It is a trap. I am warning you, beware. When you undertake to read and teach a course focused on what we call “the Great Books,” “the Humanities,” “the Canon,” “the Classics,” or whatever term is used to classify “them,” you are entering into a never ceasing spiral.
I had hints, bit and pieces, excursions along the edges of a classically based education along the way. Some of the books were assigned in whole or were divided out in parts in literature class. Most were self guided reading that I did. I read some books because they were considered classics. I acquired and started (with varying results) many others because they were classics.
Having a number of English courses both as an undergraduate and graduate student, I got a decent exposure to authors like Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Solzhenitsyn, Moliere, Mark Twain, and a few others. But it was more like taking a first aid course than like being in medical school.
Then along came an essay by a little known (to me) British writer named Dorothy Sayers. Titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” it shook up my mind about the meaning of education. And I had been long in the trenches of the teaching profession at the time. Thankfully, I was given a reprieve after reading the essay and did not have to specifically apply it.
Fast forward a few years and a group of people in my church and I began seriously contemplating a way to create a school to educate a growing number of teen kids in the church. The classical Christian school movement was cropping up here and there, with a few books and essays and even some “how to” opportunities for the willing pioneers.
From classical Christian education emerged the idea of a Humanities program. I first picked up on the idea after coveting the Humanities courses that he has produced and shared with many Christian students. These courses are still available through Stirling Bridge Shop. A bit later, the Omnibus program started showing up in a series of what became 6 volumes of books dealing with a huge list of great books spanning the ages. This series is available through Veritas Press.
Quite simply, this method of educating blends the teaching of history and literature, as well as the Bible, political thought, theology, and art, into one integrated course. Too much of our learning has consisted of going from class to class, of closing one textbook and opening another, and of compartmentalizing knowledge. Focus and differentiation have places in the education process, but blending is a much richer approach.
These approaches, which I will call Humanities rather than Omnibus or Great Books, bring the classics front and center into the learning process. In this swimming pool, there are two ends–the deep end and the deeper end. And there are two ways to get into the water–the high diving board and the higher diving board.
The assumption is that you already learned to swim in the grammar and logic stages of the educational process. It is now time to take on some scary, challenging, difficult, but rewarding reading hurdles…or high dives to continue the previous metaphor.
Regarding which books to read, how many, where to start, I will say nothing. There are plenty of reading lists and guides available on the Internet. Also, much depends on the type of school, the type of students, the number of students, and the expectations of the parents and administration.
The accumulated rubble of our civilization is going to involve lots of digging and recovery efforts. So, don’t assume that you can reconstruct it all in a year…or a decade.
What follows are some suggestions for you to dwell on.
1st, Don’t assume you are qualified or ready or the best person for the task. Unless you are a C. S. Lewis or one of the Vanderbilt Agrarian scholars, you have not read enough or been trained enough for the job. Start with where you are, what you know, and with an eagerness to advance.
I am assuming that you are a fairly well-read person with a built-in love for reading. If not, why are you teaching such a course? (Why do you even exist?) Most of your reading has been fine. Many times you have read classics. You did read some things in college. You have forgotten much of what you read. Some classics that you read were not memorable to you. And you are embarrassed to admit how little you know. (I am, by the way, describing myself primarily.)
Most of us who find ourselves teaching a Humanities curriculum were not chosen from among a cast of giants. We are the Humanities teachers for reasons other than our impressive resumes and extensive knowledge of all the great books that have ever been written. It is okay. We start where we are. As long as you have today and maybe tomorrow, you can make some headway.
2nd, Don’t try to become the expert literary scholar in the summer months prior to the school year. If you want to go ahead and read The Iliad, do so. But you don’t have to master the curriculum before the students appear. Vital to teaching Humanities is the recognition that you are a fellow learner with your students. Many of my now favorite classics are books that I first read alongside students.
One thing that I still like to do is to read a book each semester or year with the students that I have not previously read or taught. (In some cases, I have previously read the book but it was years ago.) I treasure the heavily marked and annotated copies of books that I have covered numerous times (and panic when my personal copy can’t be found), but the exploring of new territory puts the teacher into the mindset of the student.
