“In 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, authoritatively stated (as something too obvious to require any evidence) that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated. It was, she asserted, an undeniable ‘fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.'”
So begins a fine essay by Jonathan Rose in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal lamenting the current belief of the education establishment that kids, especially kids from low-income homes, just can’t appreciate Julius Caesar or the Iliad–so let’s have them read comic books and rap lyrics instead. As Rose writes:
“[Prof. Smith] was merely echoing what was, at the time, standard academic opinion: that the Western classics embody a worldview that somehow ‘marginalizes’ the poor, the nonwhite, the female, the ‘other,’ and justifies their subordination to white male ‘hegemony.’ And like so many postmodern critics, Professor Smith could be naively confident that she was in full possession of the facts, even without the benefit of research.
“But her theory had no visible means of support. Whenever it was tested, the results were diametrically opposed to what she predicted: in fact ‘the canon’ enabled ‘the masses’ to become thinking individuals.”
As Rose points out, historical research into the actual reading habits of working-class people during the 19th and early 20th centuries supports the existence of an “amazingly vital autodidact culture” in which coopers, weavers, dressmakers and housemaids who had left school at early ages, avidly read and found rich personal meaning in Homer, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling. Here is Rose writing about Welsh coal-miners during the 1930s:
“In the mining towns of South Wales, colliers had pennies deducted from their wages to support their own libraries, more than 100 of them by 1934. The miners themselves determined which books to buy. One such library, the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute, devoted 20 percent of its acquisitions budget to philosophy. Another spent 45 pounds on the Oxford English Dictionary. (In the best of times, a miner could not earn much more than a pound a day.) There were sophisticated literary debates down in the pits, where one collier heard high praise for George Meredith. That evening, he tried to borrow Meredith’s Love in the Valley from the local miners’ library, only to find 12 names on the waiting list for a single copy….
“Among the same audience, classical music was as popular as classic literature. A century ago one might hear, over the roar of machinery, ironworkers chanting the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannh’user, or weavers rehearsing Messiah or Elijah. A 1938 BBC survey found that orchestral music was as popular as cricket broadcasts, attracting half of all working-class listeners. Another 15 percent enjoyed grand opera and piano recitals.”
Best of all, Rose writes, today’s working-class young people are just as hungry for the classics as those of 60 years ago:
“Kurt Wootton taught English at a Providence high school where the students were almost all black and half of them dropped out before graduation. He assigned them Richard Wright’s Black Boy and jazz by John Coltrane, which they found hopelessly irrelevant. Then he organized ArtsLit, a summer program that brings students from Rhode Island’s worst high schools to the Brown University campus to study and perform Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, Garc’a Lorca’s Blood Wedding, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And these long-dead authors clearly sent the kids a message, as high school teacher Richard Kinslow found when he had his ESL class prepare a production of Macbeth. One of his students was the type who got suspended about once a week, but he would sneak into school for the daily rehearsals….’These kids had never been actively involved in any part of school except gym and art,’ explained Kinslow. ‘Doing Shakespeare honored them. If you want to talk about self-respect and pride, it made a big difference.'”
Isn’t this a better way to get poor kids reading–and thinking and getting engaged in the life of the mind–than throwing a comic book at them because we assume that comic books are the only literature they find relevant? Don’t give young people stones when they ask for bread, and don’t throw rap lyrics at them when they long for Sophocles.