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Literature in High School

Updated on July 7, 2016

What is Great Literature

If you ask ten people for a definition of great literature, you will probably get at least eight different answers. It's like taking a survey on the best ice cream flavor. Everyone has their personal opinions and very often can't tell you why. They know what they like and don't usually think about a definition or explanation for it.

According to, the top ten novels in the 20th century are

  1. Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
  2. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (1916)
  4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1958)
  5. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
  6. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)
  7. Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
  8. Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler (1941)
  9. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence (1913)
  10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)

But who decided these were the best novels written in the 20th century? Was there a committee? Who was on it and by what criteria? These books have very little in common, so how were they chosen over others? If you go by these dates, no one has written anything worth reading in the last 50 years.

There have been some very good books written recently. There are authors who have experienced monumental success in the last 50 years. Yet, at some high schools, books on this list are still required reading.

How many of the Top Ten English novels have you read?

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The Necessity of Required Reading

As a teacher, I understand the importance of requiring students to ready good literature. Students will tell you that they read all the time. Yes, but social media and texts are not scholastic reading. As educators, we must introduce our students to quality reading material.

Who defines quality reading material? What is the criteria? Is it the writing style? Maybe it's the symbolism. It could be the plot. What if we judged on grammar? Does it have to make a contribution to society to make the list? Does it have to be written by certain authors?

What Year Were These Books Best Sellers?

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Recent Experience

I teach English online to foreign students. Many are preparing to attend school in the US. They have been accepted by private schools and know the curriculum. One student asked for assistance in the summer reading required by the school. I tried to obtain the books on the list. Some were unavailable online. If I couldn't get the book, I downloaded another book by the author so the student could see how he or she wrote.

I won't name the authors or the books, but I was appalled at what is being considered great literature. The grammar was completely unacceptable in any English class. There was way too much colloquial language. Teenagers have their own language, but in 25 years of education, I've never heard them speak like the authors wrote. The inappropriate language was completely over the top. I have no problem with this type of language if it adds to the plot. But when it is put in as space fillers, I get upset.

The student kept asking "What's the plot? I don't see the plot." Neither did i. The first story we read was written in the first person voice with about 50% of the sentences containing at least one inappropriate word. The story was nothing but complaints about society and authority. . The main character failed to see that he and his unwillingness to follow rules were the problems.

The second book was a collection of short stories. Each consisted of the conversation of two people. The conversation took place at a party and was basically small talk in an attempt to 'hook up."

The third book by a famous author who will visit the school this October, was about a group of football players sitting around the living in the summer discussing their 'conquests.' The main character had 'banged' 19 girls and was worried because he wasn't making headway with number 20.

The student asked to stop reading each of these books because he said, "There is no plot. It is just a bunch of people talking. I don't want to read this."

Which is Witch?

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The Irony

We spend years teaching students appropriate grammar and then hand them a book that breaks every rule.

We teach them not to use foul language in public and then give a book from an author who can't write a sentence without at least one cuss word.

We teach them to respect women and then require them to read a novel about a guy using and disposing them like tissues.

They are disciplined for not obeying authority, but expected to read a book where the main character's rebellion is glorified.

The Arguement

They can read:
But not this:
What the f*** are you doing?
What are you doing?
That is a f***ing awesome b****.
That is a pretty girl.
Me and rules don't get along.
I don't like rules.
The Po-po be up in here.
The police are here
Truth or Fiction?

Personal View and Opinion

In each of the stories we read, I saw inappropriate grammar, non-intelligible dialogue, foul language, irresponsibility and disrespect for women. I am well aware that young people live with these circumstances daily. As educators and role-models, isn't it our job to set a standard and teach them that there are other options in life? We also have an obligation to prepare them for the next phase of their life. Would you hire someone who walked into your office and said, "Watsup? F***ing cool digs, dude?"

It is my personal opinion that we have lowered our standards for dress, language, grammar, and education. Yes, it is the right of the author to write whatever he or she wants. But it is my responsibility as an educator to make sure that my students are prepared for the business world or whatever they choose.

Are we living up to our responsibility?

These are my personal opinions. I'd love to hear yours. Please leave a comment and tell me what you think about the reading material in our high schools today.


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