Trespass Freely and Fearlessly

by Guest Blogger
April 17th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

A teacher emailed me a while back with a great question. I’ve been meaning to answer and there’s no better time than today, when I have five other deadlines to avoid.

Dear Jess,

Here’s my question for today: how much can high school age students benefit from a classical curriculum like the one at my kids’ school?   I love that next year my son will read, for example, Plato, as part of the Great Books type humanities program. That stuff is challenging for even the best educated adults. We chose to transfer our kids this year to [name deleted] specifically because of their humanities program. The other option was having them take many AP courses while attending the nearby traditional public high school. I had nothing like the [name deleted] curriculum back in my high school days, and I only read Great Books stuff on my own, many years after I graduated from college.  So I’m excited for my kids to have this opportunity, but only if it benefits them.

Are “Great Books” relevant for today’s students?  My answer is an emphatic “yes,” and I whip out my favorite quote on the subject, by Michael Dirda: “Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century.”

The argument against asking young people to read great books goes something like this discussion from the Diane Rehm Show. Panelists were discussing the novel Ethan Frome, and a caller said he thought students should not read some books until they are forty, with the life experience and perspective to understand the darker, more mature themes.

While I would shy away from teaching Ethan Frome in the darkest weeks of our New Hampshire winter – just for sanity’s sake, mind you – I respectfully disagree. I have heard this argument among teachers, that Romeo and Juliet is appropriate for middle school, while King Lear is not. Romeo and Juliet concerns itself with the heartache of young love, while King Lear stares down the naked torment Lear finds at the end of his useful life. Students may find connections to their own life in the story of Romeo and Juliet’s love tragedy, but the pain of losing a child and the treachery of the vile Edmund are just too mature for younger readers.

Sure, the familiar may be strange in King Lear, but there is much to offer young people in a story such as Lear’s. My students love the treachery of Edmund, the way he plots against the seemingly perfect and legitimate Edgar. Lovely, bookish, kind, Edgar, who can do no wrong in his father’s eyes. And the tensions runs high as Edmund is overtaken by sibling rivalry and plots to steal a place in his father’s heart – or at least his inheritance.

Or what of Cordelia? The youngest child, who cannot heave her heart into her mouth in order to satisfy her father’s outlandish expectations and is eclipsed by her more rapacious older sisters? Or Gloucester, who does not realize until too late that he has hurt someone he loves, and must find a way to make amends.

No, King Lear is not an easy read. It would be much easier for me to reach for The Hunger Games or Inkheart – both commonly assigned in middle school, and books with entertaining plots, to be sure, but they are…lacking. Reader’s questions are too easily answered. “Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands,” writes Elanor Duckworth in The Having of Wonderful Ideas.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

In the end, that’s what I hope I do. I teach my students how to find their own way through a complex and challenging world, and these books are the maps I hand my students.

Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. Students cannot approach these works lightly; they must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at


  1. Jessica-

    You sound like a wonderful teacher and your students are very lucky to have you. Great novels show us just how enduring the basic traits of human nature are. Timeless. I have a joke that there is more truth about what actually drives people in Shakespeare than in almost any sociology or psych class.

    One of the great drivers behind the social sciences in the 20th century has been how to use social institutions and social policy to change human nature. Great novels are a reminder that such goals are unlikely to work.

    If pedagogy is a social science instead of a methodology on the best ways to transmit cultural knowledge, we have a disconnect in letting it determine what goes on in a classroom.

    By the way, on a more fun note, my bookworm high school senior was judging colleges on whether they still seemed to be assigning the very kinds of classic books you talked about in this post. We discovered that is no longer true in many very famous, difficult to get into colleges and universities. Fascinating journey.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — April 17, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

  2. [...] Great Books really are great– and relevant for today’s kids — writes teacher Jessica Lahey on Core Knowledge [...]

    Pingback by It’s great to read Great Books — Joanne Jacobs — April 18, 2012 @ 9:01 am

  3. Why is this even a question? All high school English classes cover at least a few of the classics, even though in many high schools the kids can’t understand the books.

    So I’m not sure what your point is, since the question of benefit is directly tied up in whether or not the kids are capable of understanding the material at all. Instead, you focus on the largely trivial matter of whether kids who are capable of comprehending the material will benefit intellectually. In the scheme of our educational policy today, in which we are forcefeeding Shakespeare and Dickens to high school students who read at a 4th grade level, this is so laughably irrelevant that I wondered why on earth you would even bother–and then I saw you teach Latin at a selective school.

    Ah. Totally clueless. Got it.

    Comment by Cal — April 18, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

  4. I’ll step forward to defend Jess from Cal’s unjustified and personal criticism. I’m the person who emailed Jess with the question in italics about the benefits of a Great Books, classical curriculum.

    My two kids, 6th and 8th grades, attend a public charter school (ERA) that uses Core Knowledge for K-8, and has a Great Books based humanities program for grades 9-12. All long-term ERA families highly value education, including the low income families. High school kids who can’t read at a true high school level don’t last, and usually transfer to traditional public high schools where they earn meaningless diplomas taking pablum classes – a great American tradition. The ERA homework requirements drive out the unmotivated kids. So my question to Jess assumed that students are able and willing to read Great Books.

    I have a practical followup question directed to CK blog readers. ERA parents of 8th graders think long and hard about whether to stay at ERA for the classical education, or to send their kids to large suburban high schools that offer a full array of AP courses, which can save on tuition expenses if students score well on the AP tests.

