Reading old books for a reason

Yesterday, we started our discussion on why math shouldn’t be an elective and why even the quadratic equation can be useful years after graduation. Today, we continue the discussion by approaching high school English classes and why figuring out the words of Milton and Wordsworth will still hold value well into your adult working life.

mattfreedman Does HS English (past grade 9 or 10) really help anybody but a writer?

I should probably preface this by saying that Matt Freedman is very much interested in computer programming, web development, and that kind of thing. He happens to be a high school student, but he’s also the guy who created the current design for Beyond the Rhetoric. His opinions and perspective will clearly differ from mine, since I write for a living.

Just as with the math discussion that we had yesterday, it may not be immediately obvious to students why they are reading older works like Animal Farm and Of Mice And Men. What possible relevance could these books have on our lives today and how can we apply what we learn to something practical?

At the time, reading and analyzing these works of literature may seem like a futile exercise. However, many of these books contain many great lessons. I had a great time learning about the Russian Revolution through the filter of Animal Farm and I would have never surmised the “hidden” meaning of George Orwell’s book if it wasn’t for my English Literature class. Other works contain some great life lessons. What did Wordsworth mean when he said the child is the father of the man?

I’d say that going through and analyzing all of these works is a great way to improve both your reading and writing skills. We are social beings and we could all stand to improve our ability to communicate with one another. Too many people struggle with articulating their thoughts succinctly and accurately.


English class has little about improving reading and writing. Analyzing writing = useless.

Analyzing writing is not useless. It is only through this careful analysis and dissection of previously published works that we can glean much greater meaning out of the words that were printed on the page. If you merely accepted Shakespeare’s plays at face value, you’d be missing out on 95% of their meaning and significance. The formal consideration of the works, in the form of essays and in-class discussions, allows you to gain much more from an otherwise standard story. The Tempest is about more than just an outcast magician.

This ability to better understand the words you read reaches far beyond fictional literature. If you are able to truly understand a work as complex as Paradise Lost, you will also gain the transferable skill of understanding and evaluating all kinds of writing. From casual reading of pop fiction to in-depth analysis of political editorials, you will be better equipped to understand the rhetoric and semantics of the piece.

Understanding these mechanics and practicing through essays, you can also become a better writer. Even if you don’t aspire to write as a career, these communication skills will help you with composing cover letters, sending effective e-mail messages, and even interacting with your significant other. Being articulate is highly valued in our society and it starts with understanding the nuances of the language.

Could there be a part three to this series? Based on the heated conversations that I’ve been having on Twitter with Lesley, Matt, Stephen, and Ed, among others, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.