My sister teaches Chaucer to her remedial-level high school students. She was teacher of the year in North Carolina, and was nominated for a Golden apple here in Naples, but declined because she feels that kind of thing is a distraction from her work - the process of being a candidate is arduous, something the Education Foundation and the media don't bother to highlight.
Yes, I'm proud of my sister.
But Golden Apples aren't my point. Chaucer is. There are two ways to look at this. One, a common response, is "Chaucer! That intellectual stuff is a luxury these potential drop-outs can't afford! They need basic skills, not Classics."
That's a bit knee-jerk to me. Here's the less common (in the derogatory sense of that word), more informed view: She does teach basic skills. Her students study Chaucer, and they learn to write papers, just like every other high school kid. They improve their reading, just like every other high school kid. Most importantly by far, they learn to think "critically," which means "for themselves."
I read a comment by an Oxford professor which you'll either love or hate: "The only thing an Oxford student can expect to take away from his four years with us is, when someone is selling him a line of bull, he'll be able to tell." (It's been a while since I read that. I hope I remembered the quote accurately; fortunately, I know I mastered the sentiment because, well, I too attained a liberal arts education).
Our mission in education is to teach our students to think for themselves. Problem-solving is something that they can use throughout their lives, no matter what situation they find themselves in. Whether it's Chaucer or Dick and Jane, if it helps them toward the goal of free thinking (because you are not free if you cannot think for yourself) then it is beneficial.
So why Chaucer? Call me an intellectual snob - it's been done - but I think it's of value for our culture to share common touchstones such as the Classics. When I read the writings of John Adams and he refers to Greek Myth or quotes Shakespeare, it helps me to catch the reference.
Mastering tough material is also something students can be proud of. I got an A in Ms Symington's history class in 10th grade. I'm really proud of that, because she made me sweat blood out of my eyes in order to achieve that grade. We want our students to feel proud of themselves? Let's challenge them. When a ghetto kid grows up in a house that literally has no reading material, not even magazines, and he aces his term paper on Milton, or Chaucer, or Plato... that can change a life.
Who says that kid isn't up to the same challenges as the kids in the AP class? My sister helps her students prove that they are, and she's been doing it for about fifteen years now - that's thousands of "dead-enders." After a few victories with this one special teacher, suddenly life isn't such a dead end.