Thoughts on How Best to Read Literature with the Modern High School Student

The following are my own meditations on reading literature in our modern setting with high school students.  I have struggled with this idea for some time.  I find very few who truly love reading.  Some view it as a means toward the education they believe will lead to big paycheck.  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.  So if my job is to engage students in a study of literature, it would seem I must convince them of its being worthwhile, then leading them toward a delight in and felicity with great literature.  This would include heightening their taste, training their abilities, and directing them toward self-motivated reading.

Why are we even doing this?  Literature is a part of the Humanities.  It is how we prepare young people to pursue the moral maturity that adult humans must have to be happy.  Fictional stories cultivate a moral imagination in young people.  Poetry brings them to feel sublime.  Truth is posited, Goodness exemplified, and Beauty is loved in the great works of literature.

So my first task is to present to their minds an apologetic for reading, and for reading great literature so as to develop a moral imagination.  Hence my first “lesson” must be the construction of the idea of a moral imagination, using mimetic teaching to birth this notion in their own hearts.  Vigen Guroian has written most helpfully on this subject in many places, including here.

I believe that the experience of a good literature class will do more than a single lecture to convince students of their need for a moral imagination, but that is where is should start.  Moving beyond simply saying they should pursue a moral imagination through great literature, the class should delight itself in that literature.  I currently teach two literature classes:  American and British.  Delighting in these things includes a good understanding of the context of these works, having some knowledge of the authors, but mostly would include the following key components:  having the time to delight (no break neck speed or firehose velocity here), allowing students to find what they like rather than telling them what to like, and open discussion that hears the students more than the teacher.

So how does one teach a student to read with delight?  I think there are three levels to this delight:  simple apprehension, connections, and reflections.  In simple apprehension, the student skims over the story looking for hints as to the characters, places, and such.  In short, finding the nouns.  It amuses me that for many literature classes, this is all that is expected, is converted to objective questions on a test, and every one claps their hands.  But that is only very surface enjoyment.  Going deeper, the student seeks to find the connections, how the plot is developed by the characters, places, “things” of the story.  Here he is in essence seeking the verbs.  What led to what?  What are the causes and effects?  But the best is kept for a final reading of the text, this time with the heart.  Given my knowledge of the text, having skimmed it over twice now, what passages move me?  What do I like about this text?  What is meaningful to me and why?

An easy way to teach this reading, and it can be done independently in this manner, is teach the student to mark the text in each reading with a differing color.  Having the student mark the important nouns in pink, the connecting verbs in green, and the really good stuff in blue allows them to return with the teacher to the text in class and discuss it well.  Yes this means they have to own the books, but this is a small price to pay for truly great reading and discussion.  If highlighter is not your thing, give them alternative ways to mark these three layers of reading.

This leads to a pedagogy something like the following for most texts (any form of text):

  1. Preparation – saying just enough about the text to gain the student’s interest, give them a context for the book, and guide their mind toward the one or two great ideas of the work. The key here is brevity with engagement.  Wow, I really want to read this book now.
  2. Direct Interaction with the text – whether alone or in the classroom, the student should read the text twice quickly and then a third time slowly, following the pursuits and markings mentioned above.
  3. Discussion – the great texts are above everyone’s head. This is why we read them.  Thus they are best when discussed with others.  Students have to be taught dialectic to do this well.  Some success can come from a teacher presenting them with key passages to be discussed, but often a simple “playing the blues” or discussion of those things they have highlighted in blue will suffice.  The key is to focus on the moral aspects of the story.  What was true, good, and beautiful?
  4. Fastening – I don’t like the term assessment in relation to good reading. Schooling demands feedback, but this is much more mentoring, discipleship, and apprenticeship than mastering a discreet set of information.  The content, skills, and understanding can be assessed, but one should always remember this is much more a start than an end.  The best form of assessing one’s interaction with great literature is writing.    While the essay or paper is certainly good and legit, more is gained by guided journaling.  Here is a great blog on that issue.

