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You Cannot Teach Every Great Book, But So What?

“What do you mean you don’t teach Augustine’s Confessions?”

At some point in his career, every literature or philosophy teacher will have to answer this question. Perhaps the book in question will not be the Confessions. It might be Aquinas. It might be Don Quixote. It might be The Brothers Karamazov. The particular book you are called to account for not teaching does not matter. Some incredulous, slack-jawed participant in the classical renewal will peruse the list of books which constitute your Medieval literature curriculum and be absolutely aghast that a certain book has not made the cut. “How do you have a Medieval lit class without The Canterbury Tales? Chaucer is the Middle Ages,” declares the inquisitor. At this point, you sheepishly explain that the literature department decided several years ago that students ought to go deep, not wide, and that meant spending more time on fewer books. “Still. We are talking about Chaucer,” he repeats, as though the name, by itself, were a lucid, nuanced argument.

You leave the conversation embarrassed. Perhaps you should find a way to include some Chaucer in the Medieval lit program. Obviously, there is not enough time to read the whole of The Canterbury Tales, for the schedule is packed enough as it is. You could, however, read a little bit of The Canterbury Tales, and then you would not have to feel guilty about not teaching Chaucer. In fact, you could include just a little Bede, just a skosh of Mallory, maybe just a jot of Boethius. You think, “Maybe I should not hand out great books at all. Maybe we should start using a Norton anthology of Medieval literature, then we wouldn’t miss anything important. If we used an anthology, we could hear a few words from every great Medieval author.” At this point, though, you remember the conversation from years ago wherein the entire lit department openly mock anthologies. You recall that old classical dictum, “Much, not many.” And so you slide into a deep melancholy, disappointed once again that you do not teach Chaucer.

There is not time to teach all the Great Books. However, this fact is only vexing for the teacher who believes the chief concern of classical education is teaching Great Books. For the teacher of virtue, though, the absence of Chaucer or Bede from the Medieval lit program is no great concern. The man who stands at the lectern, passionately reading and interpreting Augustine, is not so much teaching Augustine as he is teaching the love and respect of Augustine. In itself, knowing Augustine matters very little. Even the demons know Augustine, and tremble.

The teacher is the curriculum. If the teacher is indifferent toward Augustine, he teaches indifference. If he is skeptical of Augustine, he teaches skepticism. But Augustine loves the Truth, the teacher loves Augustine, and if the student loves the teacher, he will love Augustine and the Truth, as well. To love a man is to love the Good which he loves. The good teacher cannot make his students love God, but he can make it easier for them to love God. No man has seen God, but Augustine lays down the pattern for loving God, and the teacher traces Augustine’s love with his own life. God is far, Augustine is closer, but the teacher is in the very room. The outline of Augustine is faint and hard to see, because his life is obscure and strange to us, but the teacher lays down a heavier and darker line which the students can trace with their own lives.

Aquinas is obviously worth reading, as is Chaucer, and the lack of time to read their works is genuinely lamentable. Nonetheless, teachers should not fool themselves into thinking that their classes would necessarily be better if they simply had more time to work with. Augustine is not the Truth, but a tool for learning to love the Truth, and precise tools require precise use. Driving a nail is far easier with one hammer in hand than two. What history teacher has not daydreamed of teaching the same book— perhaps even a short one, like the Rule of St. Benedict— from September all the way to the end of May? How often has a literature teacher, on the last day he has allotted for discussing Aeschylus, seen his students finally come to appreciate the most basic of the playwright’s prejudices— and then have to turn the class to Aristophanes, whose prejudices are entirely different?

If the teacher truly aspires to teach virtue, there is simply no single book which will make or break the curriculum. Books are content, content is forgotten, but love is not. “What do you mean you don’t teach Augustine’s Confessions?” is a question which assumes that certain books have talismanic qualities, as though everything would be better if you just added one more book to the scope and sequence. But what virtue is it that can be taught with the Confessions, but no other book?

Curriculum matters, but only as an expression of the teacher’s loves.

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