Great Literature Enables Students to Understand Themselves and Others

Terrence Moore

May 1, 2004

We have said before that the purpose of high school is to confront students with difficult problems and to teach them to respond with true and beautiful solutions. Generally speaking, the most difficult and engaging problem for young people, as for humankind as a whole, was put forth more than two millennia ago by the Greek command: know thyself. Teenagers love to talk about themselves, as a casual walk down the halls of any school will reveal. They express their likes and dislikes; they express their moods; they talk about who is taking whom to Prom. Yet to what extent do they really understand themselves and their place in the world? The great task of teaching young people to know themselves has always been the province of the humanities, principally history, literature, and philosophy. The most domestic of the humanities, the study largely devoted to the intrigues of private life, has long been literature.

Unfortunately, the humane study of literature today has been all but ruined by the methods of a great many school curricula, modern textbooks, and even literature teachers themselves. The greatest sin of school curricula is not to allow young students to read serious literature before high school. Some of the great authors in the English language, such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain, wrote books for children, but often these authors are not encountered in elementary and middle schools. Literature textbooks are guilty of several faults. Most of them are anthologies that do not feature whole works of fiction. Thus students cannot see the themes and characters of the stories all the way through. Furthermore, the selections end with the most rudimentary and ridiculous of questions designed to do little more than see if the students actually read the story. Some of the newer textbooks have so many colors, useless prompts and anecdotes, and pure trivia physically surrounding the text that readers are distracted away from the author’s words. Publishing companies have taken marketing lessons from MTV. Worst of all, these publishing companies also provide teachers with elaborate “teacher’s editions” that offer in the margins the “answers” to those ridiculous and rudimentary questions.

Drawing upon the paraphernalia of these textbooks and the teaching methods learned in education schools, literature teachers often reduce the interesting and complex representations of the human condition found in literature into simplified plot structures. You remember the drill: rising action, climax, falling action (denouement), here a metaphor, there a foreshadowing. Great works of fiction are thereby reduced to mere technique. I well remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school and, under the guidance of my teacher, thinking that it was a novel about colors competing against each other, namely, red vs. black. There was a larger theme, of course; we always had three to choose from: man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature. On the test we all put down that the character Hester Prynne demonstrated the theme of man vs. society. That was it. After this mechanical treatment of the text the brightest among us did not realize that here was a story about a woman who had somehow lost one husband, had an affair with the town minister resulting in an illegitimate child, and was vilified by everyone in the town. Are these not events that warrant some discussion of faithfulness, chastity, hypocrisy, sin, guilt, love, lust, truth, and lies? Or did Hawthorne write his intensely moving story so that high school students could forever cram his novel into the same plot structure allegedly used by every other novelist?

The classical way of studying literature is much harder but ultimately more rewarding and certainly closer to what the author had in mind. A knowledgeable teacher who has keen insight into both the written word and the human condition must ask students exacting questions that emerge from a close reading of the text. These questions concern the motivations of the characters—their passions, struggles, meanness, idiosyncrasies, and, at times, greatness—and the larger implications of these motivations for human nature. At first, students will want to say whatever pops into their heads, often some claptrap they have picked up from popular culture. By means of the Socratic method the teacher will ensure that they use only the text to support their answers. Once students begin to know literature, they will begin to know themselves. If nothing else, this knowledge will enable them to appreciate and be amused by the pride and prejudice that accompany any Prom.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.