The Definition of Classical Literature and the Benefits of Studying Classical Literature to High School Students

What makes someone an intellectual? Is it ‘book smarts’ or ‘streets smarts’? Gerald Graff introduces a compelling argument in his article “Hidden Intellectualism.” He disputes that although some students do not have an interest in academics, or book smarts, this does not mean that they are not intellectuals. He also explains that even if a student cannot skillfully write a book analysis, they can become intellectuals through deep discussion with peers on topics that actually entice them. In other words, success in school is not the ultimate basis for intelligence.

I mostly agree with Graff’s argument and can relate to it because of my personal experiences as a student and my father’s life experiences in general. Although I almost entirely agree with Graff’s point of view, I slightly disagree with his stance on literary curriculum for high school students. From my time in high school I have learned to appreciate the classic literature I was force-fed. Although it was painful at times, I believe studying classic literature can be beneficial.

Initially, as a high school student I had an incredibly hard time comprehending, let alone writing about, Shakespeare. Graff states “Give me a student anytime who writes a sharply argued, sociologically acute analysis of an issue in Source over the student who writes a lifeless, explication of Hamlet…”(270). This resonates with me deeply because I had to write a literary analysis on Hamlet in high school and it was the most mechanically boring essay I have ever produced. Writing about things that interest you can definitely make writing, and learning in general, a less painful experience. The difference between writing a lifeless essay on something you don’t quite understand and writing about a topic you fully grasp and are intrigued by, is that you are able to express your thoughts on said topic more clearly. Whether or not you are a “good writer” is irrelevant. The main objective is that students learn to enjoy learning, not to be overwhelmed by it.

Furthermore, Graff states “…here is another thing that never dawned on me and is still kept hidden from students, with tragic results: that the real intellectual world, the one that exists in the big world beyond school, is organized very much like the world of team sports, with rival texts, rival interpretations…..” (268). Here Graff is saying that the “real world” is set up mainly for those with street smarts. A prime example of this would be my father. As a young adolescent he had to drop out of high school to support himself and his siblings after the tragic and abrupt death of his parents. As a 13-year old boy growing up on Taylor street, my father relied on his street smarts to survive.

When I was born he landed a job as a custodian at McDonald’s Corporation, one of the most powerful companies in the world. There he, once again, relied on his street smarts and social skills to climb the corporate ladder. Within two years of being hired he was promoted to property manager. Of course, he had to obtain his GED and pass a couple of business courses, because completely avoiding academics is impossible. However, it was his street smarts that opened doors for him, not something he learned out of a book. In my father’s case, streets smarts beat out book smarts by a long shot.

Finally, Graff states “If a student cannot get interested in Mill’s On Liberty but will read Sports Illustrated…with absorption, this is a strong argument for assigning the magazines over the classic” (270). Although I previously said writing about topics that students can understand and find interesting can make writing more enjoyable, I believe studying classics, at some point, is essential. Studying classic literature offers perspectives from different time periods. It can also enlighten students about cultures from long ago. At times it can be frustrating to understand some older texts, but it is important that students at least try to interpret classics because it broadens one’s understand of writing and the world in general. Even though writing an analysis of Hamlet was excruciating, it introduced me to a new style of writing and therefore a new perspective entirely.

In conclusion, I agree with Graff’s argument that students are capable of being intellectuals even if they not completely devoted to academics. However, I believe at least attempting to understand classic works of literature is beneficial. My father’s and my own experiences have proven, at least to us, that intelligence comes in many ways, shapes, and forms. Even if you are not considered book smart, that does not mean you are not considered an intellectual.

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