Texts Taught in American High Schools and Their Significance

Throughout four years of high school education, the mind takes on an intense amount of information. Centuries of history, overwhelming mathematics equations, and the world of science. However, there seems to be one subject many take away with them as high school comes close; literature.

One theme kept in many American educational systems is the texts taught to students. Although many can’t remember how to find pi, the lessons learned from stories live on. However, why are these same works used year after year? What is their significance?

Romeo and Juliet (1594-96)

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Commonly read in American high schools.
Credit to: playbill.com

Considered one of the most famous plays in history, Shakespeare’s work has been an example of literature across the world. First published in 16th century Europe, his primary source for the plot came from English poet, Arthur Brooke’s, The Tragicall Histore of Romeus and Juliet. Encased with love, drama, and tear-jerking monologues, it’s a tragedy loved by many.

The story takes place in Verona, Italy, and follows the long-lived hatred between the Montagues and Capulets. Their outburst is so horrible that the Prince had to intervene. Although tensions remain high between the prominent families, the Capulets find the spirit to host a dance. Sneaking in with his friends, the son of Montague, Romeo attends the dance. Spotting Juliet, the pair immediately fall in love, though unaware of each other’s identities.

In spite of their rivaling families, the pair meet in secret once again. Confessing their true love, the young couple agrees to marry and run away. Eventually, a stubborn cousin of the Capulets, Tybalt, discovers their love and is furious. This results in a lot of blood, as Tybalt slaughters Romeo’s dear friend, Mercutio. Enraged at the moment, Romeo kills Tybalt. All the while, Juliet awaits to marry Romeo.

Guilty of murder, Romeo flees to the neighboring city. Desperate to be with him, Juliet seeks help from Friar Laurence. She decides to fake her own death by ingesting a sleeping tonic. Believed by all, word spreads to Romeo. Heartbroken, he visits Juliet’s grave and is overcome with grief. Drinking real poison, Romeo dies just as Juliet wakes. To be with Romeo, Juliet stabs her heart with a dagger.

The story ends with the two families reconciling their differences, unsure of what their quarrel was even about. Taught to young teens in school, themes of grudges and antiviolence play a large role. However, the main theme is love and how it can be a beautiful, yet catastrophic thing to behold.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Cover of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A common novel read in American high schools.
Credit to: britannica.com

This work of fiction was published in the 20th century by American author Harper Lee. Referred to as one of the most common novels taught in schools across the U.S., it won a Pulitzer Prize just a year later. 

The setting takes us to the deep south, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. As many struggle to carry on through the Great Depression, the town finds more problems of its own. When a prominent lawyer, Atticus Finch, volunteers to defend a black man accused of rape, the town is in an uproar. Finch’s children, Jean Louise (“Scout”) and Jeremy (“Jem”) have been raised in a just and empathetic household, taught by their father that it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Regardless of Finch’s argument that the victim was attacked by her father, Bob Ewell, the man is convicted. In spite of the town’s threats to lynch him, he is killed when trying to escape. He is the metaphorical “songbird” that is sinfully slaughtered. Scout and Jem have adventures of their own, finding a fascination with their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Radley makes his presence known through many noble acts, saving the children from an angry Bob Ewell.

Through such a short-cut novel, there are many lessons taught. The trends of prejudice and stereotypes have become a great lesson for young minds. Thus creating its significance. Although many have speculated about the appropriateness of the language, the topic is important. This novel has done well to expose adolescent minds to the harsh realities of racism in the south. 

Animal Farm (1945)

Animal Farm by George Orwell. A novel commonly taught in American high schools.
Credit to: goodreads.com

This fable was published by English writer George Orwell, who was also a democratic socialist. Based on events leading to the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Orwell used this novel as his own creative spin. An outspoken critic of dictator Joseph Stalin, many English publishers refused to print it based on England’s alliance with Russia. 

Taking place on a run-down farm outside of England, the animals living there are fed up with how they’ve been treated. Aiming to take down the alcoholic and irresponsible farmer, a pig named Old Major brings the coup together to start an uprising. After he dies, two other pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, take over as leaders of the revolution. Forming the “Seven Commandments of Animalism,” the most important point made is that “all animals are equal.”

