Imagine There Is No Heaven: How To Teach A Book You Can Not Stand

You’re a pacifist and you have to teach The Song of Roland. You’re a cessationist and you have to teach the City of God. You’re a conservative and you have to teach The Social Contract. You’re Catholic and you have to teach the Reformation.

Even the most open-minded teachers will be called upon, at some point in their careers, to teach books and ideas that they can’t stand. When the teacher loathes the material, or simply disagrees with the author at every turn, the class will often begin to drag. The teacher finds himself depressed and anxious that a few students do like the book, or else he comes to class in a combative mood which prohibits levity and leisure. So how does a good teacher teach a book he can’t stand? Here are a few reflections . . .

1. It is tempting to say, “If I want my students to hate wicked things, I must show them how to hate wicked things. I should show them how to hate this wicked book.” However, what students tend to pick up is, “If the teacher doesn’t like one of the books in the curriculum, he makes it apparent. If I don’t like one of the books in the curriculum, I should make it apparent.” And then later, when the student scoffs at books the teacher loves, the teacher is up a creek because he can’t justly encourage the students to have a receptive, teachable attitude towards the material.

2. If the teacher expresses open contempt for a book he is teaching, the students will not learn much from the book, neither will they understand why the book is contemptible. Let us take for granted that a good teacher will enjoy most of the books in his curriculum, even if he does not agree with most of his books. Open contempt is different than disagreement. Students will often be more captivated by the teacher’s unusual demeanor than the deficiency of the author’s conception of how the world works. The student will come away from the book saying, “Mr. Gibbs didn’t like that book,” not, “That book was not very good.”

3. If you’re teaching a Great Books class and can’t stand one of the books you are asked to teach, chances are good that your take on the book is simply wrong. The book has achieved the title “Great,” not the teacher. I write this as someone who, in my third year of teaching, robbed a class of freshmen from understanding Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France because I thought it the most pompous thing I’d ever read. Since then, Burke’s Reflections has become my favorite work of political philosophy. Young teachers (anyone under the age of 65, say) ought to be especially careful about expressing contempt for their material because they simply don’t know enough. If I’m still teaching when I have great grandchildren, I might be a little more openly cranky. Until then, I’ll trust the ten generations which have claimed The Social Contract is worth reading.

4. There is no passage in Scripture which more aptly pertains to the good critic as Genesis 18, wherein Abraham haggles God down to saving Sodom if just ten righteous men can be found there. Will you spare a book if just one good ten-word sentence can be found inside? Will you not condemn a book if there are merely ten well driven nails holding together the author’s tottering house? The generous critic scours for what is good, which is often hidden.

5. “I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me,” says the centurion in Matthew 8, and Christ praises his faith as superior to all those in Israel. Students in 7th grade are not too young to understand that the teacher’s job is to teach the books the administration provides and when the teacher rails against one of those books, or demeans it, or says, “That’s not really worth reading,” students understand the teacher is a bit of a rebel. If you want your students to obey you, obey those in authority over you.

6. Skip around. A vindictive teacher might want students to read an entire contemptible book just to seal in how contemptible it is, like the 1950s dad who makes junior smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in the closet just to make sure he never wants to smoke one again. As mentioned earlier, the same principle applied to school tends to make students hate books, not this book. While the administration generally expects all books on the syllabus to be covered, very few administrators require every page to be covered. So jump around. Start with that really brilliant chapter 5 and skip the first four goofy chapters. Treat the book as a chance to experiment with hermeneutics, reading styles, authorial intent. Read the last chapter, wherein the author often tips their hand to what is really on the line, and then have students spend a week speculating on what kind of premises lead to such a conclusion.

7. Perform the book. At the end of the day, if none of the aforementioned suggestions really makes sense given your particular situation, you can always simply perform the book in the tone it deserves, yet offer no critique. Here’s a fun little activity. Listen to John Lennon’s gorgeously horrific and nihilistic “Imagine,” and then listen to the sludge metal art rock band A Perfect Circle cover the song. Lennon’s version sounds like a hymn, a beacon of hope, the wistful longing of a pure soul. A Perfect Circle aptly reveal the song as a death march, as abattoir muzak. Oddly enough, the cover version offers no analysis and no critique of the original. APC singer Maynard James Keenan proffers no logical investigation of whether imagining a world with no heaven is genuinely hopeful. Instead, Keenan sings the song in a manner which befits the lyrics, the ideas. When Lennon sings, “I hope someday you’ll join us,” he sounds like a benevolent spirit, bending low from glory to extend the right hand of fellowship. When Keenan sings, “I hope someday you’ll join us,” he calls out from some doorway on skid row. There’s more than one way to lay a thing bare. Performing the book, as opposed to openly criticizing the book, maintains a collegial atmosphere as opposed to turning the classroom into an echo chamber of distaste. Even when the teacher has very fine reasons for opposing a book, when the students join in, their reasons are often more passionate than rational. Treat the book like a piece of music. Perhaps the original author didn’t quite understand the import of the lyrics. You can sing it properly, though.

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