Are the Classics Still Relevant Today?

Shelf of antique books

Shakespeare, Dickens, Marlowe, Shaw—the list goes on and on. The English language is certainly not suffering a lack of great writers, and there is no denying the beauty of a finely crafted bon mot a la Mark Twain. But do these classics still have a place in a modern curriculum? Why should students labor through Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen,” with somewhat cumbersome lines like “So slyding softly forth, she turned as to her ease.” Even if you do not plan on becoming an English teacher, you may one day find yourself defending the relevancy of these great classics in today’s digital world, and there are plenty of persuasive points in favor of them.

Timeless Themes and Lessons

Works that were written centuries or decades ago contain references and language usage that can be unfamiliar to a modern audience. But no matter how much life has changed, certain things stay the same: people continue to suffer loss, hardship, self-doubt and societal conflicts. In every era, literature is an attempt to make sense of a confusing world. The timeless themes of the classics guide modern readers with morality stories and serve as a reminder that humans are not alone in their struggles. For proof, take a look at these examples:

  • Les Misérables explores social injustice and the humanity of those less fortunate.
  • The Odyssey recognizes that different cultures have varying values, beliefs and social mores.
  • Frankenstein teaches that one must take responsibility for one’s own creations or actions.
  • 1984 explores the blind acceptance of what one has been told is truth.

Whether a reader is turning a critical eye inward or outward, these universal themes exploring the roles of the self and the “other” are not likely to ever grow irrelevant.

Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

Another timeless aspect of studying the classics is what they can teach about emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the foundation of healthy interpersonal relations. It refers to emotional self-awareness, self-control, self-management and the ability to recognize the emotional inclinations of others. Emotional intelligence breeds empathy and the capacity to be kind and caring toward others. Many classic works either celebrate these human traits or explore the folly of ignoring them.

Cognitive Complexity

It can be possible to change your brain through your everyday choices. You can build new neural connections simply by doing things differently, like brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right-handed. The same applies to your choice of reading materials. Books and plays that were written a long time ago can require some work to interpret that can in turn strengthen your thought processes and analysis skills. In “Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne writes, “I have scruples touching the matter thou wot’st of.” Today, a modern writer might simply write, “I have ethical concerns.” The language of the older classics is as complex and enriching as it is beautiful.

While you earn your English degree at Grand Canyon University, you will explore the beauty of written expression in America and cultures around the world. Our College of Humanities and Social Sciences invites you to click the Request More Information button on this page to find the degree program that allows you to build your career.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.