The Grail Code 

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Which books are “great”?

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

I promised I’d spend some time talking about what books are really “great,” so I’ll do that now. But first, a few warnings.

1. Not everyone agrees on what books are “great,” because—obviously—not everyone agrees on what makes a “great” book.

2. Some books that are almost certainly “great” don’t fit well in some versions of a great-books education. A book must be not only great, but also discussable.

3. The books actually matter less than the method. This is the most startling fact about the “great books” method of learning: it really doesn’t depend nearly as much as you’d think on the greatness of the books. It depends much more on the method of approaching the books and learning from them.

4. Different books are appropriate for different ages. Second-graders are probably not ready for Einstein yet. (Although my six-year-old son has recently been captivated by string theory and M-theory, which has taught me not to make too many assumptions about what a child is ready for.)

Having said all that, I’ll venture a definition of a “great book”: A great book is a book we keep coming back to. We may not even like it, but we can’t escape it. It has become part of our shared cultural heritage, and even people who haven’t read the book have somehow absorbed something about it.

Lots of people hate Moby Dick, for example, and curse the literature professors who made them read it. But it’s always there on the reading lists. You can’t get away from it, because in the end it’s always worth thinking about, even if you hated it. And even if you haven’t read it, you still know about it. Animated cartoons aimed at children (I’m talking about you, SpongeBob) are quite willing to parody Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the great white whale—and the children know what’s going on.

Another example we might mention is the romances of the Holy Grail, especially the Walter Map version. We couldn’t giggle over our periodic lists of holy-grails-of if everybody hadn’t absorbed some notion of the Holy Grail, though almost always without reading the romances.

No two people will make exactly the same list of great books, and the lists will change over time. I’m sure many people thought The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a shoo-in for “great book” status, but who reads it now? (Robert Benchley gets credit as the lonely voice who called it right: “Of course it is possible for a man to write a great book from which no one would quote. That is probably happening all the time. But it is because no one has read it. Here we have an author [Vicente Blasco Ibáñez] whose vogue in this country, according to statistics, is equal to that of any writer of novels in the world. And as soon as his publicity department stops functioning, I should like to lay a little bet that he will not be heard of again.”)

But, on the whole, the lists will be remarkably similar, and they’ll be more similar the farther back in time we go. The colder the author is in his grave, the more sure we can be that the book is really “great.”

Homer, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Rousseau, Marx, Einstein, just to name a few—these will always be on lists of great books, because they changed the course of human thought forever. It doesn’t matter if you love Luther and hate Calvin, or love Calvin and hate Luther, or hate both, or love both because you have a strangely split and warped personality: their ideas are just too big and important to ignore.

So much for determining which books are great; that leaves us with the problem of which great books are suitable. The answer varies widely according to the subject and according to the target audience.

For high-school or college students learning geometry, for example, Euclid is the obvious and only choice. For biology, you’ll want to start with Aristotle and work up through Harvey and into more modern writers; similarly, for physics, Aristotle through Galileo and Newton up to Einstein and beyond.

The assumption, of course, is that you’ll be using some variant of the great-books method to teach every subject. Many students will be lucky to get a literature class taught that way.

For young children, some of the best things to read are in the Bible. Jesus’ parables are perfect. They’re short, but infinitely thought-provoking. The best discussion I ever saw in a Sunday-school class was on the parable of the workmen in the vineyard, in which the employer pays the last to arrive as much as he pays the ones who worked all day. “That’s not fair!” multiple children shouted at once. Well, why not? Didn’t the first to arrive agree on the payment? And so the discussion goes. Our ordinary assumptions are questioned and our complacency offended right away, which is exactly what Jesus intended. Before you know it, an hour has gone by, and everyone—not least the teacher—has met new ideas and thought new thoughts.

Little fables like Aesop’s are also good for young children. Even The Cat in the Hat is worth talking about—or perhaps I should say especially The Cat in the Hat, with its slightly frightening moral ambiguity. It even ends with a perfect opening question for a discussion.

Experiment often shows which books are good for discussions and which aren’t. Some books that are first-rate just never seem to lead to good discussions.

