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Teaching A Hard, Boring Book

Not every book is as easy to understand as Pride & Prejudice.

I love Pride & Prejudice, of course, and there are many important lectures, discussions, and arguments a literature class ought to have about the book; however, my eleven-year-old daughter finished reading it recently and she understood it well enough. She’s not a genius. I simply mean she took in the plot, the characters, the conflict, and the most basic themes. She liked the right characters, dislike the right characters. There’s not a whole lot about Pride & Prejudice which is baffling. Subsequent readings over the years will unveil deeper truths, but I would not say Pride & Prejudice is a difficult book.

However, a robust classical curriculum ought to include a few very difficult books: Kant, Burke, Rousseau, Marx, St. Anselm, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and so forth.

When I say that Rousseau’s Social Contract is difficult, I mean the average high school sophomore will probably only understand one in four sentences from it. Entire paragraphs (or pages) might be entirely lost on teenage readers. A teacher could read ten pages of The Social Contract aloud to a literature class and students may be lucky to wring out more than a few clear assertions, let alone arguments which support those assertions. On the one hand, this is exactly why students should be taught The Social Contract as opposed to reading it on their own. On the other hand, a good teacher has neither time nor desire to explain everything in a classic.

It is worth teaching difficult books, nonetheless. And it is worth reading them all the way through.

When a young teacher teaches entirely through a book like Leviathan, Reflections on the Revolution in France, or The Social Contract for the first time, he will be tempted to say, “I understood roughly 30% of that book. My students understood about 10%. We could move through the book far more briskly next year if we just read selections from it.” However, there is more to reading a book than understanding it.

In the early stages of teaching a difficult philosophy book to my students, I often give them the following exhortation:

“Today, we’re going to begin class by reading five chapters in The Social Contract aloud. It’s going to take about half an hour and it’s going to try your patience.

It will try your patience because you will have a hard time understanding everything Rousseau says. If you understand every other sentence, you will stay engaged. However, if you only understand every third or fourth sentence I read, your mind will begin to wonder—and we’re going to hit chapters which are that hard to understand.

When you realize that your mind is wondering, you may be tempted to say, ‘I will just wait until Gibbs is done reading. Then he will explain the important stuff.’ Let me encourage you not to do this. Instead, return your attention to the text and try to get as much out of it as you can.

There’s a zen to reading works of philosophy. Philosophy is very nearly its own language and there is a sense in which you come to understand philosophy through immersion in it. To an extent, the same is true of old works of theology. It gradually becomes clear. The more you read it, the more you understand it.

In covering The Social Contract, we will do close reads of a few passages. Some of those passages will be easy and some will be hard. However, learning to speak philosophy requires not only the close work of interpretation but prolonged general exposure to it. Put another way, learning to read difficult books requires not only quality time but quantity time.

If there are long passages in today’s reading that you don’t get, don’t tell yourself, ‘I don’t get this book’ and give up. The truth is, you’re not going to get many parts the book, but this book is worth reading for the portions that you do get. If we didn’t cover the difficult parts, you would never get to a place that you could understand them.

Reading books where only one in four sentences make sense is part of the long game. I was once in your position. I wasn’t a philosophy major.

In listening to The Social Contract read out loud for an extended period of time, your powers of concentration will be tested. You will turn a page and find two massive, unbroken blocks of texts and you will sigh, eyeball someone across the room to communicate your boredom. You will get confused. You will get frustrated. But do you have the intellectual strength to return your attention to the book? Do you have the humility to not demand that your stunted attention span be constantly flattered? The question is not if you will get distracted while I am reading, but whether you can bring your attention back to the book when you get distracted.

Developing the ability to pay attention to things that don’t entirely make sense is a skill, though. Learning to catch your wandering mind and bring it back to something difficult is a skill, as well. It is not only the first step to understanding philosophy. It is virtuous.”

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