I hesitate to provide a link, as it is quite depressing.
Not to sound obnoxious, but I read Pilgrim's Progress aloud, start to finish with Danny two years ago. We stopped often for explanations, asides, etc. but we got through it. If a six year old can do it, surely a first year university student can as well. The language is a bit odd to the modern ear, but the story is rather simplistic. My son refers to it as a, "Big old bag of religion", meaning heavy handed, and moralising-which is of course how proper religion ought to be. You need not subscribe to the message to understand the importance the book had at a time when very few people owned books other than a family bible.
Why must a student, "relate" (I despise that word in the current popular usage) to everything that is assigned? Surely they have free time to indulge in whatever they read for enjoyment ? I won't bother mentioning what I have in the curriculum this year, but I'm sure the kid isn't going to relate to most of what he'll be reading. For the sort of tuition these schools charge, I'd expect a "classic" or two (or twenty) finding a place on the syllabus.
I hated reading A Tale of Two Cities. My mother hated reading Silas Marner, Danny really disliked the Iliad. I also really hated Shakespeare. Yes, I read the plays, and the sonnets too. I hated them. I grew up in theatre, and I still hated them. All of them, even Macbeth which was the only marginally interesting one of the lot (I can feel the onslaught of hatemail coming). I've sat through more performances than I can count, have watched excellent film versions, but in the end, it is still Shakespeare, and nothing will change that for me...but I'm still going to teach it. I need not relate, nor enjoy it to understand the importance of knowing it. At the very least, it will avoid those awful cringe inducing moments like we saw during the opening ceremonies of the last Olympics in London where the American television commentators were trying to figure out what the reading at the beginning was about. That was painful. Yes, we'll be reading the Tempest, like it or not.
God, I have a university student living next door-do you suppose I ought to go slip a copy of Moby Dick into her mailbox as an anonymous favour?
I'm still a little shocked that authors do paid university tours. When I was at school, Mortimer Adler would show up for the yearly lecture to plug whatever book (or three) he'd written that year, but he sort of came with the place. I found him a bit of a jerk, answering questions by suggesting one of his books for further clarification. We never did anything to him, but I heard the students at St. Johns once tricked him with a revolving podium. That said, we were never visited by any top authors of the day that I'm aware of. We did however have a solid Western Civilisation requirement, for which I will always be thankful.
I fear the day these young people will be running things, and we're under their care. I look forward to being met with an annoyed stare, and a curt, "How does this relate to me?"
I plead with you, if the teachers won't assign them, take the radical step of checking these works out on your own, and reading them. Permit yourself to be challenged by something difficult. The relevancy approach may work in the US, but there's a world that you will be unable to engage with beyond popular entertainment and sport (not that these things are bad) and you will suffer for it. Cultural knowledge is important, and not possessing a degree of it is life limiting. It is personally limiting. Of course I am not promoting it exclusive of non-Western works-there's room for plenty of variety in a modern university curriculum. From my understanding, the non-Western classics aren't much read either-when is the last time you saw The Analects of Confucius on a Syllabus?
It really does break my heart how we've cheated this generation.