After driving out the old farmer and chasing out Snowball, Napoleon takes over as leader and changes the governance structure of the farm. Although things run smoothly and food is plentiful for a time, things begin to turn for the worst. After years of revolution, the pigs have claimed the top of the chain, while the other animals suffer. Behind the scenes, Napoleon devises plans resulting in many deaths, and partnerships with humans.

In spite of their initial hatred of humans, the pigs form a relationship with the men. They begin to walk on two legs, carry whips, and drink alcohol all the time. The novel ends with the animals realizing, to their horror, that they cannot differentiate the pigs from the humans.

Though the novel is based on fiction, it touches on very real themes of power and corruption. It is seen when the commandment changes from “all animals are equal” to “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Politics play a large role in this novel, encouraging its readers to look beyond the facade of leaders. 

Twelve Angry Men (1954)

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. A play taught in American high schools.
Credit to: goodreads.com

Adapted from his teleplay with the same title, this work was scripted by Reginald Rose. With several reproductions throughout the years, many have found this mysterious work to be a great life lesson. Although short in length, audiences are kept on the edge of their seats until the end.

The entire play takes place in a jury room, sweltering with the heat of summer. Following an intense courtroom display, twelve jurors are forced to make a decision regarding a homicide case. A young black man is convicted of murdering his father by an eyewitness. A collective decision would result in the death penalty.

Although many of the men are unanimous in their decisions, one is left undecided. Because of his “reasonable doubt” regarding the eyewitness, many of the others try to pressure him into changing his decision. Firm on his belief, Juror 8 is convinced the others are deciding based on prejudice. Race, upbringing, and even a juror’s personal relationship with his own son. 

In spite of their previous decisions, the jury reaches a “not guilty” verdict. This is supposed to represent a change in each of the men. According to Rose, the lesson taught is independence. Regardless of potential ridicule from others, you shouldn’t “be a sheep” and blindly follow the majority. Seemingly enough, many have also learned not to judge one based on superficial things.

Lord of the Flies (1954)

Lord of the Flies by William Goulding. A novel taught in American high schools.
Credit to: en.wikipedia.org

A very common novel taught in high schools across the United States, Lord of the Flies, was written by William Goulding. Following his win of the Noble Prize, Goulding wrote this fictional novel that went on to reach critical acclaim. With cinematic adaptations and several translations, this story is still significant to this day.

Taking place during a nuclear war, a group of British boys is stranded on a deserted island with no way out. Accepting their situation, they create groups depending on age. “Littleuns” for the young ones, and “Bigguns” for the elder boys. They assign Ralph as the leader, as he was the founder of the conch shell. Jack, who wished to be a leader, was in charge of the hunters. 

Although initially, the boys are thrilled to govern themselves without adults, it doesn’t last long. Despite creating fire and shelter, Jack begins to lure the other boys to his side. This signifies the boys moving from civilization to savagery. While they quarrel, there is also the irrational fear of a “beast” that roams the island. As the boys move closer and closer to a savage lifestyle, even killing some of the others, Ralph is the only civilized one left.

After an island-wide fire is caused by the boys, officers spot the smoke and come to help. Seeing the boys in their state, the officers diminish the situation as “fun and games.” Unaware of the truth of the events that occurred, the officers rescue the boys. According to Goulding, the novel is set to show the importance of law. That the shaping of society depends on moral character and not logical politics.

The Great Gatsby (1925)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A common novel read in American high schools.
Credit to: en.wikipedia.org

Not a traditional novel to read in high school, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is full of surprises. Written following the events of World War I, the novel initially had a failed launch. However, Fitzgerald’s novel rose to fame over many years. It is now considered a “great American novel” by large audiences.

This work of fiction takes place in the Jazz age of New York. From a first-person point of view of young Nick Carraway, audiences follow his life after moving from the Midwest. Living among mansions in the village of West Egg, Carraway visits his cousin Daisy and husband Tom in East Egg. There, he learns of his cousin’s unhappiness and meets their friend, Jordan Baker. While settling in West Egg, Carraway is left curious about his neighbor, who is seen with his arms outstretched toward Daisy’s dock. 