3rd, Don’t assume that you have to be the interpreter, the analyst, the expert, the sage on the stage, and the authority figure when you are teaching a classic. My students often make comments so amazingly profound that I slightly tint green with envy upon hearing them. Sometimes, my deepest thoughts are things like “Wow! That passage is really good” or “What in the world does this mean?” or “I got lost in thi section” or “Anyone have any ideas on what the author means here?”
There are experts. I love raiding and pillaging their insights. Sometimes, as all good cattle rustlers do, I brand them with my own Circle H brand, leaving students to think that I actually know something. But the students are not in need of an expertly crafted, deeply complex interpretation of what they read.
4th, Romance the book. Your job is not to make sure that your students can pass a matching characters and descriptions test or recite the major themes in the book. Your job is to enable the students to love the books. Sometimes romance just doesn’t seem to happen. So, at least, we as teachers must create a friend zone between the student and the book.
I prefer a student loving the book rather than knowing lots of facts about it and the author. When the book is Les Miserables, the atmosphere is ripe for true love. When the book is The Federalist Papers, the chance of wedding bells is less likely. But the teacher still has the task of seeking at least some appreciation.
5th, Don’t undertake too much. It took me a good while to trudge through Herodotus’ Histories. I would much prefer reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. Trying to take a group of kids through the long stretches, forced marches, and lengthy digressions of Herodotus was not a great success for me.
Should people read Herodotus? I reckon. History majors in college, like I was, should be required to read it and quite a few other classic histories. But in some cases, the whole book is not worth the time and capital it will take from your year of readings. In some cases, a few chapters will suffice. In some cases, a great work will need to step to the side for a lesser work. (I enjoyed using Ernle Bradford’s Thermopylae: The Battle for the West for getting the main contours of the story together.)
6th, Don’t undertake too little. By this, I mean that you should not slow down so that everyone can keep up and grasp it all. Honestly, you could spend a whole semester teaching A Tale of Two Cities. You could spend months on any Shakespeare play. You could spend days covering William Carlos Williams’ poem The Read Wheelbarrow.”
Teachers have amazing abilities to take that which is beautiful, enjoyable, and enriching and turning such into misery for the students. Keep up a good pace. Cut your losses. Move on to the next chapter, the next book, the next venture.
7th, Don’t overkill the idea that you are to present “the Christian interpretation” of every book or idea. Yes, a Christian worldview is essential to Christian education and thought. But literature can often be read as parables with morals attached. Certainly, one should, upon finishing The Great Gatsby not live like Gatsby, Daisy, or Tom, but the book is not a morality play. Nor is Hamlet. Nor is The Brothers Karamazov.
In some cases, and Gatsby, Hamlet, and Brothers K, are all open to Christian insights, you might not have a handy-dandy Christian spin on a work of literature or an event in history or an economic theory. Be patient. Listen to your students. Read a few experts. Search the web. You are a work in progress. Helen of Troy was beautiful long before either of us were born, so if we don’t have a definitive answer on some aspect of literature, don’t fret.
I confess that I really struggled with Sir Gawain and the Green Giant. The book was on a curriculum list that I used in a Medieval literature class I was teaching a small group in the past spring. I had previously read the book, but it had not resonated with me. I had to not only read through it for class, but had to read it a second time. And some of the best parts of the story began connecting.
8th, In teaching literature, if you and the class are not having fun, you are failing. I am anguished over the student who never connects, never falls in love, never embraces what I am teaching. We can’t seem to reach every last one of them. But there has to be an atmosphere of love and joy, of celebration and delight, of eagerness and expectation in the literature classroom. If they don’t love the poem you are teaching, then they should be at least loving the poem (or poesis) that you are. As a teacher, you become the spokesperson, the ambassador, the matchmaker between Homer, or Shakespeare, or Faulkner and your students. If they fall in love with the messenger (because you are a lovable, caring, passionate teacher) long before they fall in love with the message, you will succeed.