Academic Abuse and the Reading of the Classics
There is an approach to classical education that is not very classical. Neither is it uncommon: schools that pack a catalogue of very grand material into a very narrow calendar, and then apply these courses to students who are too young to appreciate them, especially in the time period allotted. Though always well intentioned, it is rarely effective to foist too much too quickly on too young of a mind. Not only is it ineffective, it is inappropriate. One might even call it, to put it in strong terms, academic abuse.
Classical education should never be about cramming. An introduction to the great works at a young age is one thing, but well-meaning classical inculcation is quite another. Classical education goes beyond curriculum. It also implies a traditional approach in education that is proportionate and appropriate to the age-old human realities of teaching and learning. Attempting to do too much in too little time fails to take that proportion and that propriety into account. It is a pedagogy that conflates quantity with quality, which is not a sound pedagogical principle because it cannot help but do injustice to works that deserve better and to students who deserve better. The rigors required in flying through works of great length and substance can never be calculated to provide a meaningful experience of those texts.
I have had the extraordinary privilege of teaching two classical literature classes for 15 years. Despite what might be imagined, every year I do not move through the material more quickly because I know it so well, able to cover more and more ground and more and more works. Quite the opposite, I move more slowly. Every year I find that I have more to say, more to teach, more to share about these texts so dear to me now—these old friends I have made—and every year I relish introducing them properly to a new group of minds and hearts. And a proper introduction takes time.
Every year, I also become a better teacher, and I have come to believe that reading and teaching a great work is an art best taught at a natural pace. Reading and study that is rigorous does not have the same life as reading and study that is leisurely. Rushing through a work does not impart a sense of that work. It is the difference between the experience of a footpath and an interstate highway. It is better to arrange for an intimate, positive, and even powerful experience of a single great text rather than a passing, lukewarm, rushed overview of several. Taking the time required to do something well is well worth it, and it is the classical mode of education. As Catholic educator John Senior wrote in The Death of Christian Culture:
You do not improve or advance a child intellectually or morally by force-feeding mature and… decadent ‘adult’ fare. You do not improve or advance a high school curriculum by running trial heats of college courses over it… In an age so concerned with civil rights, we should not overlook the rights of childhood.
Though reactions to the insipidity that so dominates modern curricula are important, it is equally important not to over-react. A return to the classics is necessary. A revival of studying the great works is needed. But when the strategy for that return and revival is interpreted as pounding through as much excellent material as is possible (or impossible, in some cases), there is a pendulum swing into an opposite extreme of error.
Less can be more, if done well, and “cover-all-the-bases” learning can very quickly become the opposite of learning if done poorly. Again from Dr. Senior, “At Princeton… the students in the four-year college normally took five courses per year; the exceptionally bright ones were permitted to take four, on the grounds that for them it was really worthwhile to go slow.” Though not in keeping with the current “fast-track” mentality, does it not ring true on a human level?
Who actually reads The Iliad and The Odyssey and The Oresteia and The Aeneid and a little Sophocles and Plato on the side in the span of a few weeks? Or, if he does (unless he is of remarkable intelligence), who can actually read them meaningfully in such a short space of time? These are works to be meditated over, to be studied and savored, not stuffed. They need space and time to proclaim themselves and sink in, especially on first contact. Flying through the best that has been thought and said is damaging and runs the terrible risk of making the experience burdensome or irksome to a young mind.
What lies in the balance in teaching the classical works of Western Civilization is whether their experience is to be a slog or a joy. Any undertaking that is challenging and hurried is overbearing and unpleasant. The great books are great because they are challenging and, in approaching them, students must be given time to encounter and engage them, to enter into their world, to learn their language, to discover their secrets. Education that moves through a classical curriculum as though it were crossing items off a list is not allowing the curriculum to form and inform students. Such overfilled, marathonic educational programs are abusive, for they make reading difficult material simply difficult instead of difficult yet delightful.
Copyright © 2019 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.