Finally, there’s the cultural question, which is tricky. St. John’s and some other great-books schools follow mainly the western traditionnot because no one outside the West ever wrote anything worthwhile, but because the readings build one upon another. It can be very hard to approach books that come from a tradition completely outside our own without some serious training in the languages and culture of that tradition. The Graduate Institute at St. John’s offers an Eastern Classics program that includes tutorials in either Sanskrit or Chinese, just as the regular undergraduate program includes tutorials in ancient Greek and French.

Anyway, why should I come up with a list when other people have done it already? Here are some lists you can look at and argue about:

The St. John’s College reading list. This reading list was first put together in the 1930s. It changes a bit every so often, and it’s not always quite identical on the two campuses (one in Annapolis, the other in Santa Fe). But it’s been remarkably stable over the years. It’s actually hard to find another list of “great books” that isn’t at least influenced by this one.

The Britannica Great Books series. If it bears a strong resemblance to the St. John’s list, that’s no accident: the Britannica list was heavily influenced by the St. John’s list.

Thomas Aquinas College has a program modeled after the one at St. John’s, but leaning more toward Catholic Christian writers.

The three lists above all have common roots. Here are some lists that are more or less independent of that tradition:

The Harvard Classics. The famous “Five-Foot Shelf” was a serious attempt to gather every important work in one set and sell them all to the upwardly-mobile as decorative accessories for the well-furnished parlor. Even today it’s not hard to find old copies of the Harvard Classics that have obviously never been read. But it was a good list, and you can read them all on line. It also has the advantage of having been compiled before the St. John’s list, which makes it unusually independent.

The Western Canon, by Alan Bloom. Not really as independent as all that, since Bloom was good friends with some of the tutors at St. John’s and was well aware of the St. John’s list. But his list is interesting and long.

Malaspina Great Books is a very long table of books, each entry with information under five categories: birth, death, period, category, and woman. (The “woman” column contains either “yes” or “no,” as appropriate. Some stunning revelations here. Who knew that “George Eliot” was a woman? I had always assumed he was just a cross-dresser. And the implication of the table that a man is in some way a failed woman is a profounder bit of philosophy than the compilers perhaps intended.)

TheGreatBooks.com is a site presenting a curriculum designed to teach the Christian worldview through the great books.

The 100 Most Meaningful Books of All Time, selected by a poll of famous authors in 2002. It leans more heavily toward more recent books, and I suspect some of those would have already dropped off the list if you took the same poll now. But you’ll still find a large overlap with all the other lists, proving that there really are some books you just can’t get away from.

A list of colleges offering great-books programs, from the National Association of Scholars. A very large number of them are modeled on the St. John’s program.

A huge list of lists of great books.

Great books for every subject

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Great books for every subject?

You may have thought of the great-books approach as a way of teaching literature, but it can do far more than that. Great-books colleges like St. Thomas Aquinas or St. John’s apply the same method to physics, mathematics, and biology that they apply to philosophy and literature.

Is that really a good idea? Well, once again, we go back to Socrates.

In one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Socrates asks an ignorant slave boy how he would double the area of a square. He draws a square in the sand. I was going to go out to the sandbox and take some digital pictures, but (as I mentioned somewhere before) writers have deadlines, so I’ll do this the quick way. So here’s our square:

Now, how would you double the area?

The slave boy gives an obvious answer: make the sides twice as long. Okay, so Socrates tries that:

But look—if you draw two more lines, you see that we have four squares equal to the first one:

We haven’t doubled the area. We’ve quadrupled it.

At this point, your ordinary snooty upper-class Greek might have just laughed and told you that you couldn’t expect anything better from an ignorant slave. But Socrates doesn’t do that, because he’s trying to show us that somehow this knowledge is already in the slave’s mind, if we can only draw it out. So he leads the slave boy through this reasoning. I’m going to summarize it briefly, though in the original dialogue it takes a while, because Socrates has to make sure that the slave boy comes up with all the answers himself.

If I draw a diagonal through the first square, then I’ve divided it exactly in half, haven’t I?

And if I do that to each of the other squares, then I’ve divided each of them in half, too. And look—I’ve made another square.

But we said the large square was four times the area of the original square, didn’t we? And now we’ve divided each of the four small squares in half. So we have a square that’s half the area of the large square. But since the large square was four times the area of the original square, and this one is half the area of the large square, that means this one must be twice the area of the original square. We’ve succeeded in doubling the area of the square.