All this to say that great literature classes are an art form.  At the heart of it is the teacher’s own passion and enjoyment of great literature.  Beyond that, we are trying to see ice to Eskimos, but when we really passionately love the ice, it sells itself.

And if any of this needs more, I have written on these things before: here, here, and here are some that come readily to mind.

To Build a Language

The author Jack London is not someone with whom I share a great deal of philosophical affinity.  His nihilism stings my mind’s nostrils.  But he was a good writer, and many passages from his works can work on my own mind.  I was reading one of my favorite works of his with some friends yesterday and was struck by the following few sentences.

“This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge (Jack London, To Build a Fire).”

As this is not a lit crit blog, but rather one on teaching, let me relate the thoughts on teaching that came to me from this passage.  London seems to exalt in the fact that the dog’s instincts are clearer or more compelling than the man’s knowledge.  And this is tied to generational knowing.  Dog instinct, inherited through the parent’s genes, is powerful in its consistency.  A dog breed is behaviorally consistent from generation to generation.

But man, though connected to past generations, is dependent upon memory rather than instinct.  He knows what he knows by what others older than himself have taught him.  This makes curricular issues poignant.  Whenever a change is made to the path of learning, all the strength of the past is weakened by the new path.  Ideological change inevitably brings such curricular changes.  This is particularly noticeable in the area of language study.

As the philosophy of language study has changed, the path by which a given language is to be taught has become less clear.  And as several generations have now passed since the great upheaval in language occurred in the early 20th century (see T.S. Eliot’s work on this here), many currently teaching language have to teach it the way they were taught it and they were not taught it in the old paths, but what were considered new in their own youth.  This weakens teaching.

I asked one Spanish teacher if she finds herself teaching as much English grammar as she does Spanish in a day’s work.  She was quick and clear that such was not only so, but necessary.  A loss of trust in rules has brought us to fewer and fewer dependable, generational rules of language.  Look at this chart.


Most students are no longer taught such rules of punctuation, but rather are coached on usage from within a given written passage.  In other words, rather than passing down rules of usage from generation to generation, students today are taught in somewhat of an historical vacuum.  They have no anchor in the past with which to moor their current yacht of language.  As a result, most of my writing students think an essay is just a really long text message.

'Just think of it as if you're reading a long text-message.'

The implications are far reaching and beyond this short blog.  But it is worth contemplation.  It is also a great argument for slowing down the rate of experimentation and change that is rampant in modern educational curriculum practice.  Every time you change something, you weaken the past.  Dogs know its too cold; why don’t intelligent human beings?

Teaching from the Point of Ignorance

I meet too frequently with the word random these days.  I recognize its right use, but believe it to be improper in much of its current use.  I think there are real philosophical reasons for its misuse.  I think that only through humility can we return it to its proper place.  I believe many today have replaced the idea of mystery with this tamer notion of randomness.  Let me see if I can be clear in this position.

I will simply state the various quotes that have brought me to this belief and see if they lead others to the same position.

First, John Paul II stated in Fides et Ratio, “One of the most significant aspects of our current situation, it should be noted, is the ‘crisis of meaning.’  Perspectives on life and the world, often of a scientific temper, have so proliferated that we face an increasing fragmentation of knowledge. This makes the search for meaning difficult and often fruitless. Indeed, still more dramatically, in this maelstrom of data and facts in which we live and which seem to comprise the very fabric of life, many people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning.”

So if I may infer such, fragmentation drives us toward the feeling that everything is detached, or disconnected, which leads towards explaining the occurrences we experience in life as random.  Randomness or the perception of such is accompanied by the belief that meaning is either purely pressed upon the randomness of things, or in clearer terms, self deception.

But this is where Wendell Berry flies in and provides me with another quote that leads me to my thesis.

