Jason Caros » The Importance of Classic Literature

The Importance of Classic Literature

“As for literature––to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.” 

– Charlotte Mason 

One of the hallmarks of a classical education is, of course, “classic” literature. At a Hot Chocolate with the Headmaster meeting I read lines from some of the classics our children have read, or will read this year in school. The selections I used came from “Little House in the Big Woods” (2nd grade), “Don Quixote” (5th grade), “The Prince and the Pauper” (6th grade), “The Iliad” (9th grade), and “Pride and Prejudice” (10th grade). Children and adults have feasted on these works for generations, and in one case, for thousands of years. What is it about these books that makes them “classics?” Why should we want our children to read them? 

Books like the ones described above, and the ones listed below, share some essential qualities that puts them in the category of classic. First, they are written in noble language. Second, they teach readers important lessons about human nature (life lessons pertaining to virtue and vice). Third, because they are well written and deal forcefully with human nature, they transcend time; in other words, generation after generation can read, enjoy, and benefit from them. As Charlotte Mason said, they bring a continual holiday to our doors…. 

One of the things classic literature can bring to a reader’s experience is challenge. A challenge because of the ideas and issues a reader has to confront, and in the case of a child, the additional challenge of reading material that is sometimes above the reading level he is used to encountering. 

Challenge is exactly what a classical education demands of students, because challenge is what is going to make them better. Mortimer Adler, one of the 20th century’s great intellectuals and one of the men who gave us “The Encyclopedia Britannica” and the volumes known as “The Great Books,” wrote a book called “How to Read a Book”). In it, Adler pointed out how reading difficult books is one of the important ways to improve reading ability. Reading books above one’s level is an essential aspect of academic self-improvement. Reading classic literature provides an opportunity in this regard. 

I have, in the past, heard adults criticize the use of classic books in school. One common remark has been: “why can’t my child just read books written in everyday language he can understand instead of from these old books that have some words in them even I don’t know?” The goal of using classic literature is not to stump students with archaic language. In fact, there are plenty of “modern classics” our students will read. The point really isn’t about modern or older lingo. It is about quality, classical literature (defined above), versus the types of books students are assigned to read in many schools today. Some of these books are characterized by “topics they can relate to,” and a lack of academic vigor (if students are assigned to read entire books at all). 

Mortimer Adler used a nice analogy about exposing students to challenging classical literature instead of mediocre works. He said, when students study classical texts they get to taste cream. When they read popular, mediocre books, they experience skim milk. The goal in school should be for “all” our children to partake of the cream. Now, there will be students that will get more cream than others due to varying abilities among students, but at least all students will have some cream. When students “engage” in classic literature they are challenged, they are inspired, and they learn important lessons about the world and their place in it; and most importantly, they learn about their own humanity. 

The following section contains a grade-by-grade list of many of the titles students will enjoy this year at Founders Classical Academy, not including short stories and poetry: 

2nd: Charlotte’s Webb, Pinocchio, Little House in the Big Woods, Peter Pan, Hour of the Olympics (fiction companion to Ancient Greece and the Olympics), Greek Myths (Classic Starts), The Iliad (Classic Starts) 

3rd: Little House on the Prairie (summer reading), Magician’s Nephew, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Aladdin and Other Favorite Arabian Nights Stories (Dover Children's Thrift Classics), The Princess and the Goblin, History reader in addition to the Core Knowledge books = Vacation Under the Volcano (fiction companion to the Magic Treehouse Ancient Rome and Pompeii), Vikings at Sunrise (Magic Treehouse), Roman Myths (Classic Starts) 

4th: Pollyanna (summer reading), The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Tales from Shakespeare 

5th: A Secret Garden (summer reading), Prince Caspian, Don Quixote (select episodes for young readers), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sherlock Holmes, Little Women, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Autobiography of Frederick Douglass (abridged) 

6th: Greek Myths (summer reading), The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy (Children’s Homer), Julius Caesar, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Count of Monte Cristo (Abridged), The Prince the Pauper 

7th: The Jungle Book (summer reading), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Call of the Wild, Fahrenheit 451, Cyrano de Bergerac, A Christmas Carol, Romeo and Juliet, Animal Farm (read in history class), The Diary of Anne Frank (read in history class)

8th: Frankenstein (summer reading), Lord of the Flies, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Selections), To Kill a Mockingbird, Ben Franklin's Autobiography (selections in history), Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Much Ado About Nothing, Red Badge of Courage 

9th: Odyssey (summer), Iliad, Oedipus the King, Antigone, The Clouds, Greek Lyric Poetry, Metamorphosis (selections), Aeneid, Julius Caesar (Shakespeare) 

10th: The Tales of King Arthur (summer reading), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Selected Old English Poetry, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Paradise Lost, Milton's Selected Poems, English Romantic Poetry 

11th: Napoleon & Huck Finn (summer reading for history and literature),  Scarlet Letter, Self Reliance, Walden, Moby Dick, American Romantic Poetry, The Tempest, My Antonia, Poetry of Edgar Allen Poe et al.

12th: Summer reading is related to Senior Thesis, Pride and Prejudice, Metamorphosis, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, King Lear, Murder in the Cathedral,  Various Poetry, short stories and essays from Flannery O'Connory, the Southern Agrarians and more. 

Jason Caros, Headmaster