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On Reading Whole Works

Most children would prefer to skip a meal to get dessert. Dessert is sweeter and tastier, although less nutritious than a balanced course. Yet, if they love their children, parents will usually insist that the child eats all his dinner first. Sweets are the highlight and culmination of supper, but they cannot be had without real food. The meal prepares for dessert.

Classical schools face a similar problem with the Great Books. Should schools insist on reading whole works, or may they excerpt the best portions? Students don’t need to read all of Beyond Good and Evil to get Nietzsche. Even Homer nods, so why don’t students just read the highlights of The Iliad? Old books are difficult. They are long. They require a large commitment of both time and effort, and most students are skeptical of the benefit.

Excerpts are an enticing option for several reasons.

If students ought to read the best of what has been thought or said, why would that not apply to books? After all, not all parts of a book are equally great. Why not read the best parts of the best books? Certain sections of great books impact more than others; can anyone list more than four of the cities represented in Homer’s list of ships? Since reading every great book while in high school (let alone a lifetime) isn’t possible, schools should streamline their curricula to give students broad familiarity with the great tradition.

Students don’t have enough time to dedicate to reading entire works. They are pressured by sports, work, and more important classes that demand objective answers such as Chemistry or Algebra. Why must they spend so much time reading long political treatises that could be boiled down into a few maxims and philosophical arguments? It isn’t necessary to read entire works when the highlights give a sufficient idea of the whole, and excerpts may even create a stronger appetite for the whole. It’s not necessary to eat the whole pie to know it’s pecan, so why must students read the whole book to know it’s great? After all, there is no prestige gained merely by reading a complete work.

Students and teachers also turn to excerpts because great works are difficult. Students simply don’t have the capacity to trace a long argument from a complex thinker. They can’t follow Burke for 200 pages. Why is it necessary for students to slog through paragraphs without understanding just to get to the one section which they do? It’s demoralizing, frustrating, and may turn students off the work forever.

While most schools would not purchase an anthology or create their own selection of highlights as the exclusive curricula of a great books program, there are good reasons why excerpts should not become a large ingredient in a classical program.

Works are complete cloth. They cannot be divided and rent without fundamentally changing their meaning. Authors communicate on a variety of levels: a word, sentence, paragraph, section, work. Excerpts eliminate consideration of the work as a whole — arguably the most important part of its meaning. When we remove selections of passages from their context, the meaning of the whole is obscured.

Further, the excerpted section’s meaning is also altered. By removing it from its place in the work, the selection loses the surrounding context. Imagine a charcoal sketch that was removed from its white background. What happens when the diamond is moved from black velvet and placed upon white silk? When highlights are extracted from their place in the story, they no longer exist as highlights but become random curios, indistinguishable from one another.

Excerpts also have dangerous consequences for students because they instill false confidence. They may think they know Aristotle’s Ethics because they read the opening sections on happiness and the golden mean but have completely ignored his long discussions on justice or the intellectual virtues. This leads students to believe that the rest of the work is unimportant. “I’ve covered that one. I don’t need to read the rest.” Imagine only allowing students to see the smile of the Mona Lisa or hear thirty seconds of Beethoven’s Ninth. “I’ve seen/heard the most important part. What do I need the rest for?”

When students are deprived of the difficult task of laboring through an entire work, they lose the ability to follow a sustained argument or narrative from beginning to end. If they are jumping about in The Republic, students lose the sustained vision of justice that Plato weaves through his philosophical poetry. In the age of soundbites and slogans, students need more than ever to listen to complex arguments – understanding context, direction, purpose, and complex subordinate clauses that never seem to end. Most would recognize that our discourse is weakened by a limited vocabulary, but our dialogue also suffers when we are so intellectually flabby that we cannot understand any sentence with more than two clauses.

An excerpt-heavy approach endangers students because it obscures the true teacher of virtue. The text is the teacher. When works are excerpted from their contexts, it places the editor on a higher level than the author. The teacher/anthologist decides what is the most important part of a work, leaving the author silenced and forbidden to protest. This leaves students at the mercy of the excerpt-maker, who may not know what the most important or memorable parts would be to the author or the student.

If classical schools wish to cultivate a reverence for old things, they should defer to the authors of old books and allow them to speak for themselves. Don’t use excerpts in your classrooms except as a minor supplement to whole works. Submit yourself to the author’s teaching without your own editorial subtractions or modifications. A servant is not greater than his master. Let us show that this applies to the great teachers of history as well.

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