sources, but none “better”. 

6 thoughts on “Should high school readers be assigned classics originally written for an adult audience?

  1. Ooh, you have so many interesting points here! I think that we can forget that books assigned in schools are often assigned more for practical reasons than for anything else and so the assignment is not necessarily a reflection of a book’s supposed literary worth. For example, I had a college professor who basically admitted that teachers often assign books like Chopin’s The Awakening because they are short and easy to fit into a syllabus when you are supposed to read eight books a semester. I believe we also discussed that this could be the reason Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is so popular–it gets assigned more because it is shorter than Villette. I have read a few scholarly articles claiming Villette is actually Bronte’s best work–which I agree with, incidentally–but it’s just doesn’t get read because it’s so long.
    I think teachers also tend to assign books because they may clearly illustrate a concept they need to teach for the curriculum. So The Great Gatsby gets trotted out all the time because that green light is such a good example of symbolism, for instance. Could you find another book just as good as Gatbsy and assign that instead? Probably!
    So I can definitely see someone selecting Private Peaceful maybe because it’s shorter or it’s easier to understand or it has some great metaphors they want to discuss (who knows–I haven’t read it!). It may really not be superior to All Quiet on the Western Front, but it has these practical aspects that make it attractive to educators.
    As a side note, however, I absolutely loved All Quiet on the Western Front when I was a teen and I read it several times. So I do sometimes feel a bit defensive when people go on about how classics aren’t “relevant” and “don’t speak to teens” and “can’t be understood by teens” because general statements like that don’t actually speak to all teens and their experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an excellent point. No doubt they do. Wow eight books! We are not that comprehensive across the pond.

      Ah Gatsby again, I initially wrote a part of this post that I consider assigning Gatsby as akin to breaching the Geneva Convention 🤣 but it was too much of a tangent. (Even for me!) But I cannot deny it uses literary devices effectively.

      As for Morpurgo and PP, in spite of what I’ve said I’d definitely recommend them. Morpurgo is a giant in UK children’s literature, one of the founders of the Children’s Laureate and he served in the role at a point too.

      I wholly agree. The classics will always be relevant, they have something to say on the human condition. But I think , given that nowadays English classes might be the only time a person engages with serious literature, it may be best to choose works of we might say more superficial relevance. As opposed to pointing out that Hamlet’s soliloquy addresses something that, unfortunately , a lot of young people increasingly grapple with themselves.

      Thanks for your comment ! 😁😁


  2. A great post that chimed my bell of thought. I opine that a balanced reading of the classics and the contemporary is a key to nourish the minds, making readers citizens of the world and members of humanity transcendent of time and space. Your post reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s view on the importance of reading contemporary literature as opposed to arcane writings of the misty past that do not translate well into contemporary minds without the lexical assistance. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck held the same views. They were the writers of common language elevated into the sublime art.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s so much leeway to what an adult is…but that’s a whole other blog. Kids should be exposed to a variety of different books that are written well and have solid messages etc. trying to distinguish them as adult or teen isn’t necessary. Just get them to read and discuss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funny you should say that, I initially had a section about the absurdity of a distinction between adult and non-adult art. But I had to take it out because, as you say, its a whole other blog in itself. But you’re so right, that it promotes discussion is the biggest compliment you can pay to any work of art.

      Liked by 1 person

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