The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

Opinion: Run for Cover!

For the majority of students, “classic” is synonymous with “outdated” and “boring.” With a little bit of insight, it proves to be anything but that.
Ruby Morris
A shelf of classics in the NASH Library.

To many teenagers, the mere words “classic literature” are enough to stir feelings of terror. Immediately, thoughts turn towards the flowery, incomprehensible ramblings of Shakespeare or Melville’s 10,000th whale fact that students were forced to spend their precious summer hours analyzing. The concept alone seems entirely unreachable–some books are hundreds, even thousands of years old, with ancient language patterns to match. How could they possibly be useful, let alone enjoyable, to a 21st century teenager? Why even bother?

And yet, classic literature sits at the core of culture itself. 

The themes of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have inspired countless aspects of today’s media. War and Peace plays an irreplaceable role in philosophical debates. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was largely responsible for stopping the widespread use of DDT while simultaneously stirring up the modern environmental justice movement.

No aspect of modern life has been left untouched by the very authors we unconsciously label as boring and outdated. So why wouldn’t reading classic literature be important?

Besides the cultural role that classic literature fills, it also plays a core part in human development. In a study conducted for the Barbara Bush Foundation, it was discovered that 130 million Americans–over 50% of the population between 16 and 74–lacked proficiency in basic literacy skills. According to a survey published by the National Center for Education Statistics, America’s literacy rates ranked just above the international average but were still far behind countries like Finland and Japan. Beyond just improving reading comprehension, classics help to equip readers with analytical skills that they can apply to any piece of writing they may encounter in their day-to-day lives. Many classics are set apart for their complicated themes and moral complexity, allowing them to play a central role in the development of critical thinking. 

In the words of Mr. Lance Rhinehart, NASH’s AP Language and Composition teacher, “At the strictest level of interdependent thought, [reading classic literature] is obviously proven to help us develop our sense of critical acceptance or nonacceptance. When we’re forming new neurons on that level, our brains need to be constantly stimulated that way.”

Time makes less of a difference than we tend to think. 

The benefits of reading classic literature aren’t limited to tangible statistics, either. Classics provide important historical insight into a modern perspective of the world. Books like Thoreau’s Walden force readers to look inwards, emphasizing the importance of discovering the inner self. Classic literature reminds readers that what they may perceive as their own human struggles have been grappled with for millennia, in millions of different settings and situations. Time makes less of a difference than we tend to think. 

Rhinehart spoke to the importance of this aspect.

“In the other sense of being a human being and navigating the world and our own inner selves, we’d better be able to navigate ourselves if we want to navigate the world outside,” he said. “Reading helps with that.”

The age of classics is a major part of what makes these books so unapproachable. A lack of historical knowledge can make context incredibly difficult to understand, and outdated language patterns only add to the confusion. However, age is one of the most important characteristics of classic literature. The timelessness of these novels encapsulates direct insight into history itself, forever providing a window into historical perspectives that would otherwise be lost. Historical dialogue, events, and traditions that are frequently scattered across these books provide readers with the opportunity to witness human thought and behavior hundreds, or thousands, of years prior to their existence. 

Timeless writing allows for modern day people to learn from the experiences of their ancestors, and these experiences will be carefully protected in ink for the generations to come.

“Literature, like any other storytelling medium, provides the closest we can get to experiential aspects of ourselves, both internal and external, without having to experience it ourselves,” he said. “It teaches us things we never would have thought without it.”

Despite the clear advantages of reading classic literature, the subject can still be extremely intimidating. There’s no clear guide on when or where to start, and there’s no strict age where it is too early or too late to begin seriously reading classics. Rhinehart shared that his experience with literature was simply to try everything whenever you’re “not ready for it,” which creates a personal awareness of your own limits and how to push them. 

As for where to start, Rhinehart recommends Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

It’s accessible, applicable, and timeless,” he said. “The structure of it is incredible–what happens in its pages is incredible.” 

Melville’s Moby Dick is also another one of Rhinehart’s favorites, as anyone who has stepped into his white-whale-decorated classroom may have guessed. He favors the 19th century American novel for its applicability.

“I’ve yet to see the humanities-based [essay] prompt where you cannot use an aspect of Moby Dick for evidence,” he said.

As for influential authors, Rhinehart first recommends George Orwell, the 20th century British author who wrote 1984 and Animal Farm.

Pullquote Photo

“[Literature] enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

— C.S. Lewis, British author

“Orwell is a big one, especially in his reaction to fascist schemes and ideology and the loss of communication,” he said. “He had some really good insight into homogenizing language and therefore thought, and losing the ability to think for ourselves.”

Rhinehart also recommends reading the works of American authors Emerson and Thoreau, primarily Thoreau due to the accessibility of his works. Their 19th century works influenced much of 20th century American culture and even spread ideas of peaceful protests to figures as historically significant as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are also influential and particularly accessible authors in classic literature, and Rhinehart emphasizes the cultural impact they left on mythology and fairytales.

“Tolkien taught us (without knowing that he did it) the timeless value of mythology,” he said. “He taught us that language is the inroad to conceptualization. C.S. Lewis was instrumental in reminding us that fairytales are not for children, and they’re only worthwhile if they are for both children and adults simultaneously.” 

Lewis, like countless other authors from the past, saw literature not merely as important but vital to a well-lived life.

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it,” he once wrote. “It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

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About the Contributor
Grace Thomas
Grace Thomas, Staff Writer
Grace is a NASH junior for the 23-24 school year who loves writing about the questions she hears most. When she isn't writing or interviewing, she enjoys reading novels, rock climbing, and travelling to different National Parks across the country.

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