He states in his book, Home Economics, the following about these two words, random and mystery:

“…pattern is verifiable by limited information, whereas the information required to verify randomness is unlimited…. What is perceived as random within a given limit may be seen as part of a pattern within a wider limit.  If this is so, then Dr. Jenny, for accuracy’s sake, should have said that rainwater moves from mystery through pattern back into mystery.  If “mystery” is a necessary (that is, honest) term in such a description, then the modern scientific program has not altered the ancient perception of the human condition a jot….To call the unknown “random” is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known….To call the unknown by its right name, “mystery,” is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns….But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance.” — Berry, Wendell, “A Letter to Wes Jackson” in Home Economics, p. 4

So in talking about truth, which does exist, and can be known, and can communicated, so that it matters that we talk rightly about it, it is necessary to preserve the notion of mystery.  Infinite truth cannot be finitely understood, and thus must be humble enough to admit mystery.  The pattern of God’s truth is such that I can only by faith confess that it’s there without any hope of my grasping it completely.  But it is not, as such, random in any way.  Teaching should start at this point of mystery, or ignorance.


The Bully Pulpit

bully (n.)

1530s, originally “sweetheart,” applied to either sex, from Dutch boel “lover; brother,” probably a diminutive of Middle Dutch broeder “brother” (cf. Middle High German buole”brother,” source of German Buhle “lover;” see brother (n.)).   Meaning deteriorated 17c. through “fine fellow” and “blusterer” to “harasser of the weak” (1680s, from bully-ruffian, 1650s). Perhaps this was by influence of bull (n.1), but a connecting sense between “lover” and “ruffian” may be in “protector of a prostitute,” which was one sense of bully (though not specifically attested until 1706). The expression meaning “worthy, jolly, admirable” (especially in 1864 U.S. slang bully for you!) is first attested 1680s, and preserves an earlier, positive sense of the word. (

Where we get our words can be instructive in how we use them today, or it can be completely a lost cause.  In the case of this phrase, “bully pulpit” I think it interesting that both meanings on “bully” (the positive and negative) are still in sight with how we use the phrase today.


With two of my sons now in the halls of higher academia, and with no desire to state where or other specifics that might then cause them grief if the wrong people read their dear ol dad’s blog, I will no doubt still find much to blog upon in their experience.  This is just the first.

One son finds himself in a class on “criminal justice.”  The instructor in this course has chosen to not once, not twice, but over and over make his classroom his bully pulpit.  To him, no doubt, the positive sense of this is his motivation: he thinks it well and good to use his platform to form the next generation in his own views.  But he also, perhaps wittingly, perhaps unwittingly, uses the negative sense as well.  He believes a recent nationally known court case was not just.  He now seeks to push that view on those who depend upon his good favor to pass the class.  In a real sense he is “pimping” his class, seeking to protect them from evil injustices of the society in which they live.  He, as such, becomes something of a “blusterer” and hurts ultimately his own rhetorical integrity within his class, showing that his own views are paramount, and thus all teaching in his class suspect of this shade of coloring.

All this to wonder out loud, “is the classroom ever rightfully a place for the bully pulpit”?  I am worried that far too many teachers with the best of intentions seek simply to transfer their views to their students rather than teaching them how to form their own opinions based upon a common and real truth that exists, can be known, and can be communicated.  Are we raising yet another generation of sophists?

Redefining the Carpet Right Out from Under Us

Even as those of us who desire to conserve and pass along our great Western inheritance spend oodles of time and resources trying to reinvent classical education in the modern world, we may find that we are not even talking the same educational language as the those around us.  Read here how even the idea of what it means to be literate is being radically redefined:

A parting question:  “What does it say that to be cool today, all one must do is add an “i” before something?  iPod, iPad, iPeople?

plugged out

Bringing Them Up Thoughtful

I have been musing a lot about the implications of our current elections upon the state of education in our nation.  I am more convinced than ever that some serious battles were lost about 100 years ago that are showing their results to us more and more as we move farther away from those battles.

Diane Ravitch, in her great history of American education, “Left Back” delineates the battles fought at the turn of the 20th century over public education’s future.  There were clearly two camps: the Classicists and the Progressivists.  Both went into full publishing mode trying to win the argument over whether we should continue to provide a liberal education to our children (the Classicist position) or if we should change to offering various forms of education for the differing types of children in our schools (the Progressivist position). Continue reading “Bringing Them Up Thoughtful”