Why is British Literature important to teach in today's high school curriculum? Providing examples from classic British literature writers such as Shakespeare, Chaucer (The Miller's Tale), and John Milton (Paradise Lost), why might you argue for British Literature's inclusion in a teaching setting?
The modern high school literature curriculum is filled with examples of literature that seek to capture the imagination of the student. The movement towards a more diversified curriculum and piquing the interest of young people represents a commonly accepted practice in many high schools. However, bringing back British literature, admittedly written by a "a bunch of dead white guys," can hold some significant meaning in its own right. In teaching British Literature in today's high school setting, one is able to challenge the minds of modern students. Including British Literature in such an instructional setting can increase the ability for students to intellectually assess the world and their place in it.
One particular reason why works from British Literature are important to teach in the the modern high school curriculum is because of their complexity. The modern high school student knows nothing but intricacy. This level of nuance lies on multiple levels. Works like Milton's Paradise Lost or The Miller's Tale speak to this complexity. Nothing is easy in either work. The same can be applied to the tragedies of Shakespeare. In these literary conditions, there is a wide array of complexity. For example, the duplicity on both emotional and spiritual levels that marks Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" represents a reality that modern students can understand and, perhaps, appreciate in recognizing the inauthenticity that often forms the contours for human action. Satan's nature in Paradise Lost as one who has been robbed of rightful title and status is a complex reality that modern high school students can understand and recognize in the world around them. Finally, the complexities of Hamlet's indecision, or Macbeth's desire for action, or even Othello's insecurities are all reflective of modern realities for the high school student of today. Reading examples like these of British Literature can provide the high school student with a literary frame of reference to appropriate the world and their place in it.This becomes one of the most important reasons that the inclusion of British Literature in the instructional setting can help students more than anything else.
I would also suggest that there should be an open discussion as to what students themselves define as "L"iterature. Students having an active role in defining what constitutes effective and quality literature is essential as they become participants in the discussion about the canon. It is in this regard where I think that reading examples of British Literature is critical. Students should be exposed to such literature in order to make an effective case for or against the inclusion of specific work samples in the curriculum. Students should be able to recognize what values specifically define "L"iterature. Being able to include works like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton help to empower students within such a debate. In this light, I think that a strong case can be made that their inclusion can help facilitate intellectual scholarship in terms of what elements define good "L"iterature.
Even today, many Christian concepts of heaven and hell and Satan and creation are really not from the Book of Genesis, but are ideas from Milton's Paradise Lost. Truly, British literature is at the foundation of English-speaking peoples' culture. The renowned authority on Shakespeare, Harold Bloom, calls Hamlet "Freud's mentor," Of Shakespeare, Bloom further writes,
Shakespeare will abide, even if he were to be expelled by the academics, in itself most unlikely. He extensively informs the language we speak, his principal characters have become our mythology, and he, rather than his involuntary follower Freud, is our psychologist.
Moreover, Shakespeare has been universally judged as one who more adequately represents "the universe of fact than anyone else before him or since," a judgment that has predominated since the mid-eighteenth century.
Just as there is much to learn of life and the essence of what is man from the likes of John Milton and William Shakespeare, so, too, is there much of the history of man's sins and foolishness in Chaucer and his struggles against social injustice to learn from such writers as Charles Dickens, who was responsible for many social reforms in England.
Indeed, it is the authors and poets of one of the greatest countries in the history of the world that speak to the heart of man. The American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote that
We recognize truth outside ourselves and we cherish the insights into our own truths that we glimpse through them.
Conclusively, literature transmutes life into truth, and the spectacular British poets and authors are definitively the best at expressing the existential truths of the human soul. Despite the conventional wisdom to vilify European thought, to not read them is to deprive oneself of the knowledge of the essence of man.