Welcome to your sophomore humanities class.
This year, we will be reading early modern literature, which is roughly the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century. I have some fairly lofty goals for this class and I hope you do, as well. To be honest, when this class finishes nine months from now, I won’t know if I have accomplished any of those goals. I will need more time. Perhaps when you are forty or so, which is how old I am, we will both know whether this class has done you any good.
It will take at least this long to determine if I have accomplished my goals because I am not very concerned with how much money you make when you grow up, which means that I am not all that interested in where you go to college. Many of my students still labor under the delusional belief that if they can just get into the right college, they will be successful. If you are primarily concerned about getting good grades so you can get into the right college, you’re worrying about the wrong things, because beyond the age of 22 or 23, what matters is not grades, but whether you’re good at doing something that matters and whether you can be content doing that thing for the next thirty years. If the only thing you’re good at doing is getting good grades, your life is going to fall apart after you graduate college. What is more, there are plenty of people who are good at doing things that matter, but they’re not content with it, and their lack of contentment drives them to disappointment, anger, despair, and violence.
What do I want to teach you to be good at, then?
The first thing I want you to be good at is persevering when life gets difficult, unpleasant, and perplexing. In order to do that, this class must be difficult, unpleasant, and perplexing—not all the time, but some of the time. “No discipline is pleasant at the time,” teaches St. Paul, and I need to teach you intellectual discipline. When this class is difficult and perplexing, you’re going to be tempted to complain that something is wrong or unfair. Very few students at private Christian schools learn to persevere, which is why so many graduates abandon the faith within a year or two of getting to college. In our day, virtually every form of physical or mental pain is blamed on stress. Stress is the root of all evil, or so modern people say, and so many parents believe their primary responsibility toward their children is keeping them from getting stressed out and blocking sources of stress. Stress is unavoidable, though, and to a certain extent stress is good because it keeps you productive, attentive to the world, and oriented toward others. I know plenty of students who don’t have enough stress in their lives. Thus, I would far prefer to show you how to be good at handling stress, and I intend to do this by reading old books with you where virtuous men and women tackle stress head on.
The second thing I want you to be good at is listening, interpreting, paying attention, and training your mind to work through boredom as opposed to seeking escape from boredom through diversion and amusement. If you have a smart phone and social media accounts, this class is going to be especially difficult for you, because smart phones and social media accounts atrophy the attention span and make users quickly and easily bored with anything that isn’t funny, sexy, or exciting. If you come to me and tell me you’re struggling with this class, the first question I’m going to ask you is, “Do you have a smart phone and social media accounts?” If the answer to that question is, “Yes,” I cannot really help you until you delete all your social media accounts. I cannot give you any study tips, special review sessions, or reading tricks that will make up for awful effects of smart phones and social media on your brain. In order to be good at reading, understanding, and enjoying old books, you need a healthy attention span.
The third thing I want you to be good at is enjoying old books. Of course, that goes hand in hand with reading and understanding them. I want to help you enjoy old books by teaching you how to read them. You don’t read great old books the way that you read exciting new books. Great old books require something more of you than the books you would choose to read on your own. Great old books have to be read a few times before you really come to terms with them. While they can be understood a little and enjoyed a little on a first read, old books are difficult. Most new books can be fully grasped with just a single read. The sort of books we read in this class can’t really be read and understood on your own—which is why I’m here. New books are exciting and relevant and you can figure them out on your own, but when it comes to old books, you really need someone to make you read them and help you understand them. This may sound like dull work, but it’s the first step in learning to enjoy good things.
The last thing I want to help you be good at is being a teenager. This might sound strange but let me assure that not every teenager is good at being a teenager, just like not every adult is good at being an adult, not every newlywed is good at being a newlywed, and so forth. There are many stages of life, and you can be good or bad at any of them. Doing well as a teenager means spending a little time enjoying the stage you’re in, and a lot of time preparing for the next stage. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to be a teenager. It is perfectly natural. Teenagers are as natural as oak trees, racoons, or the spring equinox. Your teenage years are not permanent, though. It is natural to be a teenager, but in a few years, nature will take away your teenage years. If you want to do well in the next stage of life—which is not college, but adulthood—you have to begin preparing now. My point is not that preparing for college is wrong, but that it’s entirely too small a goal. Preparing for adulthood now means learning to love the sorts of things you can take with you into adulthood. Consider what sorts of music you listen to now, what sorts of hobbies you have. Do you want to enjoy the same things twenty years from now? Do you want to marry someone who enjoys those things and who exposes your children to those things? If you do not spend your teenage years preparing for adulthood, adulthood will be very difficult and painful for you. And so being good at being a teenager means enjoying certain things even while you let go of them. Again, I want to show you how to be great teenagers by showing you great adults—and I will show you great adults in the great books we read.
As you can see, I won’t know if I have accomplished my goals for quite some time. In the meantime, we will gather together every day and read old books, recite passages of old books, memorize passages of old books, and talk about old books. We will pray together and ask God to give us wisdom. It is my confidence that these small, daily labors will ultimately accomplish something quite grand in all of our lives.