Monday, April 16, 2012

Trespass Freely and Fearlessly

William Dyce, King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (1851)

A teacher who has been following along at the Core Knowledge blog emailed me a while back with a great question. I've been meaning to answer and there's no better time than today, when I have five other deadlines to avoid.

Dear Jess, 

Here's my question for today: how much can high school age students benefit from a classical curriculum like the one at my kids' school?

I love that next year my son will read, for example, Plato, as part of the Great Books type humanities program. That stuff is challenging for even the best educated adults. We chose to transfer our kids this year to [name deleted] specifically because of their humanities program. The other option was having them take many AP courses while attending the nearby traditional public high school. I had nothing like the [name deleted] curriculum back in my high school days, and I only read Great Books stuff on my own, many years after I graduated from college.  So I'm excited for my kids to have this opportunity, but only if it benefits them.

Are "Great Books" relevant for today's students? 

My answer is an emphatic yes, and I whip out my favorite quote on the subject, by Michael Dirda: "Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century."

The argument against asking young people to read great books goes something like this discussion from the Diane Rehm Show. Panelists were discussing the novel Ethan Frome, and a caller said he thought students should not read some books until they are forty, with the life experience and perpective to understand the darker, more mature themes. 

While I would shy away from teaching Ethan Frome in the darkest weeks of our New Hampshire winter - just for sanity's sake, mind you - I respectfully disagree. I have heard this argument among teachers, that Romeo and Juliet is appropriate for middle school, while King Lear is not. Romeo and Juliet concerns itself with the heartache of young love, while King Lear stares down the naked torment Lear finds at the end of his useful life. Students may find connections to their own life in the story of Romeo and Juliet's love tragedy, but the pain of losing a child and the treachery of the vile Edmund are just too mature for younger readers. 

Sure, the familiar may be strange in King Lear, but there is much to offer young people in a story such as Lear's. My students love the treachery of Edmund, the way he plots against the seemingly perfect and legitimate Edgar. Lovely, bookish, kind, Edgar, who can do no wrong in his father's eyes. And the wish-fulfillment factor runs high as Edmund is overtaken by sibling rivalry and plots to steal a place in his father's heart - or at least his inheritance.

Or what of Cordelia? The youngest child, who cannot heave her heart into her mouth in order to satisfy her father's outlandish expectations and is eclipsed by her more aggressive older sisters? Or Gloucester, who does not realize until too late that he has hurt someone he loves, and must find a way to make amends.  

No, King Lear is not an easy read. It would be much easier for me to reach for The Hunger Games or Inkheart - both commonly assigned in middle school, and books with entertaining plots, to be sure, but lacking in the complexity that makes a great book great. The questions are simply too easy in those books. “Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands,” writes Elanor Duckworth in The Having of Wonderful Ideas.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I'm with Virginia Woolf on this one, "Literature is no one's private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves."

In the end, that's what I hope I do. I teach my students how to find their own way through a complex and challenging world, and these books are the maps I hand my students.

Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. Students cannot approach these works lightly; they must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.


  1. This is brilliant, eloquent, and powerful. I do not have the time at the moment to share the full and effusive praise this piece deserves, but I shall certainly share it with my students tomorrow.

  2. But what happens when you have a school whose English department won't let you assign many classic texts (e.g., The Odyssey, Pride and Prejudice, etc.) because it claims jurisdiction over them? The department states that the teachers teach certain texts year to year, or that they teach these texts enough to keep them from being used by other departments, when the truth is that they rarely ever get to these texts anymore, and when they do, they are in a dumbed-down, bastardized version that does not truly do justice to the original work. This frustrates me beyond my imagination.

  3. @Steve, thanks! And thanks and thanks! You are such an ego-booster, Latin-teacher friend of mine.

    @Anonymous, I remember that problem from my last school. I have been really lucky to teach in two really small schools where as far as English goes for a particular year, I'm it. I get to make all the decisions re: texts. Right now, I teach 7th English and 8th English, plus Latin 6, 7, and 8, so that pretty much covers our older students. I also work for bosses who trust me, and that's the reason I can't imagine ever leaving my school. It's bliss to be trusted and respected.

  4. But you're not "asking young people to read great books," you're telling them to. Isn't that very different, and at least somewhat inconsistent with Dirda's point?

  5. I read the majority of your piece to both Latin II classes, Latin III, and Latin IV/V AP. I told them that we read such works because this is simply what WE do, and that by "we" I meant I meant human beings, for humans read and think and create, hence the overarching term "humanities" under which such works fall. As I read it repeatedly, I was ever more impressed. This is truly a beautiful encomium. I hope it gets a wide readership.

  6. To deny our children acquaintance with and education about the great books is to cheat our children, steal from them, and lie to them. It is to cripple and stunt them out of some misplaced and misguided sense of protecting them by imposing upon them false limits the source of which seems to be nothing other than fear. It is a wonder how quickly adults forget what it is like to be a teen with an inquiring mind, a questing spirit, and a yearning to grow, and how readily teens perceive when they are being pandered to and patronized.

    Furthermore, our republic will not thrive if we do not educate our children by sharing with them some part of the rich store of our civilization's literary heritage, from which sharing they may then gain a deeper understanding of their world and a desire to continue to explore the great books after schooldays are past.

  7. i love this piece so much, mostly because of the confidence in what these children are capable of that runs through it.

    also, ethan frome is quite possibly the single most depressing book i was ever asked to read in high school. no one ever references it -- ever -- and yet here it is. i can't wait to share the heck out of it tomorrow.

    maybe on another day you can write about the appeal of ethan frome, because i'm sure it has one. i just don't know what it is.

    (ethan frome? ugh.)

  8. Thanks, Wendy! Re-read Ethan Frome. There's more there than you remember. I promise. I hated it in high school, too. Maybe even in college. I re-read it last month, and liked quite a bit of it.