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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 1

Preserving the inheritance: a defense of the great books

Books are powerful. They have the ability to lift us out of present circumstances, to speak beyond their time, to impart messages, arguments, and ideas in both didactic and experiential ways. The books we read together, often assigned in a class context, form the basis of a community’s ability to converse with itself and make effective use of symbols. Each time we see TSG Entertainment’s Greek man firing an arrow through axes, hear references to a “Trojan horse,” or hear the choice between serving in Heaven or reigning in Hell, we’re reminded that we live in a society of shared stories. Reading, contemplating, and discussing these stories is a necessary rite of passage, allowing youths to step into an ongoing adult conversation.

This tradition of reading books that have always been read is under attack. The most recent manifestation of this attack is #DisruptTexts, a Twitter movement that has received official recognition from Penguin Publishing and whose 7,000-plus participants presumably support the idea of “disrupting” the traditional canon. #DisruptTexts received wider attention at the end of 2020 when a Wall Street Journal editorial brought attention to one teacher who celebrated removing Homer’s Odyssey from her school’s curriculum. Where one might expect teachers to value the beginning of Western literature, #DisruptTexts highlights an increasing tendency to replace time-honored classics with more recent, “relevant” texts driven by identity politics. This leads to selecting books that fit the current orthodoxy at the time the school approves its budgeting and curriculum. I propose a different answer to the question: The books that we require students to read should be recognizably great, sufficiently difficult to require a teacher, and suitably beneficial to the formation of the moral imagination.

Being recognizably great is an admittedly qualitative measurement, and one that literature teachers never tire of debating. Greatness is more easily seen at a distance, a primary reason why traditional school curricula favor older books. It’s much easier to see if a book is worthwhile if people still read it, discuss it, and value it 50 or 100 years after publication than if it creates an immediate buzz. John Grisham’s legal novels were huge in the 1990s, but they have since faded. For a time, one couldn't go anywhere without seeing Harry Potter novels for sale; these, too, have subsided in popularity, replaced by the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Percy Jackson series. The great books are, first and foremost, those works which have stood the test of time. It is difficult to articulate why, but generation after generation of people around the world, in vastly divergent cultural contexts, have found value in going back to the greats: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the anonymous monk who pieced together Beowulf, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Jean Racine’s Tartuffe, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and so many more. These works, and others that fit with them, unite people across generations and create the possibility of rich conversations based on shared experiences.

Some books are so simple they need not be taught. Most (though not all) young adult fiction fits into this category. For a book to be worth assigning as mandatory reading, it needs to have a certain amount of difficulty. The old books are hard to read; Homer requires patience. The Odyssey’s more than 12,000 lines of poetry display poetic craft, imaginative skill, linguistic agility, and narrative control, but when we first encounter Homer, we need a guide to point out the beauty of the epic simile.

Can anyone understand such text without assistance? As the Ethiopian eunuch asked the apostle Phillip, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” That question is the ideal literature class’ foundation. Students need not just the initial phonetic decoding skill to know how to read; to understand these texts, they need analytical, contextual, and hermeneutical tools. To mine meaning, they need a teacher who will mediate the text for them while equipping students to become more proficient readers, capable of correct interpretation. After this process, students will be prepared to tackle a different book on their own. Of course, a great and difficult book cannot help but teach students how to write by example. Spending five weeks in Milton’s glorious poetry causes one to appreciate the use of allusion, vocabulary, and pentameter. Suddenly, students’ essays start sounding a little like Milton.

The great books’ difficulty need not be purely technical: Reading the greats of a given generation requires the student to interact with the pressing issues of another age. When encountering Goethe’s Faust, Part One, the student must grapple with Romanticism, the divinizing of nature, questions of infanticide, teenage pregnancy, and sexual predation. The Song of Roland brings up questions of church and state relations in the context of the Crusades, the use of literature as propaganda, and the results of “othering” the enemy. None of these are simple concepts, and wading through them prepares students to evaluate contemporary questions using the skills they developed while analyzing literature from bygone eras.

I propose the moral imagination as a third criteria for determining book selection. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke coined this phrase to refer to the human capacity to imagine moral realities. It takes a certain sensibility to perceive the potential outcomes of our actions and choose accordingly. Russell Kirk later used the same term to refer to the human ability to seek what he called “unbought grace of life.” The moral imagination is our ability to imagine life in a different vein than we experience it. Some stories do a better job of cultivating this aspect of the human person than others.

