Thursday, December 03, 2009

What the Cultural Philistines Don't Know Can Hurt Them--and Us: Why some people disparage classic books

One of the big disappointments in the debate over curriculum standards that has ensued as a result of a Montgomery County, Kentucky high school rejecting elementary-level texts from an accelerated college prep course has been the derision expressed by some toward classic works. Go to the comment section of some of the posts on this issue under the "censorship" label below and weep. I think Thomas, my co-conspirator here on this blog, nailed it: the problem with so many students being judged incapable of reading high quality literature is not a problem with students, but a problem with educators.

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 Kafka
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
And 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.

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.


lauren said...

Thank you for making this point. As a soon-to-be college freshman and a possible English major, I hope that my teachers are going to be able to hold their own with someone who read Middlemarch when she was sixteen. :) Classics are hard to beat, people....

Susan Weston said...


I adore the idea of Chesterton in the public schools: good thinking built into good fiction, with a Christian worldview cheerfully taking on all comers. Sure there will be militant secularists somewhere who don't want to share the schools, but Chesterton is perfect for making their silliness clear.

Lee said...

Amen to that, Susan!

Martin Cothran said...


The thought is, indeed, sublime.

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos, lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

Martin Cothran said...


Thank you for this and, as always, we support what you do. Please feel free to post about this kind of thing in my site as often as you like. I will also blog about this and put a link on my main page.

Art said...

Hi Martin,

I find myself in agreement with your sentiments about the reading materials in some high school classrooms. However, I think you are being just a tiny bit disingenuous in this regard, since you apparently have no problems relying on books suited for a 10 year olds' Sunday School class for high school science instruction in your online academy. Is science so unimportant in the classical academy that you can demand excellence in literature but accept utter inanity in science isntruction?

Maybe you can help me out.

Nikolaj said...

Hi, I am and eighth grade student and I agree with your post. It's not the kid's fault that they don't know such complicated literature. It's as you said, it's the teachers that are forcing kid's to read above there knowledge. For example, I remember in fourth grade my whole class read: "Island of the Blue Dolphins." If I read the book now, I would understand it but then, I had no idea what was going on. I mean, I knew what was happening but in order to do so, I asked a lot of questions about what does this word mean, or what is this sentence talking about. At the time it was very confusing.
But now I actually enjoy reading classic books/novels. In English, my class just finished reading "Of Mice and Men," which was a very good book. But I still agree with you on that it's not the student's faults if they can't understand what's going on, it's the teachers who should think about what they are giving there students to read.