Now, Socrates could have just told the slave boy that, to make a square double in area to a given square, you make a square on the diagonal of the given square. If he had beaten the slave often and severely enough, he could have succeeded in making him memorize that as a fact of geometry. Instead, he let the slave make all the steps of the reasoning himself. Now the slave knows why that square is double the area of the original, and he’s not likely to repeat his mistake of doubling the sides. By discussing the problem, he learns the solution far more thoroughly than if he had just been told to memorize it.

The slave boy and Socrates are just two people. But in a classroom you’re likely to have a dozen or more. They’ll all have different abilities. Some will be slower to pick things up, and some will be faster. So the conversation becomes more complicated, and more complicated often means more productive.

But doesn’t this variety of abilities lead to problems? Won’t slower learners hold the fast ones back? Won’t the faster ones rocket past the slower ones, leaving them confused and frustrated?

The answer, it turns out, is no. And this is what makes the great-books method the truly democratic method of education.

Great books: what really happens in the classroom

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

So we were just about to talk about what happens in the classroom in a “great-books” education.

In the most radical form of great-books education, there are really only two steps.

1. The students read a certain assigned reading.

2. They sit around and talk about it.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Every program will make its own additions to the basic method, but the core, the sitting-around-talking part, is what really makes the whole thing work.

Now, this business of sitting around and talking—what we call a “seminar”—sounds very informal, but in fact the seminar is a very formal affair. It’s the formality that makes the informality work.

First of all, there are certain assumptions that act as a kind of constitution or fundamental law of the seminar.

The first rule is that the text itself—not what we think we know about the writer’s time or home life or psychological difficulties—is the thing under discussion. If we’re reading Plato’s Republic, then we’re talking about what the book itself says, not about what the Greeks thought (whatever that might have been) or about what the introduction to our edition of Plato thinks the book says. You might say the seminar has a strong anti-academic bias: no one is taken as an “authority” on what the author said except the author.

The second rule comes from the first: there are no authorities at all. Every reasoned assertion is allowed—but of course you have to be ready to back it up by arguing from the text in front of you. When I say that there are no authorities, that includes the teacher. It even includes the author of the book we’re discussing. If you think you find a flaw in Plato’s reasoning, you go right ahead and point it out. Of course, chances are that someone else in the discussion will challenge you, so you have to be prepared to out-argue everyone in the room plus Plato.

Finally, a third rule, no less important than the other two, is that we must maintain civility at all times. That can be hard when you’re having a violent disagreement, but it’s vital if the discussion is going to help anyone learn anything. It’s also essential because the discussion has to be free if it’s going to work. For example, it won’t work if students have to raise their hands and be recognized to speak. That freedom can only be allowed if it doesn’t turn into license.

Certain traditions can help enforce those three rules. For example, at many great-books schools—St. John’s among them—everyone is always referred to by last name in class: always Mr. Smith, never Jim. Now, it’s one thing to refer to an adult college student as “Mr. Smith,” but it might seem a bit odd to do that in a second-grade class. Yet I’ve heard of successful elementary great-books programs where they do just that.

Why? Well, there are two very good reasons for that rule. The first is that it keeps up the atmosphere of formality that’s necessary for a civilized discussion. The second is that it makes the students and the teachers equal—and it does so, not by lowering the teachers to the students’ level, but by raising the students to the teachers’ level. That’s a tremendously important distinction. You know how easy it is to lose control of children if they stop seeing you as an authority. But it’s amazing how responsible even young children become when they’re treated as responsible adults. Now, I’m not telling you to let second-graders drive cars, but I do think the last-name rule helps even elementary students keep up a responsible and civilized discussion. It’s even more effective in high schools, where the students are desperately snatching at every opportunity to prove that they’re adults.

So how does a seminar work? The students and teacher sit in a square or circle facing each other. The seminar begins when the teacher asks a provocative opening question—something designed to get the discussion started. One I particularly remember was for the creation story in Genesis: “Is God good?” It needs to be a simple and yet open-ended question.

After that, there’s almost always a long silence. It’s not required, of course—anyone could jump in at any time and try to answer the question. But from experience I can tell you that there’s almost always a long silence. You get used to it.