Focusing on the way books shape their readers, this criterion allows teachers to determine what kinds of questions they hope to raise, and what principles they want students to grapple with. Literature is neither catechism nor ethics; a book list is no guarantee of making people more ethical. Great books, however, expose students to ideas, show them the results of choices, and prepare students to make real choices. As Kirk put it:

[S]uch reading will teach us about what it is to be a real man or a real woman. Of this we may be certain, that when the wisdom derived from high imaginative literature is ignored, order in the soul and order in the commonwealth are crumbling. … If we rear a generation or two quite deprived of that moral imagination which humane letters nourish – why, the victims of this denial will end frozen in the Snow Queen’s icy palace.

When evaluating the texts that are required, one should consider how the work shapes the student’s conception of the good.

At Thales Academy, we embrace a chronologically arranged great books approach to literature; across grades 6-12, students cycle twice through a classical sequence of literature aligned with their history classes (Greek, Roman, European, and American). In high school, the complexity of their literature increases substantially. Rather than apologizing for the lack of contemporary representation or diversity in these books, we find that the books we read help our students to step into the world of adult responsibilities equipped to read, discuss, and write about almost any topic. Their reading has prepared them to understand the moral weight of their choices, and the habits of thought cultivated through their reading has empowered them to hold great conversations.

That’s not to say they do not see themselves in the literature, but that perception does not lie in the particularities of race, gender, class, or sexual orientation. Instead, they identify with universal human temptations, successes, and experiences found throughout the Great Tradition. There are many other books that are of great value outside our curriculum, but it remains our conviction as a school that these texts are essential for students’ lifelong flourishing.

To the #DisruptTexts-inclined teacher, the great books teacher might respond that our students are identifying with what is universally human. Reading great books calls students out of themselves and into a larger conversation. As they enter that conversation, they are prepared to steward their intellectual inheritance well. To deprive them of that inheritance by removing the core texts of their tradition robs students of the opportunity to perceive the larger conversations.

Below is a selection of texts I have taught in ninth-eleventh grade literature classes over the years. Next to each is a principle that I hope students discover through their reading. Over eight years of teaching, I have found that the best way to have conversations leading to these principles is through reading these books. In their absence, my students would be missing key conversations and ideas preparing them for a successful life.

  • The Odyssey (Homer): Life is a perilous journey filled with potential distractions; those who persevere will find home, and the journey is worth the struggle.
  • The Iliad (Homer): Rage and grief can destroy the work of generations; the wise person governs the passions.
  • Genesis (Moses): While we long for the pre-Fall paradise, we live in a world filled equally with sin, death, and hope.
  • Metamorphoses (Ovid): The gods of pagan antiquity do not desire human happiness; for full human flourishing, we need something greater than the whims of Jupiter to govern justice.
  • Beowulf (anon.): Evil exists in the world, and the hero’s task is to carve out space for the good through his deeds.
  • Inferno (Dante): Vice takes many forms, and by knowing those forms we also learn the nature of virtue.
  • Canterbury Tales (Chaucer): Life is not all morals and ethics; there is great joy in living.
  • Le Morte d’Arthur (Mallory): Love, misdirected, can destroy the good life.
  • David Copperfield (Dickens): Sacrificial love takes a lifetime to perfect.
  • Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky): You are not Das Ubermensch; you are not exempt from moral consequences.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque): The good of youth is not always the goal of the older generation; and
  • Brideshead Revisited (Waugh): Materialism alone is not sufficient to answer the question of happiness.

Such a list reflects my interests as a teacher; another teacher may employ a different set of propositions. But consider the weight of these ideas and the paucity of what is offered in their place. Rejecting Homer for contemporary works driven by identity politics robs the student of rich symbols and essential truths of human nature. Reading and discussing the old books does not deny the value of newer texts, but rather insists that there are certain truths, concepts, and conversations that cannot be encountered any other way. Students who read on their own gravitate naturally to current books, but those who do so rarely read classical literature by choice. When we replace Homer with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aristotle with Ibram X. Kendi, or To Kill a Mockingbird with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we miss a moment that may not return. The student might not encounter the replaced work again, and, in doing so, becomes intellectually impoverished.

What should we do when teachers brag on Twitter about removing Homer from the curriculum? I suspect we should respond as we do when another headline proclaims a building renamed or a statue toppled: We mourn the reality that the barbarians are within the metaphorical gates, and we continue carrying forward the classical renewal movement in homeschooling groups, private schools, and new institutions. The woke mob may continue destroying, but the preservation of the good life will go on as it always has: one student, one family, one small community at a time.

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Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral ApologeticsThe Imaginative ConservativeThink Christian, and The Federalist. His passion is studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.