Real life issues. Relevance to today’s young people. These are some of the top reasons given for reducing or ignoring traditional academic content in the curriculum, especially when it is older. What relevance do Shakespeare or Homer have for young people growing up on a rough council estate, the advocates of education-as-social-work ask rhetorically.
In reality, nothing could be more relevant to a life of struggle than great literature. It’s in great literature that we find the most difficult issues presented with the greatest power and insight. Unlocking this great inheritance for young people gives them ways of reflecting on life’s toughest challenges that they could not get from a thousand citizenship lessons or workshops on ‘teen issues’.
Human life is infinitely various, but great literature has lasted through the centuries because it engages powerfully with those challenges which we all face: death; loss; the passage of time; the enchantment and dangers of romantic attraction. Teenagers may think they are the first people in the universe to experience these things, but a thorough immersion in great literature will teach them that they are not alone. They are part of the human race, which has been grappling with these great questions for time immemorial.
The same is true for younger children. If we give them a diet of supposedly relevant fluff about children just like them, we are denying them the opportunity to engage with the great human questions that are dramatised in the legends and fairy tales that have been passed down through the centuries. There is struggle and death and the clash between good and evil in the great folk tales. Stories about heroes and man-eating ogres and giants actually engage more strongly with the fundamental questions of a child who is afraid of the dark, or nervous about entering an unfamiliar situation, than any number of anodyne stories of kids just like them who have not wanted to go to bed without their favourite teddy bear.
Children and young people have serious questions. Let’s take them seriously, and introduce them to the great stories that dramatise those serious questions, not fob them off with the candy floss churned out by the contemporary children’s fiction industry.