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 http://jessicalahey.com.

Grammar Makes a Comeback

by Robert Pondiscio
October 20th, 2008

The government has released a draft curriculum that unequivocally calls for the explicit teaching of the basic structures of the English language. Grammar will return to the classroom along with punctuation, spelling, pronunciation, and phonics, for all students from the first years of school.

Oops, I left out a key word.  The Australian government.  The draft curriculum also retains the teaching of critical literacy, ”a model analysing gender, race and class in literature to expose inherent prejudices and agendas,” The Australian reports.  The critical literacy component had been hotly debated.

The draft addresses the debates, saying the “explicit teaching of decoding, spelling and other aspects of the basic codes of written English will be an important and routine aspect” of the curriculum. The draft says critical literacy is the analysis of texts in terms of “their potential philosophical, political or ideological assumptions and content”.

The principal author of the curriculum notes that critical literacy “should not occupy a big part of the curriculum, but it had a role in enabling students to protect themselves against propaganda and being manipulated.”

Are You Smarter Than a Boston Latin Student?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 22nd, 2008

On Sunday, the New York Times published a lovely, uplifting piece about how The Great Gatsby still resonates with striving immigrant students at the prestigious Boston Latin School. One recent immigrant featured in the story is “inspired by the green light at the end of the dock, which for Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire from North Dakota, symbolizes the upper-class woman he longs for.” Says the student: “My green light is Harvard.”

Seemingly in direct response to the Times own ed blogger Will Okun, who recently questioned the relevance of teaching classic literature to inner city youth, Sara Rimer writes: “Some educators say the best way to engage racially and ethnically diverse students in reading is with books that mirror their lives and culture. But others say that while a variety of literary voices is important, ‘Gatsby’ — still required reading at half the high schools in the country — resonates powerfully among urban adolescents, many of them first- and second-generation immigrants, who are striving to ascend in 21st-century America.”

Fordham’s Gadfly took note of the piece yesterday, hailing, “three cheers for dead, white men,” and remarking with approval how urban adolescents “still identify with the book’s main characters and its themes of aspiration and striving.”

Leave it to a pair of bright high schoolers to rain on the feel-good parade in letters to the Times. Robinson G. Meyer, a junior from Pennington, New Jersey wonders if those Boston Latin strivers, their teachers and the Times have missed the point of the novel. “The Great Gatsby is no Great American Fable of accomplished dreams, it is a cautionary tragedy. Its characters discard their morals to attain pleasure or to quench their ambitions, and, by the novel’s end, they all wind up hollow and disaffected.”

Nathaniel Eiseman, himself a Boston Latin student, pointedly writes, “If F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that today’s high school students would be comparing Jay Gatsby’s elusive green light to admission to Harvard he would be shaking his head in disdain.

“The Great Gatsby’ is not a novel that glorifies the rags-to-riches American dream. It is, in fact, the very opposite, and I find it most surprising that the students and faculty of the Boston Latin School featured in the article could be so misinformed,” says Eiseman. “The light does give Gatsby hope, but between West Egg, where Gatsby is, and East Egg, where his hope is, there lies an insuperable cultural divide. The green light represents all of what we want, but that we never can attain. Jay Gatsby would never reach that light, for the end of his American dream saw him face down in his swimming pool.”

Ouch! Well, thanks for clearing that up, gentlemen. Somewhere today, there are a couple a proud English teachers smiling quietly to themselves.