Popular Culture vs Classical Literature in the English Classroom

Popular culture is often viewed by academics as superficial and underneath the realm of academic composition. Many teachers fight against using popular culture in the high school classroom as anything more than an enhancement tool. These teachers think that students need to be enveloped in the protection of classic literature in order combat the brutish cultural malay that exists outside the classroom doors in magazines, television, and movies. In Miss Grundy Doesn’t Teach Here Anymore: Popular Culture and the Composition Classroom, professor Diane Penrod seeks to counteract this idea of popular culture as an invader into the world of academia by showing that popular culture may be used effectively in the composition classroom to teach valuable lessons in critical thinking and rhetorical writing. Penrod states that writing pedagogy rooted in cultural criticism might serve a purpose in showing students that their cultural knowledge is socially constructed and that they can and should question the language of power in order to become critically thinking, responsible members of society (viii).

In her book, Penrod gathers several professors in various universities around the and who have used popular culture effectively and won over their students to higher academic writing. Each one found that using popular culture enhances the learning of their students because it allows them to put critical thinking into practice in their every day lives, not just in literary practice. Penrod found that using popular culture is a gateway for the bored youth of to enter the realm of critical thinking. She says that students are “bored by the boundaries they assume exist in the learning process, bored by not seeing connections between learning and living in their education” (15). Penrod sees the answer to this boredom in popular culture, finding that using the world they know is a way to awaken bored youth and have them take an active role in the composition classroom. Penrod says that “students found that (with the use of popular culture) they could use what they already know about the world to discover more about the ideas and beliefs they didn’t know (viii). Popular culture, then, becomes a learning tool to help students not only write rhetorically, but to question the world around them. The classroom becomes a forum where students learn the excitement of public debate and examination of cultural issues. Popular culture gives them to tools to understand the effects that language and images of popular culture have and how the tools of rhetoric are used in every day life. Penrod says that “It has become time, then, for teachers to develop cultural criticism pedagogies that encourage students to question this information and the kinds of knowledge it promotes in public life” (x). Popular culture becomes not just a collection of music videos, magazine ads, and movies, but an effective means for criticism.

Popular culture proves itself to be an effective tool, but should it displace the value of the traditional literary curriculum? Can a composition classroom be based only on popular culture instead of Beowulf or Hamlet? Although popular culture does have an appeal to students who are more likely to watch television than read a book, an opposing view point many teachers argue is that classical literature can still accomplish the same objective that popular culture can, in teaching about the modern world, even though it was written in a time past. Author and teacher Carol Jago is a proponent for teaching classical literature as a way to teach students critical thinking and rhetorical skills even though schools often want to phase it out for more practical informational and “work place documents” (9). In her book, With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students, Jago points out that “a critical reading of classical literature results in a deep literacy that is an essential skill for anyone who wants to make sense of the world” (7). Jago uses titles like Frankenstein to understand cloning and Beowulf to understand overcoming adversity in the face of great odds. Jago shows that literature is multifaceted and can teach students just as much about life as popular culture.

Jago and others find more value in the classics than in movies and television. These teachers of classical literature would be quick to point out the difficulties in using popular culture as anything more than an enhancement tool like showing a movie to help visualize a play. Popular culture is fleeting and always changing. An unknown proponent of this idea of fickleness in culture stated that “Fashion is something that goes in one year and out the other.” Classical teachers would rather teach things that have withstood the test of time and have shown themselves to contain universal values that may be understood by all generations like the Odyssey and its eternal lessons of the heroic journey and the value of home and family. But what these teachers don’t realize is that the value in pop culture is its timeliness because it helps students critically view the modern world and learn how to navigate its murky waters.

Another negative pointed out by the proponents of classical literature is that popular culture is blasé to the students and not challenging. Students see the curriculum based around popular culture and feel that the class shall be a cake walk with no thought involved. The way to combat that idea is in the way the teacher teaches use the popular culture in the classroom. If a teacher helps students to see the social construction in popular culture and how they may use their knowledge of popular culture to navigate the world in a deeper, more meaningful way, then, as Penrod stated, “bored youth become border youth” that stand on the border of society and see into all of its cracks and crags and evaluate its messages for themselves (15).

With both realms of teaching in mind, what is the ultimate solution for the teacher who wants to teach their students to become critically competent writers and thinkers and also to see the depth in society? Do teachers forget literature and teach only advertisements and music videos in an attempt to make their students more critical of the world, or do they cling to the classics as teachers have in the past to teach universal values? This is the real question facing the use of popular culture in today’s culture. The answer to this question comes from one of the contributors to Penrod’s book. Shelly B. Fowler, a composition professor at the University of Washington was trying to find a way to make poetry more interesting and understandable for her students, who showed great resistance to its lure. In order to solve the problem, she brought in the song lyrics to Fast Car by Tracy Chapman. In doing this, Fowler’s goal was to make “poetry more accessible to the students. Distributing Chapman’s song lyrics turn the ‘song’ into ‘poetry'” (114).

Students quickly realized that they could use their own knowledge to analyze the song lyrics, which lead them to realize that they can apply the same principles to classical poetry and write compelling arguments using various forms of criticism.

Fowler shows that the best way to bridge the gap between teaching popular culture and “classic” literature is to use them together, interchangeably. Fowler uses song lyrics to introduce poetry as a means for her students to understand the world of poetry, which also demonstrates how modern knowledge and classic literature can combine to make a crucially minded thinker. Popular culture then teaches the students to open their eyes to the messages of the past and present. Teachers could easily use The Simpsons to begin a discussion of satire that may lead to Voltaire’s Candide or Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The integration of popular culture and classical literature leads students to learn important rhetorical skills such as questioning and deep reading that may be used in any aspect of writing. Using both mediums develop a more well rounded student that is not only well versed in the literature of Shakespeare and Chaucer, but also literate in the true message being conveyed in the Ford truck ad. Students can use the understanding of messages in all genres to navigate the world around them and information in all its forms.

Through this integration of classical literature and popular culture, teachers can avoid the bored stares and blasé attitudes that follow each medium and help their students gain the ability to critically examine the world around them and see the value in all mediums of expression. Responsible and savvy teachers will understand the importance of both culture and the classics and integrate them in their lessons to create critically knowledgeable students. Penrod states that “progressive educators show students ways of examining underlying social relationships that connect profoundly to language use and the construction of identity” (5). Progressive teachers should take advantage of all tools available, only then will students be well prepared for the world awaiting them.

Works Cited
Jago, Carol. With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students. Portsmouth, NH: Hinemann, 2000.
Penrod, Diane. Miss Grundy Doesn’t Teach Here Anymore: Popular Culture and the Composition Classr

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