I had a mildly heated argument about this with a friend (who is an English teacher). I staked out the position you take; he was arguing against it.

The entirety of his argument essentially boiled down to one point: that the classics are foundational, and that building an education in literature is like building a house. You have to start with the foundation. (“They’re called ‘foundational classics’ for a reason,” he said.)

In other words, he was saying that teaching literature is like teaching math. That you can’t teach calculus or even algebra until your students have a foundation in basic math — addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions.

But that seems exactly backward to me. Because basic math is called basic math for a reason — it’s basic. It’s the easiest stuff to learn. When it comes to literature, we do it exactly backward.


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