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Bringing the classics back to schools



We live in troubled times, but some shocks are more unexpected than others. Amanda Foreman, a writer and academic most notable for her best-selling biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, sustained a great shock recently.

North and South by Elizabeth GaskellForeman was born in London, but holds dual American/British citizenship, while her five children have all been educated in England, for the most part in exclusive and extremely expensive schools: fees are often 30,000 pounds a year, an amount that converts into more than AUD$50,000. Most parents expect a sound education in return, in the form of their children's good examination results, but many parents, like Foreman, take a closer interest in the syllabus.

She has professed herself horrified by the surprising discovery that her 16 year old daughter has not so far read a single 18th or 19th century novel during her time at school. On talking to friends, she was even more horrified to discover that top schools such as Eton and Marlborough are not teaching classic English literature, but are concentrating on 'easier' and more modern texts such as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in an apparent effort to boost exam performance.

A person of wealth, intellect, power and reputation, Foreman is now campaigning to return authors such as Austen, Dickens and George Eliot to curricula in famous schools. But teachers have told her that a generation reared on smartphones and iPads finds such authors too 'difficult.' (So what? is my inward cry.)

Such teachers also declare that today's students are digital natives rather than natives of the English language: more shocks. Roland White, prominent English journalist, is another deeply concerned parent who recently informed readers that his 19-year-old daughter, in conversation at the dinner table, said she 'hadn't really read any novels'.

The minute the meal was over, White went to his desk and compiled a list for both his daughters: 21 Books They Should Read Before They're 21. He added the note 'No pressure, girls,' and claims the list was 'pretty much off the top of' his head, but I think it's a sound one. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Trollope, Dickens and Hardy feature, but so do Orwell, Harper Lee, Scott Fitzgerald, P.G. Wodehouse, and Dostoyevsky.

But hooray for state education in Britain, in which system Shakespeare and 19th century novels are still on the syllabus. And three more cheers for the erstwhile colonies. I consulted Professor Google about novels set on syllabuses in final school years in Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia, and was cheered by the content of the various lists.


"The classics encourage concentration on self, and they educate us in emotional intelligence, as we learn more about who we are and where we stand."


In every case, Indigenous and ethnic writers are well represented — while they appear more commonly in poetry, drama or memoir categories (think Peter Skrzynecki, Jack Davis, Noel Pearson and Alice Pung), Melina Marchetta's novels are listed, as is That Deadman Dance, the much-lauded novel by Kim Scott, a descendant of the Western Australian Noonga people — but so are classic works. Swift, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens and Hardy are all there, and I was interested in the popularity of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel that never appeared on lists when I was at school.

But it is the appearance of Mrs Gaskell's North and South on lists in Victoria and New South Wales that really fascinates me. Elizabeth Gaskell was an intellectual and high-achieving woman, a friend of Charles Dickens, who published her novel in 22 weekly parts in his magazine Household Words during 1854-55.

I would have thought it the last novel that would interest today's youth, and had set ideas about its inaccessibility. But after dragging out my time-worn copy and perusing it, I decided I was wrong. The easiness of the style comes as a surprise, and the plot involves elements of perennial interest: a love story, the nature of spirituality, fluctuations in material fortunes, class tensions, the impact of modern technology on society, and in general what makes us human.

Why is it considered important to read the classics, anyway? There are many answers to this question, one being the accumulation of the furniture of the mind, so important and helpful as one ages. (And I ought to know.)

But another answer involves a paradox. Great literature puts an end, at least temporarily, to the shallow kind of narcissism encouraged by social media, for we learn our concerns are commonplace, and that no experience or suffering is unique. Yet the classics encourage concentration on self, and they educate us in emotional intelligence, as we learn more about who we are and where we stand.

And there is always something more to learn, which is one reason I am reading Great Expectations for at least the sixth time.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, literature, classics



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Existing comments

I so much agree Gillian. Intellectual stimulation is of utmost importance, even as one ages. To this end, I am currently enjoying Robert Dessaix's "The Pleasures of Leisure". This wonderful book is teaching me how to be an Idler. Or more correctly, a more productive Idler.

Pam | 31 October 2017  

And poetry too. I know of one school in Melbourne where the VCE class 'do' two novels but no poetry. No Wordsworth or Hardy or Browning, no Yeats or Eliot or Kipling. Of course, they are mostly rhyming poets and rhyme is only for fuddy duds, unlike the poetry found in many magazines.

