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How to Incentivize the Classics

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Actors perform a scene from William Shakepeare’s Henry VIII at the Globe Theatre in London, England, in 2010. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters) The trend in modern education is to abandon classical literature. But students like and benefit from it. Here’s how to get it back into classrooms.

A student turned to me during their standardized test to point out a question on the screen. It asked about a sentence that read: “Shakespeare’s works are outdated with themes that are irrelevant to today’s students.” I do not remember what the question then asked, but likely it was something about how to improve the sentence, in which case I hope there was a fifth option: Delete it.

Everyone is denigrating the classics nowadays — even reading passages on standardized tests apparently. Princeton University removed its Greek and Latin requirements for classics majors. Howard University disbanded its classics department. #DisruptTexts is a grassroots social-media movement to decenter the canon in K–12 schools. My own colleagues talk about replacing To Kill a Mockingbird with young-adult fiction. The canon wars have begun anew, only now, they’re being fought in the trenches of secondary-school buildings.

Despite its critics, instruction into the classics remains essential. My students consistently tell me that Romeo and Juliet is the first book that ever really “gets” them, admit that this play exposed to them the danger of their own anger, and cry at the conclusion of this Shakespearean tragedy. They practice their poetry at recess and complain when we’re done reading out loud for the day. They’re never as engaged as when we’re discussing the timeless themes of violence, love, beauty, liberty, or whatever other philosophical discussion arises from these books. Students crave the humanistic education that comes through classic literature.

Unfortunately, as I’ve written about previously for National Review, the predominant philosophy of education in our teacher training programs favors student choice and contemporary texts over teacher-centered classrooms and great books. So long as the university and the aforementioned movements stand against classic literature, mere op-eds will do little to reify our commitment to great books, and Diary

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