Photograph © Copyright 2008, Bruce A. McMenomy
About the Reading List
I have had remarkably few complaints from parents about my assignments in this course (except for some very basic practical issues in which I am at least partly to blame, and which are now, I think, resolved). Dismissing the possibility that they haven’t really taken a look at them, I am left to conclude either that a) there are many parents enthusiastically greeting the assignments with nods of approval, or b) nobody has worked up the nerve to say what I initially expected to hear: “You have to be kidding! I didn’t do this much reading for an English major in college!”
Let me come right out and admit it: for a high school course, this is an absurd amount of reading. It’s huge. It’s enormous. It outweighs Cyrano’s nose. What can I possibly have been thinking? Is it even remotely reasonable to expect these kids to take in this quantity of material and hold on to it for long?
Well, to answer that, let me tell you a story from my own life (I have shared it with a few parents already). When we were young and foolish (now we are merely foolish) and had only one child — our daughter Mary, who has now completed her Ph.D. — we began at a very early date to read to her from the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis. Most of you probably know these. We think they’re terrific. We began with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and worked our way through it. By the time we got to the end of the book, we thought we detected a certain vagueness in her understanding. She was a bright kid, but when we asked her about details of the plot, she could tell us almost nothing. What had she gotten from it? Not a lot, apparently.
But, since we were not operating on a deadline, or with a particular goal, and because we figured we could go back over it later, we just sort of shrugged and moved on to Prince Caspian — reading maybe a chapter every night, missing a few nights, and so on, through the whole list of seven books. But toward the end of the process, we discovered something curious. As one might expect, Mary’s listening skills had improved markedly, so that she could now tell us about what was going on in some detail. What I hadn’t expected, though, was the fact that, without any kind of review, she could now also tell us about what had gone on in the early books. The picture had formed — there was a kind of coalescence of material that made it all make better sense — going all the way back to the beginning.
After that, I began noticing that the same thing tended to happen in other non-linear kinds of exposition, and it happened in other fields and with other people at different stages in their education. That is, we couldn’t just march through calculus before she managed to learn the multiplication tables, because understanding in the later matters was directly dependent on mastery of the earlier ones. But in other subjects, topics are not quite so sequential. As when a painter works over all the canvas at once until suddenly a picture begins to form by an uncanny convergence of apparently disconnected brushstrokes, understanding grew from all sides at the same time.
Now of course we are working on a different level from Mary’s preschool bedtime reading, and also at a level different from my experiences in college and graduate school, from which I gathered much of the material I am now teaching. I know that. But what I have been hoping is that this course would allow the students — many of whom began with almost no grasp of ancient history, culture, or literature — to form such a broad picture, in which the inter-relation of parts would support the task of understanding each particular bit. And, despite the occasional howl of confusion and dismay, it does seem to be working. I suspect that almost every student in last year’s class has a better broad understanding of Homer now than he or she had immediately following the reading. The details may have become dim — that’s why we re-read things — but the context has solidified. Partly, this is because we have compared dozens of other things to Homer, forming connections and sketching proportions that shed at least some of their light back on the original comparandum.
I think that answers the question of “why” from a procedural-pedagogical standpoint. The other half of the “why” question is one of values and worth: “Why should they be reading all this stuff?” To some degree I suppose (and hope) that I am preaching to the choir, so to speak, since you obviously thought it worth enrolling in the course in the first place, having seen something of the offerings that were being outlined. But I feel compelled to say some little thing to the point anyway, both to the students and to their parents. It is this:
Part of what we are hoping to convey to our students in this course (and a few others) is the enormous vista of Western Culture. We think this is valuable. It is not valuable because it is laden with job skills (it is not, other than those general skills that come from balance and proportion in one’s outlook); it is not valuable because it is good training for the mind (which it is, but that’s partly beside the point); it is not even chiefly valuable because colleges will look more fondly on your application if you have your Homer down (they may, but there are no guarantees). Instead we think it is valuable because it is a priceless heritage in and of itself, essential for understanding who we now are, how we think, how we work, and how we approach our fellow people and our God. I know as well as you do that there is no way to convey this material all at once — not in one course, surely, or even in a total curriculum of four years. A lifetime will not secure more than a small corner of it for you. But I truly believe that exposure to this material, in the context of a community that values it, will eventually give it life — the kind of life that produces not only better understanding, but better people, capable of coherent thought and informed feeling. It is a gift we have received from a hundred generations of real people who lived and died and struggled just as you and I do with the peculiar realities of life. My chief hope in teaching it is to impart some small measure of that gift to a new generation, in order that they might preserve it, add to it, and pass it on. A culture can be lost in a single generation; but it can also be preserved, even in the midst of social and intellectual chaos, by the nurture of the few who will care enough for it to keep it alive.
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