Frank | 01 November 2017  

Mayor of Casterbridge - a true reflection of life. Game of Thrones - imagination runs wild Mars Trilogy - gives a realistic picture of the future subject to IT and climate change

nick | 01 November 2017  

Well done Gillian I totally agree with this heartfelt plea to save future generations from shallow narcissism. But I think teachers must find a way to present what can be learnt from the classics as relevant and too many teachers fail to encourage and excite their students to visitthe foreign country that is the past with all that it has to teach us about human nature.

Maggie | 01 November 2017  

I couldn't agree more. Failure to read the imaginative world of writers past leads to failure in adolescents and young adults to understand where Australian society comes from, not to mention, like, the inability, like, of expressing, like, their own thoughts

Juliet | 02 November 2017  

I'm presently reading Tasmanian Richard FLANAGAN's just published First Person - having watched a BBC 2015 interview of him by Alan YENTOB in a series on Man Booker prize winners just a few nights back - but having been enormously impressed by his WWII-set novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Peter SKRZYNECKI is a favourite Aussie writer - as too Judah WATEN and Gayle KENNEDY. But like you point out yourself Gillian - one is not restricted to the modern or contemporary writers of literature - Charles Dickens and Shakespeare and Jane Austen - so much to say - offering readers the entry points for finding aspects of our shared human condition. In turn these authors give us a common thread of discourse - and lead us to find other writers - because we are not speaking of a limited scope to our reading - but from some common foundation - we build our own libraries of the mind - of experience - those genres we most easily pursue - whether the literary detective novels or auto/biographies - or other. A few years back I began reading writers from Yorkshire - J.B. PRIESTLEY and Alan BENNETT - influenced to a certain extent by a former boss and friend Fiona GARROOD - herself an Airedale woman from Leeds. I'd long ago read Winifred HOLTBY and I went on to Gervase PHINN (a kind of James WIGHT - the educational equivalent to All Creatures Great and Small) and finally - in that regional common-point - poet Simon ARMITAGE and his tale of walking the Pennine Way - funding his path by pub readings along the way. I don't want to say that I am unsurprised by the capacity of class in its private schools to deride literature - as it churns out the heartless to defraud the rest of sentient society - because it is both true and not - John MARSDEN the great Australian writer of young people's literature worked for years in that kind of system. Nevertheless when I make metaphorical reference to some quirk of human nature with a reference to the obsequious priest of Pride and Prejudice - I surely want others to nod knowingly - not to stare with blank looks as I might be the one at odds with the rest.

Jim KABLE | 02 November 2017  

While I am strongly in favour of the inclusion of excellent and enduring works of literature written by and for earlier generations being included in the school syllabus, the final stages of high school are way too late to redress the balance (though better late than never). My son and grandchildren, who attended and attend state schools in Queensland, had elective reading programmes since early primary school, consisting of a reading list they could select from and a target tally of books read and reported on within a given time frame. It's presented as a pleasurable activity, a journey of discovery, rather than a chore. Children who struggle to reach their quota receive support and encouragement. Teachers also serialise some books by reading them aloud in class, in instalments. The three children of my own family whose reading development I'm familiar with became or are becoming confident and avid readers of fiction (all kinds) and non-fiction while still in primary school. My son has continued reading for pleasure into adult life, and I hope my grandchildren do too. The latter are just as enthusiastic about children's classic novels as they are about more recent publications.  

Jena Woodhouse | 02 November 2017  

Do students in Catholic schools (especially those baptised into the Faith) leave school having learned to read that “enduring work of literature” known as the Bible, and knowing that diversity is not a modern phenomenon given that the Bible from which the Mass readings are taken has 73 books, the Protestant one that the Gideons kindly place in your motel room a few books short of a canon at 66, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church somewhat over-canonical at 81?

Roy Chen Yee | 09 November 2017  

My granddaughter was set "Wuthering Heights " as a VCE text . She was a good reader and a conscientious student but found this book a huge challenge. The audio version of it was used in conjunction with the written text as an aid to understanding. Just listening to how the narrative was supposed to sound was a huge help. Not sure if this was a positive thing to use or not.

Robyn | 31 March 2018