A few weeks ago, I had dinner with an old college friend who now works as an English teacher at a high-performing magnet school. Naturally, I asked him about the books he was assigning his students, wondering if I’d hear the usual high school standbys: The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, and so forth.
To my surprise, he explained that he assigned primarily poetry and short stories. And there was a reason for this approach beyond those texts’ literary merit: There was some chance his students would actually read them. Facing schedules jammed with AP math and science classes, athletics, clubs, volunteering, and countless other college-prep prerequisites, most students simply opted to SparkNote their way through the readings. Novels and more complex readings, in short, were out.
In my experience and that of many others, this precise problem is virtually ubiquitous across modern education. When it’s scheduling crunch time, “doing the assigned readings” is usually the first thing to go. And why wouldn’t it be? The savvy student motivated predominantly by grades has a whole range of resources at his disposal: Armed with readily available summaries and model answers, he can muddle through papers and exams with half-baked “analysis” that engages the work at the level of its most overt plot points. Viewed through this lens, a book like Anna Karenina becomes a story of infidelity interrupted by annoying digressions about farming rather than the comprehensive meditation on “the good life” that Tolstoy actually penned. Nobody learns anything in this scenario, but A-grades are awarded in due course and everyone moves on.
Of course, eventually this habit catches up to a culture. Whenever I read about top-flight university departments jettisoning the classical canon in favor of more “relevant” offerings, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that most students at elite colleges have already read the Western core: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the rest. If my teacher friend’s experience is representative, though, the situation is graver than that: We now have an educational culture producing students—ostensibly trained in the “liberal arts”—who have no connection whatsoever to the great works of the past, or even the reading habits necessary to engage those works.
By contrast, the real beauty of a classical approach to education—and one I wish I’d internalized more at my classically-influenced college—is its commitment to deep reading, picking up on the subtle shades of nuance and meaning that have made some books functionally immortal. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to realize that the most important insights of Western thought are all premised on that practice. I’ve learned this through the “close readings” favored by the Straussian political philosophers of the Claremont Institute, the “intratextualism” approach to constitutional interpretation pioneered by Professor Akhil Reed Amar, and the rigorous biblical exegesis of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. From greater minds than mine, I’ve learned that the world’s most important texts carry layers of meaning that cannot be reduced to SparkNote-friendly bullet points.
And to be sure, this is no less true in the realm of literature. It’s one thing to read a Wikipedia summary of Moby-Dick; it’s quite another to inhabit Melville’s sprawling, dark, chaotic world of whaling, overwhelmed by the visceral details pressing in on every side. Yes, the book is a doorstopper, but that’s precisely the point: it’s unforgettable precisely because it ranges over so many aspects of human experience. Through some quick Googling, anyone can formulate a pat answer to the question “What does the whale symbolize?” Only through actually reading the book, though, can one answer the more essential questions “What does Melville believe the world is like, and is he right?” Those, after all, are the questions that really matter.
That is the paradigm that classical education affirms—and by juxtaposing a commitment to moral formation alongside the conveyance of information and data, classical education strikes at the root causes of academic acedia. Surely in the end what matters isn’t an admission letter to a prestigious college—a letter that appears, all too often, to denote compliance with certain procedural norms rather than real intellectual curiosity—but the capacity to live a contented and virtuous life. Speaking as the product of a classically inspired home education, I can attest that such an approach is far more likely to produce students willing to tune out the frenetic clamor of the college-prep-industrial complex and love learning for its own sake.
It may even make them want to read the book.