Finally, someone speaks up and attempts an answer. If the opening question was any good, of course, there will be something to say on both sides, so almost as soon as somebody attempts an answer, someone else will start to argue the other way.

From here on, the teacher ceases to be a teacher and becomes part of the conversation. Actually, of course, the teacher has a lot to contribute to the conversation. If you’re the teacher, it’s your responsibility to help guide the discussion so it doesn’t stray too far from the subject. (You learn a lot of useful stock phrases, like “Getting back to what Miss Harris said earlier about…” or “But I wonder whether that answers the question Mr. Lopez brought up earlier about…”)

It’s also the teacher’s responsibility to correct obvious errors when nobody else does. With students who are new to the seminar method, it’s important to try not to say simply, “No, that’s not right.” It’s important to encourage the students to find their own mistakes: “Does that take into account what Lancelot says when…” and so on. With students who are used to the seminar method, a teacher can just say, “No, that’s not right,” because they’re used to thinking of the teacher as just another voice in the conversation, and they won’t have any inhibitions about saying that voice is wrong. (And many times the teachers will be wrong, and the students will be right.)

What’s going on here? The students are learning to think.

That’s the most important thing. You’ve probably heard great-books fanatics talk about “learning to think” lots of times, and maybe you dismissed it as propaganda. But it’s the most important skill the students will learn, and—more than any other skill they might learn—it’s a skill with real-life applications.

When I was researching my first great-books lecture a few years ago, I found that a number of studies by prominent academics with impressive batches of letters after their names show that students in grade-school great-books programs showed better reading comprehension, better critical-reading skills, better problem-solving abilities, and better writing skills. If I had those studies in front of me, I’d give you all the information about them. But I don’t, and I regret to say that I don’t even have the time to go looking for them. That’s very frustrating to me: I hate to suggest that there’s scientific evidence for something without giving you the evidence. But writers have deadlines, and I have some pressing ones. If anyone can leave a comment pointing us toward the sorts of studies I’m thinking of, I’ll be very grateful.

I do remember, though, that what was particularly interesting was that students who had been low achievers in standard school programs showed even more improvement than students who had been high achievers. The great-books method was actually accomplishing democratic education, by giving students the thinking skills they need in the real world, and by raising the low achievers closer to the level of the high achievers.

It doesn’t seem too hard to see why that might happen. In the seminar method of learning, you have to be able to judge conflicting assertions on their merits. You also have to be able to frame questions that will get you the information you need, and you need to be able to judge whether the answer really answered your question.

If you’re in a position of authority—a teacher in a high school, let’s say, or president of France—you have to make decisions based on conflicting information and opposing assertions. That’s just what a great-books education prepares you to do. It’s just what a standard education discourages you from doing.

Once again, I could put it in terms designed to offend and provoke you. Ordinary education prepares you to be a docile follower; great-books education prepares you to be a leader. Ordinary education makes good citizens of a tyranny; great-books education makes good citizens of a democracy. No one who has learned to argue with Plato will take something as Gospel truth just because some political leader says it’s so.

Well, you might say, it sounds like a good thing as far as it goes. But this great-books stuff is just for English classes. How do we teach math and science and the other things our children need to learn?

And that’s the subject of the next article. The amazing thing about the great-books method, it turns out, is that it works for just about any subject.

Am I being fair?

Friday, October 5th, 2007

I’m back from homecoming at St. John’s, where I found everything pretty much the way I left it, except that some of the borderline-slum houses I remember from my days in Annapolis are worth a million dollars now, and two new dormitories are tucked away in the back campus where they don’t interfere with the sight lines down to College Creek.

And so I’m brimming with things to say about the Great Books, whatever they are, but first a small distraction. A kind reader has asked me whether I’m really being fair about the “aim” of American education, which I said was not to teach but to create a kind of caste system. Surely, he says, the real aim is to find which students need help, so that they can get the help they need. Granted, that doesn’t happen as efficiently as we’d like, but “it doesn’t seem right to me to interpret a deficiency in practice as an ‘aim.’”

So am I being fair?

Well, of course not. When have I ever tried to be fair? I think “provocative” is what I’m going for.

But the question is a good one. And I think we need to judge the real “aim” of American education, not by what we think we’re trying to do, but by the results we’re willing to accept.

