Many high school students wonder why English has to be such a large part of their curriculum. They think that at first glance it does not offer any concrete tools for the future, but, in reality, an understanding of literature is essential in developing the self, and many of the texts taught at the high school level are taught to enrich the student's understanding of how moral struggles are met by characters in a variety of situations. In a way, in secular education these works of literature stand in for sacred texts. They provide a base of narratives from which to draw inspiration, ideas, and moral standards; furthermore, they often address spiritual concerns head on. The universality of the texts' themes explains why these texts are taught in a wide range of high schools public and private, religious and secular.
Throughout the canon of English literature taught at the high school level, issues of morality, moral crisis, and moral identity are frequently addressed in profound ways. Many of the texts in the classic canon (the texts chosen as appropriate and necessary for general literary education) are chosen because they demonstrate the path to an independent moral understanding often through crisis, death, and hardship.
From the very beginnings of the English literary tradition to contemporary literature, this pattern still defines what is included in the canon of acceptable texts for high school students.
Shakespeare's play Hamlet, for instance, shows the transformation of a privileged prince into a grieving figure questioning his own moral identity through the moral struggle of death. Wavering through various philosophical options and reactions, the title character, Hamlet, is swallowed up in his own search for revenge and autonomy. Although his end is tragic, Hamlet manages to gain both revenge against his uncle, the murderer of his father, and an understanding of how destructive this revenge truly is. Thus, the reader is left to undergo the moral transformation that the play's title character cannot. The questions of revenge, mortality, and the struggle for self-identity that dominate the play are exactly what makes it so appealing for the high school classroom.
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, although a complicated example, are frequently used to show one's struggle to understand death through a Christian lens. Holy Sonnet X and Holy Sonnet XIV are the most frequently read because they deal directly, and in sophisticated ways, with the human struggle with death and salvation. In both of these texts, the poet presents a paradox, the most sophisticated of literary tropes, to make their complex moral point. In Holy Sonnet X (Death be not proud . . . ), the poet meditates on the idea that death itself will die so that all shall live, and in Holy Sonnet XIV (Batter my heart . . . ), the poet claims that he must be enslaved and enthralled by God in order to be set free. The complexity of this moral journey and the sophistication of how it is explained make it a prime example of the moral journey and development of a moral compass as being a necessity for acceptance into the literary canon of high school texts.
Also from the 17th century, John Milton's poetry meditates on the promise of salvation and the human response to this promise. His early poem, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," juxtaposes the gentility of the baby Jesus with the profound demands that his birth and resurrection placed on humanity. The poet suggests that when celebrating the birth of Christ, one must also celebrate the search for human salvation through Christ, and is struck by how demanding this search is. Two poems that offer different, yet complementary, options are his twin poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," which present a lighthearted, mirthful approach against and in conjunction with devotion to contemplation and melancholy. His poem "Lycidas" shows a struggle to understand our ability to fulfill our vocations under the constant threat of our mortality, while his great epic Paradise Lost deals with humanity's fallen nature. Many of his poems seek to answer the call to God's vocation and moral demands in an individualized personal way, but some assert that they are also somewhat filled with Milton's own pride.
In the 18th century, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, the two great satirists of the century, presented responses to the era's crisis of morality-the search to survive against the onslaught of colonialism, mercantilism, and capitalism. Pope's mock epic "Rape of the Lock" shows the foolishness of vanity, while "Eloisa to Abelard" shows the pain of a love denied by rigid religious regulations. In the span of his work, the moral and autonomous self struggles against the greater systems that would oppress it. These systems range from vanitydriven economic policies to rigid medieval moralities. Jonathan Swift in a similar light seeks to put all of humanity under the same moral guidelines, showing in his famous novel Gulliver's Travels that all societies are equally corruptible, equally racist, and so on. In many of his poems, he shows the hidden corruption of the impersonal, urban world of 18th-century England. These works, too, underline the importance of creating an independent morality within a larger economic and political system.
Nineteenth-century American literature is full of moral texts that call the reader to an elevated moral state. Placed against the struggle to abolish slavery, many of the abolitionist texts, mainly Uncle Tom's Cabin, seek to portray slavery as a corrupt institution oppressing thoroughly moral slaves who want nothing more than what they own by God's creation. The homespun morality of the slaves, based in biblical teaching, is presented as more just than the socially influenced corrupt morality of the slave system. This text, like many others mentioned here, shows the struggle of an individual morality against a corrupting system. Into the 20th century, texts like Twelve Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird highlight a similar individualized moral struggle against society. Other texts like The Great Gatsby and Native Son show morally ambiguous characters involved in similar struggles to assert an autonomous identity. The struggle for identity is also represented well in James Joyce's short story "The Dead" in which a colonial, culturally self-hating Irishman comes to terms with his identity and morality through the landscapes and powerful personal stories and struggles of his own people. The 20th-century text, so concerned with the struggle for individual identity, is full of self-defining moral crises. Moral crises and the struggles to resolve them are the centerpieces of texts like the ones mentioned here, and relate to the development of spirituality and morality as the greatest way to respond to a greater system in which we all live.