He and Tom visit the “Valley of Ashes,” very obviously a run-down area of New York. Nick is introduced to Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, and her clueless husband, George. Later that summer, Carraway is finally invited to his neighbor’s home for one of his elaborate parties. Meeting up with Jordan, they meet Jay Gatsby for the first time, who confesses privately to Jordan his past with Daisy.

After becoming more acquainted with Gatsby, Nick learns of his so-called “past.” It is revealed he and Daisy were together five years before. However, when he went to war, Daisy married Tom. Requesting lunch with Nick and Daisy, Gatsby is determined to win her heart as he did years ago. The couple reconcile their past and it seems Daisy is willing to leave Tom.

When Daisy’s husband suspects just this, he insists the group go to the Plaza to cool off. While there, Tom confronts Daisy and reveals Gatsby’s true past as a poor man and his success as a bootlegger. Gatsby explodes after seeing Daisy turn on him, and they drive home, killing Myrtle on the way. When Tom discovers her death, he convinces George that Gatsby did it. 

Despite his attempts to win her back, Daisy moves away with Tom, leaving no forwarding address. After leaving a frantic Gatsby, Nick leaves for work. It is discovered that George entered Gatsby’s property, shooting both Jay and himself. Disgusted by the cruelty of the wealthy, Nick moves to a home for troubled minds. This is where he begins his account of this story.

Showing the negative side to the American dream, this novel teaches young minds about taking things for granted. With trends of the economic boom and Prohibition, this novel holds significance in history as well. It remains in the cycle of novels taught in American high schools.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. A recent addition to the American school curriculum.
Credit to: amazon.com

To finish, this is the most recent addition to the curriculum taught in American high schools. Published in 1999 by Stephen Chbosky, it is known that they spent nearly five years perfecting the novel. Described as a “coming of age” novel, many educators have found this story one young people can relate to.

Set in 1990s Pittsburg, this novel follows a young man, Charlie, through his freshman year of high school. Both introverted and an observer, Charlie seems to be lonely until he meets seniors Patrick and Sam. Befriended by both them and their group, Charlie begins to experiment with drugs and partying. Openly developing a crush on Sam, they admit their secrets to one another. Sam was sexually abused as a child and Charlie’s Aunt Helen tragically died in a crash.

Through participating in a play with his friends, Mary Elizabeth, grows to like Charlie. While they date, it’s obvious Charlie doesn’t love her. Mary Elizabeth discovers this when he kisses Sam in a game of truth or dare. This causes the group to shun Charlie for a time. It is after Charlie rescues Patrick from a fight that he regains their respect.

During this time, Charlie witnesses abuse between his sister and her boyfriend. Against her parent’s wishes, she continues to see her boyfriend. After his sister becomes pregnant, Charlie agrees to take her to an abortion clinic. She leaves her boyfriend and their relationship is restored.

Worried he’ll lose his friends when they leave for college, Charlie finally admits his feelings for Sam. Regardless of her anger that he didn’t tell her sooner, they kiss. This causes uncomfortable feelings in Charlie, who realizes he was molested as a child by his Aunt Helen. In a frenzy, Charlie loses himself and is checked into a mental institution. This is where he recounts the events beforehand. Eventually, he regains friendship with Sam and Patrick, ending with a drive through their favorite tunnel.

Covering themes in adolescence such as drugs, experimenting, sex, and mental health, it’s no wonder this book has been added to lesson plans. It shows that, regardless of your character and past, there is always someone out there for you. People to make you happy, to discuss mental health, and to make you feel “infinite.”

In Short 

An open book.
Credit to: theconversation.com

Over the centuries, texts have come and gone in significance. However, it can be said that lessons can still be taken away. Whether it be themes of love in Romeo and Juliet or power in Animal Farm. Although many may question their significance despite explanation, one thing can be for certain. Though they may vary, young minds will absorb these wonderful pieces for years to come.

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