First of all, I should make a distinction between standardized tests and grades. There is some motivation for schools to raise their average scores on standardized tests. The school administration’s performance is often judged on those scores. Grades are different, though, and grades are more what I was talking about.

If the purpose of grading students’ performance was to find the ones who needed help and help them, then the result should obviously be a gradual improvement in grades. Perhaps half the students might get poor or failing grades in elementary school, but by high school most of the students should be getting an A or B average, because they got the help they needed.

But we would not tolerate that. That’s why I say that the aim, whatever we tell ourselves, is really to sort and rank the students, not to help them learn. If we had a school where almost everyone was getting an A, even if it was because almost everyone was doing excellent work, we’d identify that school as a problem and fix it, and we’d keep fixing it until we saw the proper spread of A through F grades. Thus it seems to me that the ranking is in fact the most important thing in our ordinary American system of education, and everything else must be adjusted or fudged until the ranking comes out right. Whatever is the most important goal is what I call the “aim” of an endeavor, and the aim of education in America is to rank, and only secondarily to teach.

Of course, the aim is much more transparent when the grading is done “on a curve,” so that the average score in the class counts as a C no matter how good or bad that average is.

So after thinking it over, here’s my answer: No, I wasn’t trying to be fair, but I think I actually was fair without trying.

The saboteurs of democracy

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Sitting around talking? Isn’t that what we send kids to the principal’s office for?

Still, there might be something to it. Call it a “seminar,” and you just might get away with it.

I’ve been thinking about seminars a lot lately, because I’m just about to go to my twentieth college reunion, and in four years of college I hardly did anything else but read and then sit around and talk. That was St. John’s College in Annapolis, a school that’s somehow managed to stay obscure for 311 years now.

Let me tell you a little about St. John’s, because its program is the one that inspired most of the seminar-style great-books programs out there. It’s still called the “New Program” at St. John’s, even though it’s seventy years old, because in Annapolis anything after the War of 1812 counts as “new.”

There are no textbooks and no tests at St. John’s. Well, that statement isn’t strictly accurate. There are two tests: one to make sure you know enough algebra to read some of the important mathematicians on the third-year list, and one to make sure you can translate enough Tocqueville to say that you’re going into your senior year with a reading knowledge of French. If you don’t pass one of the tests, you go back and review your algebra or your French, and then take the test again. You keep taking the test until you can pass it.

I bring up those tests because they’re indicative of a certain attitude that’s fundamental to the radical great-books programs. The purpose of the tests is not to sort students into different levels of achievement or to weed out the unqualified. The purpose is only to help the student learn. That attitude is what makes this approach so radical, and it distinguishes it from every other common style of education.

Think about it for a moment. If you’re a teacher, what is your goal? You’ll probably answer right away that your goal is to help students learn. So the more your students learn, the better you’re doing, right?

Now ask yourself this: What would happen if you gave every student 100% on every test? How would the school administration react if every student left your class with an A for the year?

Well, I suppose they’d double your salary, wouldn’t they? I mean, you must be a very good teacher if all your students are learning everything they’re supposed to be learning.

But in fact that’s not what would happen at all, is it? You’ve seen teachers reprimanded because they grade too generously. If you gave everyone an A this year, you wouldn’t be a teacher next year.

That’s because, whatever you may tell yourself, helping students learn is not the main goal of a traditional American education. The main goal is really to sort students out. The system not only expects but demands that a certain number of students will excel and a roughly equal number will fall behind.

If you wanted to be shocking (and when have I not wanted to be shocking?), you could state the same idea in political terms: the goal of the American educational establishment is to sabotage democracy.

What I mean is that American schools are set up to act as factories for deciding who will be given an opportunity to succeed and who will not. That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it? If you get good grades in school, you can go on to a good college and find a high-paying job and drive a Lexus. If you get bad grades in school, you can be a cashier at the Foodland. Our schools are creating permanent class distinctions that will stay with our children for the rest of their lives—and they’re starting to create those distinctions when our children are only six years old.

All this may seem like rambling or even ranting. But you may remember (if you’ve been reading for a few days) that the subject under discussion was “What is a great-books education?” And here is part of the answer: a great-books education, according to the radical method, is a democratic and egalitarian form of education, opposed not only in its methods but also in its aims to the elitist educational methods in use in most schools.

