Don't Apologise for Reading Great Books

Published on, September 2006

Children find the classics relevant and interesting if they are taught properly.

Parents who wish their children to learn something of the classics of English literature at high school must be tearing their hair out in the state of Western Australia. It would be a travesty if school students were directed to study the reality television show Big Brother during the precious few hours they have in the English classroom. However the state's curriculum council has gone one better, suggesting that students study the ads screened during this program.

This tragic situation is a result of the post-modern view that any text is as good as any other, that there is no absolute truth and that no books have anything meaningful to say about the human condition. Homer Simpson is thought to be as good as Homer’s Odyssey and students end up wasting precious time watching the ads screened during Big Brother when they could be studying George Orwell’s 1984, thereby discovering the origin of the term.

In "Australia’s wackiest postmodernists" James Franklin says that is difficult to formulate a workable alternative to post-modernism in academia. This may well be the case but in K-12 education it is not so difficult.

One example of an alternative to studying television ads is the Junior Great Books program. Earlier this year I visited Chicago, the home of the Great Books Foundation to attend a training course in this excellent program. Since then I have been running the program at my school and helping other teachers to trial the course in their classrooms.

The Junior Great Books program comprises a series of high quality texts from a variety of cultures. Each story address a fundamental problem of human existence in a manner which is age-appropriate and attractive to the young reader. The students study these stories in great depth. They listen to the teacher read the story aloud, make directed notes on the story and write compositions based on the linguistic features employed by the author.

The culmination of the study is a shared inquiry discussion, a disciplined group discussion which examines a single question raised by the text. Students are free to formulate responses but are encouraged to cite evidence from the text to back up their arguments. This approach assumes that the author has written something meaningful and worthy of sustained study and that the text under discussion holds some authority -- a view what is the anthesis of the post-modern celebration of the death of the author.

The shared inquiry discussion is conducted according to four basic guidelines set down by the Great Books Foundation:

  • Only those who have read the selection may take part in discussions.
  • Discussions are restricted to the selection that everyone has read.
  • Support for opinions should be found within the selection.
  • Teachers may only ask questions -- they may not answer them.

The advantage of this method of collaborative learning, especially when the teacher rigorously follows the fourth rule of shared inquiry, is that the students get to see a living example of sustained intellectual curiosity. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. Children learn much by example. Teachers can tell their students that books are interesting and important but nothing is more powerful than seeing them actively engaged in careful examination of a piece of literature, striving to find meaning in it and actively pursuing an aspect of the story which they find personally meaningful.

This type of teaching, a form of Socratic dialogue suitably modified to meet the needs of primary students, has the added benefit of connecting students with this aspect of their heritage, the rational, open minded pursuit of truth which was introduced to the West in Classical Athens and which endures to this day.

The Junior Great Books Program comprises literature of the highest quality. The stories are selected with several criteria in mind. Obviously the stories must be well written. If a traditional story such as a Grimm’s fairytale or one of Aesop’s Fables is selected, the retelling is very carefully chosen. The story must be profound enough to sustain at least four readings; it must be age-appropriate; and it must deal with an issue which is relevant, interesting and meaningful. Furthermore, the stores chosen must be somewhat ambiguous. Morality tales do not lend themselves to lively debate while stories which can be interpreted in a number of ways encourage students to draw divergent conclusions and to justify their conclusions with reasoned arguments.

For example, at the beginning of a series aimed at eight and nine-year-old children, students study The Happy Lion, by Louise Fatio, which deals with the question of what makes a true friend, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, by Beatrix Potter, which deals with one’s approach to authority figures, How the Camel Got His Hump, by Rudyard Kipling, which deals with one’s duty towards society and Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest and Piglet Has a Bath, by A. A. Milne, which raises the issue of dealing with strangers. Each of these is accessible to primary students and opens up discussions on important and profound issues which children meet as they grow up. Studying such texts prepares them for more difficult questions and helps make them more thoughtful, more considerate, more humane people.

Some critics assert that literature of the type found in the Junior Great Books program is irrelevant and boring. My experience is otherwise. Because the texts embody fundamental questions which lie at the heart of the human condition, students find them incredibly relevant. It does take a certain amount of teaching skill and enthusiasm to involve all students in the discussion - but it is well worth the effort.

Finally, the study of good literatures refines children’s tastes. They develop a taste for leisure reading which makes them think, consider, reflect and reason. Big Brother and the accomanying advertisements lose their appeal. And this is no bad thing.


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