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The Analysis of Cold Death: Teaching AP Literature and the Dialectical Struggle

“The value of analysis is limited, to be sure, for it cannot address the normative questions successfully.”
– David Hicks, Norms and Nobility

Concerning texts on classical education, Norms and Nobility is smoking hot around the CiRCE Institute—and for good reason. It’s a text par excellence, where even a single sentence can make a flower grow.

One such profound concept is Hicks’s distinction between the dialectical and the analytical modes of learning. The dialectical involves a struggle to determine the truth that engages all aspects of the human person, and moreover, relies on a holistic epistemology in order to find truth. “Dialectic begins with acceptance, not negation. It has roots in dogma and differs widely from Cartesian learning’s analytical and skeptical approach.” (Hicks 69) To put it bluntly in practical terms: the dialectical is spirit-creating, whereas the analytical is spirit-killing.

The best book on education. maybe anywhere.

Hicks demonstrates this by citing an example of a teacher taking his class through a reading of Plato’s Meno. At first, the teacher asked his students to break down and analyze Socrates and Meno’s arguments on the questions What is virtue? Can it be taught? The next day the students returned with the dialogue broken into parts but were unmoved and unaffected by the activity.

Hicks relates, “What went wrong? The teacher discovered that seemingly innocuous analysis had subverted his best intentions and obscured Plato’s classic dialogue. The students’ understanding of virtue, having been drawn strictly from analysis, was superficial and detached. They had failed to participate dialectically in the struggle of ideas; yet they hoped to fob off their research as thought — a common fault of analytical learning that touches every level of modern education.”

I can vouch for this example because I have lived it… more than once. When I first began to teach AP Literature and Composition, I followed the Collegeboard’s AP Instruction booklets and training manuals, which are rooted in the analysis of literature. They tend rather heavily toward the analytical approach, a methodology that Hicks talks about on p. 71:

“We have embraced a methodology that by its very nature frustrates our normative questions, and we must watch helplessly the pathetic attempts of people trained only in scientific analysis to answer normative questions at the heart of their humanity.”

So I began to rethink how I approach and teach AP Literature and Composition. Is the test at the end of the year really the thing which matters most? If we analyze literature all year, might we kill the spirit of the stories and the spirit of the readers? What if my students never want to read literature again because of their senior AP Literature class? Herein lies the challenge: how to teach literature imaginatively and dialectically in a system set up to train students to analyze literature and poetry and thereby produce a score of a 4 or 5 on the end-of-year test.

My conclusion was to simply let students know up front that this particular class is not that kind of AP Literature class; it is the kind where we will live in the stories and poems and see what they demand of us. We will ask the tough questions that involve our whole beings. We will ask questions that do not have easy answers but instead require normative considerations. We will ask questions that require us to determine what the wiser course of action is for a character and also for ourselves. We will ask dialectical questions in the Socratic tradition.

Ok. So that sounds great and all, but how is it really going? To be honest, far, far from perfect. All the variables which make teaching so difficult are always present. Sometimes none of us want to think. Thinking is dangerous terrain– who knows where it will lead? It is risky. It makes us vulnerable. It takes work. Both teacher and student have to invest in it. What if I don’t believe in myself and my ability to teach dialectically today? What if I forget that it’s actually the most natural form and akin to our whole nature? Isn’t it a bit safer to perform cold, clinical analysis which involves just the mind or maybe only part of the mind? Won’t I look like I know more that way? What if my heart is darkened today because I’ve been too busy to pray, too busy to turn my life, my teaching, and my students’ lives over to Christ?

After all, the AP system is a worldly enterprise, a successful business in fact — not a normative, spiritual, dialectical, ethical enterprise. And business is booming for Collegeboard, giving the comfortable reassurance that analysis is all we humans need.

I think I’ll turn this over to God… and then Hicks… and maybe, just maybe, there is hope for me, a shaky teacher living in two places at once.

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