Now, I’m well aware that the great majority of educators in America would tell you that the great-books approach is elitist, and that whatever educational theory is in favor today is democratic. I’ve led you through this political rant because I know that elitism is the charge most often hurled at great-books education.

So let me summarize what I’ve said so far about the real aims of American education as it’s carried on at most of our schools.

1. The real aim is not learning, but sorting students into categories.

2. The system aims at creating permanent social divisions between students who “excel” and students who do not.

3. For the system to work, a certain number of students must fail to meet the requirements. If that doesn’t happen, then the requirements must be changed until it does happen.

In other words, if you’re a teacher, your work is not considered successful unless you manage to prevent some of your students from learning.

Now, the radical great-books approach has opposite goals, and therefore starts with opposite assumptions. It assumes that every student can learn and ought to learn. But more than that, it assumes that every student has a contribution to make to the learning of the group. Finally, it assumes that the role of the teacher, and of the school, is to give the students the help they need to learn.

That’s the difference, then. On the one hand, we have an aristocratic system designed to create and perpetuate class distinctions. On the other hand is a democratic system whose goal is to help every student learn. Until today, if I had asked you which was which, you probably would have got them mixed up. Now that I’ve set you straight, we can go on to talk about what actually happens in the classroom.

Great books to the rescue

Monday, September 17th, 2007

Sure, it’s easy to bash American education, you say. But what do you have to offer that’s any better?

Oh, you’re going to be sorry you asked that. As I hinted earlier, I have a whole lecture prepared on that very subject. I call it “The Great Books in Your School,” and I consider it a kind of subversive’s manual for turning American education on its head.

Sometimes I think everyone but me knows what a “great books” education is. Like Socrates, I know only that I know nothing. Unlike Socrates, I don’t think that makes me particularly wise.

Actually, I think I can propose a good working definition of a great-books education. A great-books education is any program whose graduates are likely to mention Socrates in the first thirty seconds of a conversation.

Yes, laugh if you like, but I mean it quite seriously. You’ll see why after I’ve had more to say about what a “great book” is and how we decide which books are “great.”

First, though, I have a lot to say about what a great-books education is, which of course involves knowing a lot about what it isn’t.

Before we go too far, you should know that there are many schools of thought on the subject of “great books,” and I come from one of the most radical schools. But I’m a pragmatic sort of radical. I think the methods I advocate are better, not because I have a theory that says they ought to be better, but because long experience proves that they work very well in practice.

“Great books” has become a popular academic catchphrase lately, and that has created a demand in the academic world for things that are called “great-books” classes. Many of these classes are taught the same way every other class is taught. Students are expected to absorb certain facts about certain books. They’re tested on the facts they absorb. So the students will be expected to name the chief ideas in Plato’s Republic, just as in geography class they’re expected to name the chief exports of Indonesia. We might call this the “read-and-regurgitate” method.

In practice, of course, this method forces students not to discover what the book really means, but to memorize what their teacher thinks it means. They’re not learning Plato’s ideas; they’re taking an intensive course in the political thought of their teacher. The problem with that is that the political thought of most teachers isn’t very important in the great scheme of things. There’s a reason why you and I aren’t as well known as Plato. We’re not as much worth knowing as Plato.

But even if the teacher interpreted the book absolutely correctly—whatever that could possibly mean—the whole exercise isn’t very useful. Being able to tell you that Plato said this and Hobbes said that is good vocational training for reference librarians, but it doesn’t do anybody else much good. The students would be better off learning something practical, like origami or jazz mandolin.

Another approach—what we might call the “historical-critical” approach—uses extensive research to prove that each book was an inevitable product of its time. Academics who think this way will make sweeping statements about what the Greeks believed, which is about as useful as making sweeping statements about what Pennsylvanians believe. In the end, the historical-critical approach usually concludes that the great thinkers of the past were ignorant goobers compared to us, because they lacked the benefit of our modern wisdom. Specifically, they lacked the historical-critical approach.