    I’d like well-informed CK blog readers to offer their opinions on this question: what gives the better liberal arts education – AP or classical – and why?

    A small correction to Jess’ essay. I’ve never been a teacher. I’m merely a parent who served as a CK charter school board member for three years. My K-college liberal arts education was quite deficient, but I’m an avid reader who found my way to great books on my own, and I’ve been able to overcome many of the shortcomings of my formal education. I want my kids, and all kids, to have the opportunity for in-school education that I didn’t have – that’s why I’m such a big supporter of Core Knowledge.

    The bottom line: Jess wasn’t being elitist, clueless, or snobbish in writing this essay. She was answering a direct question from the father of public school students.

    Comment by John Webster — April 18, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

  5. My mistake re: the assumption that you are a teacher, John. You were simply so informed and interested that I assumed you were educated and knowledgeable about education.

    Comment by Jess — April 18, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

  6. Cal,
    “All high school English classes cover at least a few classics.” How I wish that were true. While many public schools do indeed have students that read well below grade level, this does not mean that these students are not smart. Children fail to learn to read for a variety of reasons. This doesn’t mean that their world should be limited to simple picture books that they can read independently. A creative teacher can use a variety of ways to introduce and discuss the wonderful themes and content in classic literature to these students such as read aloud or books on tape. In fact E.D. Hirsch might tell you that many of these students are among those who would most benefit from exposure to the classics.

    Comment by Mary S. — April 19, 2012 @ 2:20 am

  7. John,

    Both programs are high quality. The interpersonal student experience would be the difference.

    The major difference in the two experiences would be the classmates, a heterogeneous versus a more homogenous population. The suburban public school, by definition, will be heterogeneous, even if not in the AP courses. In all the common areas of the school as well as most extracurricular activities, kids of all varieties will be present. Kids in these schools are exposed to the full assortment of peers. Students in the CK school are more homogenous by nature as you pointed out yourself.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 19, 2012 @ 6:03 am

  8. John raises some interesting questions about how parents make choices. As a person that went to an inner city school, albeit 20 years ago, I know the handful of AP classes I had made a huge difference and they did include Dickens and Shakespeare and Hardy. I would assume that AP or IB at least provides a better option than just standard curriculum.

    In DC we do not have a middle school or High School option that teaches the CK/GB model though the Latin Charter school comes close. The challenge is that if there is an option, there are very few slots for general demand. Whatever Waiting for Superman got right or wrong, the presumption that most parents have real choice in urban jurisdictions, they must hope that they can get in through a lottery. This can feel pretty dicey, I applied for 12 last year of which 4 were very desirable, only got into 1 of the 4 and actually only 2 total.

    John- how much of a wait list does your school have? Do you think that the CK charter school provides sufficient seats for those parents that desire that option?

    Comment by DC Parent — April 19, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

  9. John-The College Board is redesigning the AP courses to make them far less fact oriented than before. More project oriented with facts used to illustrate themes.

    IB courses are heavily affected by whether it is a stand-alone diploma program or has the IB Middle Years Programme feeding it. Because MYP is largely affective, not knowledge based in its orientation, it skews the Diploma Programme.

    Most of the high school seniors who are Diploma candidates are ready for violence if they ever have to hear “Are you an IB Learner?” again.

    If you have a charter committed to the transmission of knowledge and academic skills in high school, you are very lucky. I spent the morning chronicling yet another hugely tragic idea and how it is to be implemented in middle and high schools. Victimizing students through the schools would be an accurate description.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — April 19, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

  10. My kids’ charter has a long wait list for elementary, especially in the earliest grades. There is still a wait list for middle school, but it decreases substantially. High school wait lists vary from year to year, but are fairly small when they do exist.

    Once kids are in a particular school system,if student behavior is overall acceptable, parents don’t switch to a charter except under rare circumstances. From my experiences with two CK charters, I’m in the small minority of parents who chose the schools specifically for the academic programs. Most parents put more value on the smaller class sizes, the uniforms, and the much less bureaucratic feel compared to large traditional public schools.

    I’ve heard about the redesign of AP courses, but I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion. What I like about the humanities program at the charter, among many other things, is the emphasis on having students write a lot, with teachers providing strong feedback. For me, that was the most decisive factor, along the emphasis on content knowledge, that convinced me to transfer our kids to the K-12 charter.

    Comment by John Webster — April 19, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

  11. I don’t know that I see the AP redesign as more project based and from what I have read it is more rational in focusing on fewer topics with more depth. At least that has been the description for AP Biology and AP History

    I remember from taking in way back in 1989 we spent a month on Colonial America and 3 weeks on WWI, WWII, Vietnam, forget Nixon… Let alone kids maybe needing to have a clue about Reagan or Bush I or II or Clinton.

    Comment by DC Parent — April 19, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

  12. DC Parent-I worked on the review of the proposed World History revised course that was to go into effect this year. It was factually wrong and misleading and the College Board pulled it once attention was focused on it. It was pure propaganda for the most part.

    I found that NY Times piece to be a puff piece when it was written.

    The revised AP courses reflect the College Board’s PACESETTER work from almost 20 years ago. The desire is for the AP coursework to be accessible to virtually all students. Gets accomplished by changing nature of coursework.

    I didn’t have the heart to do the same for AP Us after the AP World experience. I have heard the revised course is more cultural anthropology with an emphasis on prehistoric North Americans.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — April 20, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  13. Here is a link that describes Pacesetter.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — April 20, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

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