The chief problem is not students who can't handle high quality literature, but teachers who can't handle it.
Several posters talked about kids "falling asleep" reading classic books. Others just said they were just too hard. These are the kinds of comments that come from people who are not themselves learned and who are projecting their own ignorance onto students. Any teacher who cannot gain and hold the interest of his students by reading and discussing "The Lady and the Tiger," by Frank Stockton, "The Whirligig of Life" by O. Henry, "How to Build a Fire" by Jack London, and "The Children's Story" by James Clavell needs to find another line of work.
I mention these short stories partly because I regularly teach them myself, but mostly to make it clear to the spectators in this debate that when you are talking about teaching classic literature to students, you're not necessarily talking about forcing an unprepared high school student to read Hamlet. There are plenty of works between "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown (a classic children's picture book for very young students) and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Classic, quality works can be found for every different age level, and if they put your students to sleep, well, it ain't the fault of the book.
As Mortimer Adler used to point out, when students don't learn, it is almost always the fault of the teacher. "You can't be uplifted," he pointed out, "by something that isn't above you." Unfortunately our current method of education is a process in which the blind lead the blind. It is, of course, in the teachers interest to place the blame elsewhere, like on a book.
I think that the people who are mapping their own lack of education onto modern students are genuinely convinced that classic books can't be read or appreciated by young people. But just so we can see what can be done, let me give you the reading list for my English IV class I am teaching this semester to high school students in my Online Classical Academy:
Metamorphosis, Franz KafkaAnd that's just for this semester. We just finished discussing Chesterton's book today and have two more to complete before the end of January. My students not only have read them all, but they understand them--and love them. And they can articulate why.
The Stranger, Albert Camus
"The Wall," Jean Paul Sartre
Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
"A Clean Well-Lighted Place," Ernest Hemingway
"A Primer on Existentialism," Gordon Bigelow
"A Report for an Academy," Franz Kafka
"The Death of Ivan Ilych," Leo Tolstoy
The Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O'Connor
The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton
Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry
Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
Now there are no prerequisites or other requirements for this class other than that you want to take it. It is not billed as an "advanced" class, although I admit that my students are extremely bright. I would not want to attempt these particular books in a normal public high school class. But there are other books--books that, by and large, my students have already read--that are classics also--that they could read and enjoy.
But the important thing is this: one of the reasons my students love these books is because I know them and love them myself. That's why I can teach them and inspire my students to love them too. I would submit that the educators who say classic works cannot be taught in today's classrooms say it because they do not themselves possess the knowledge and love of classical literature. And that's a shame.
The next time you hear one of the commenters on this blog running down some classic work and asserting that it would put a student to sleep, it's probably because it would put him to sleep, and therefore it can't but do the same for everyone else. Ask him about his own educational background, and I bet you will find that it was mostly devoid of classic literature and lacking in academic rigor. What you will find is a person who has not encountered these books himself and can't comprehend how others could have and have benefited from the experience.
I do not blame these people for not getting the kind of education they should have gotten. They are not at fault for being ill-educated. But they are at fault for contributing to the cultural illiteracy that now infects our schools and that will result in one more generation of badly educated people.