A teacher 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 perspective 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 tensions 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 rapacious 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 they are…lacking. Reader’s questions are too easily answered. “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.