More on teaching great books

We’ll be sending out a CiRCE Paper (our E-magazine) tomorrow with an article about how to teach The Iliad when you haven’t read it. As with any hopefully useful article, not everything I wrote made it. So here are some deletions (by the way, if you don’t receive The CiRCE Papers and would like to, click here and you can sign up for free and you’ll receive our free E-book too):

When you read a great book, you are standing beside the ocean. You could learn a lot by getting a bucket, filling it with water, and studying the drops in that bucket for the rest of your life. But you’d learn more about the ocean itself if you stood there and just looked, just taking in all you can see and feel and smell for a little while (and by the way, nobody has ever seen the whole thing). Maybe then you could swim in it, get in a boat and sail, even go fishing. You should experience it during different times and seasons as well.

 

So it with Homer. Don’t focus all your energy on studying the drops of water you can get in your bucket just because they’re more easily measurable. Focus on the big ideas. Every great book expresses one or two great ideas. In the Iliad, it could be justice. In the Odyssey, wisdom.

 

Ask your students, in language they can relate to, is Agamemnon fair? Is Achilles? Do Neptune and Kalypso treat Odyesseus justly? Is Odysseus wise? Were the Phaeacians wise to host Odysseus? Was Agamemnon a wise leader?

 

These are questions that can be asked about almost any book worth reading. And they can lead to incredibly profitable discussions!

Make these commitments:

Commitment 1: I will listen to the book

Instead of letting a curriculum guide you, let Homer guide you

Commitment 2: I will teach my students how to read and think

Instead of introducing them to yet another book, teach them the skills of active reading

Read by asking questions

Read purposefully

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Too often the questions we ask are rooted, not in our interest in the text, but in our distrust of the students. We ask them if they know so and so because if they don’t they didn’t read carefully.
In my opinion, that is not a fair assumption and it leads to a hunted feeling among students.

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Here’s something to be careful about: when you are teaching, an outline can be very helpful. So can a few notes on key ideas developed in the text.
However, they will be a lot more helpful for you than they will be for the student. We teachers can easily fall into what I call the analytic fallacy. That’s the idea that because you and I want to understand the text in an adult way, therefore our students do too.
It ain’t so.
First, just let them read the story. Don’t insist they like it. Then raise some very basic questions. That’s the key right there. If the students are asking questions, these tools that you have found helpful can be helpful for them too.

But don’t give them outlines until they help answer a question. And don’t give a lecture about a key idea until it will help your students answer a question.

By the way, that should be a question they are actively asking. If the discussion is driven by questions, you’ll be amazed how much you can teach your students about reading and thinking just by reading and thinking about what they are reading.

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The great benefit of teaching through a great question is that it causes you to focus on the right things.
Instead of focusing on details, focus on the big ideas.

 

Shakespeare’s Language and the Evolution of Human Intelligence

I was watching a bit of Brannagh’s Hamlet tonight and luxuriating in the language (some of which I understood) when my dear wife asked me for my opinion. “Do you think the groundlings actually understood what was going on in those plays?”

To which I answered yes, but the reasons are probably another blog post.

Then she asked for another opionion. Why do you think people today can’t understand it?

I must warn you, I’m about to say something that will sound caustic. You probably want to cover your children’s ears while you read this.

The reason we can’t understand Shakespeare or read the King James Version of the Bible or grapple with Milton or almost any poetry is because we systematically school children in our culture to become increasingly stupid. Charlotte Mason uses the term “stultify” to describe what we do.

 I understand that sounds very harsh, so I need to defend the position.

First let me say that this problem is systemic and cannot be blamed on any particular teacher or parent. Those who govern American education at the highest level are highly irresponsible, do not understand the effect of systems on education, and bear primary responsibility for this folly. In addition, text book publishers have profited immeasurably from poor theory, so they bear high responsibility as well.

What then is the problem?

It’s the way we teach reading. I can and will approach this from many angles over the next little while, but today I want to express one simple point. When we teach reading, we treat the child like she is a mechanism learning a process. We do not teach it like she is a person interacting with ideas.

The notion of a child as a mechanism learning a process arises from Dewey’s theory of instrumentalism or pragmatism, which I haven’t the time to develop right now but there are scads of resources explaining it on the internet. In short, it reduces humans to mechanisms, knowledge to a process, and learning to a technique. The person is displaced.

But to read is not simply to decode symbols (i.e. sound out letters or translate pictures into words). To read is to be a person interacting with ideas (usually embodied in metaphors, sometimes, for older people, expressed as abstractions). That’s what pre-school children do when you read a fairy tale to them while they sit on your lap.

The pre-school child handles complex syntax with little trouble. He cuts through it to the tensions and questions and actions of the main actors. It’s a human instinct to do so. Then we get them to school and we only let them read what they can sound out. In fact, and this is the FATAL mistake: even the books we read TO them have to be at what we call “their level” by which we mean what they can sound out.

This is silly. Children can understand and interpret texts far beyond anything they can sound out. But Victorian cuteness and sentimentality have overtaken the classroom, and the child’s mind and moral development suffer for it.

As a result, we undercut the development of the child’s mind by interfering with it. In kindergarten we limit our oral reading to texts with a syntax no moron would need by the time he is three. See Dick Run! Why? Why would I want to see Dick run when I can listen to something like this:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and movement how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.

When my child is 12, what good will it have done him to have had to read something as inane, as jejune, as ridiculous, as empty, as stultifying, as stupidifying, as “see Dick run”? On the other hand, the passage above will feed the child’s soul to the day he dies. It will help him know who he is, his place in the cosmos, his likeness to God, his obligations. It will provide comfort in dark hours.

When he begins to learn formal writing skills, it will sing in his mind as an ideal to be sought for. It will provide examples of schemes and tropes. It will provide a sequence of perfect word choices.

In short, those two lines from Hamlet will feed his soul from the day he first has them read to him through his later encounter with the play in high school through the trials and tests of adulthood (for which, after all, an education is meant to prepare a child – unless we look to Professor Umbridge as our model), to the day he lies on his bed or goes into battle ready to meet his maker.

See Dick run. I’d rather not.

The consequence of our folly is that we habituate students to read and write at absurdly low levels. Then to top it off, we sentimentalize what they read, fearing that they can’t deal with monsters and werewolves.

In all these ways we truly dis-educate our children by teaching them.

What should we do if we want to cultivate our children’s intelligence and moral development (and yes, they go hand in hand)?

We should read to them works that they cannot understand. We should read rich metaphorical works, like fairy tales, folk tales, fables, mythology, legends, Bible stories. We should not ask them to analyze them.

We should just read them. We can discuss them in personal ways, but to transfer this personal activity into an intellectual exercise before 2nd or 3rd grade is counter-productive.

We should teach children to decode phonograms, but we should not convince ourselves that this is reading. It’s a very different intellectual exercise that prepares children for reading. But they do more reading with their ears than with their eyes when they are learning to decode.

Most of all, we should never forget that we are teaching persons, not mechanisms that need to master a process for efficient operations.