Students who learn to look at great books this way are probably worse off than the ones who just memorize the chief exports of Plato. All they learn is that the great books have nothing to tell us. Archaeology and historical criticism can explain why Plato wrote what he wrote, so there’s no need to worry about what he’s actually saying. If they’re smart (and students are often smarter than their teachers), they’ll figure out soon enough that our own current ideas must be just as much historically determined as Plato’s. That includes the idea of the historical-critical approach to literature, which then falls in a heap of wreckage at their feet, leaving them back where they started.

A third approach is the one used by great-books radicals like me. It’s what you might call the sitting-around-talking approach. Even the name sounds dangerously radical, doesn’t it? After all, if there’s one thing schools can’t stand, it’s students sitting around talking. We have rules against that.

But that’s what I’m going to be recommending. Yes, my solution to the problems facing our schools today is a lot of sitting around and talking.

I’ll bet you can’t wait to know how I intend to make that work.

Learning not to read

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

I’m not a big conspiracy theorist—in fact I spend a lot of my time making fun of conspiracy theorists. So I’m just going to call it a happy coincidence that, the worse schools get, the more professional educators we need to sort out the mess.

It seems like a conflict of interest, doesn’t it? I mean, would you want to buy a car from a dealer that made most of its money fixing broken cars? —Oh, wait, we do that all the time.

Still, heaven forbid that we should ever actually figure out what makes a good education, because then we wouldn’t need any more professional educators—just teachers. Instead, we have a constant merry-go-round of hand-wringing studies showing that Johnny can’t read, followed by new educational theories promising to fix what was wrong with Johnny’s education, followed by more hand-wringing studies showing that Johnny is even worse off now, followed by new educational theories promising to fix what was wrong with the last round of theories, and so on. No wonder Johnny is a bit dizzy. All we need is a Wurlitzer in the middle.

A little while ago I ventured upstream a bit toward McKeesport and picked up a copy of the Daily News. The lead article was a roundup of what your children could expect to find when they went back to school in any of the school districts in that part of the Mon Valley.

For the benefit of people who live in normal parts of the world, I should explain that the area around Pittsburgh is jealously jurisdictional. Every two-bit borough has its own school district. Sometimes two or three one-bit boroughs will pool their resources to make a two-bit school district, but even those are usually quite small. There are more than forty school districts in Allegheny County alone, and that’s just the City of Pittsburgh and the innermost suburbs.

In the Mon Valley, most of the boroughs and cities never recovered from the demise of Big Steel. Most of those school districts hover somewhere between poor and broke.

So how are they spending their meager resources? Well, just for example, one district is giving its elementary school—it has only one—a new “software-based” reading program. “Motivating software”—which I assume involves electrodes wired directly into the brain—will reward the pupils for learning their lessons correctly.

Now, I’m not a professional educator. I have, however, been paid to blither at professional educators, so if I’m only a crank with opinions, at least they’re opinions worth money. In this case, my opinion is that this method is especially designed to teach children not to read.

Say what you like about even the worst of the old readers (and I’m talking about you, Dick and Jane), at least the reward they promised was in the reading itself. The assumption was always that it was worth learning to read because, eventually, you would have fun reading. Now that assumption has been abandoned. Instead, our children are being taught by the most obvious method that reading is a chore, something you get through to get the non-reading reward zapped into your brain.

Would a child learn to appreciate good food if you gave him candy as a reward for eating it? No: he’d learn to appreciate the candy, and soon enough, when he was old enough to control what he ate, he’d skip the food and go straight for the candy.

My theory, if you can dignify it with that title, of teaching reading is simple: at every stage, you must reinforce the idea that reading itself is the reward. You do that with great stories. In a religious school, for example, you could use stories from the Bible. Take that one about the youths who mocked Elisha and were torn to pieces by bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). Kids love that story, but for some reason they never hear it in Sunday school anymore. Once they learn there’s stuff like that in the Bible, and they can only get at it by reading it themselves, they’ll be hooked. I need hardly mention that, for older children, the stories of King Arthur and his knights can be the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

That’s not my only opinion about education, of course. When I gave a lecture to a bunch of Catholic educators a few years ago, I told them that their school expected them to work as hard as they could to sabotage democracy, and it was up to them to be subversive and democratic. Since then, you’ll notice, all the problems have disappeared from Catholic schools, and every pupil is above average. Now I’m ready to offer that same wisdom to the world at large. Stay tuned.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey