Saturday, September 20, 2008

To Read and Study Great Books

We have spent a lot of class time in the first four weeks discussing how to read and study. I gave students handouts about the different kinds of reading we do for different subjects, as well as how to take notes, annotate a text, and prepare to write about complex ideas in a thoughtful and interesting essay. In all my classes, we are now deeply immersed in the books, beginning to put these study and reading skills into practice.

What my students do not know is that this renewed interest in how we read and study comes from an article I read way back last fall in The New York Times, entitled “Small Campus, Big Books,” by Dirk Johnson (November 4, 2007).

Johnson writes extensively about Great Books colleges like Shimer College in Illinois and St. Thomas Aquinas College in California. Great Books colleges are liberal arts colleges that utilize texts, not textbooks, to teach core subjects. “In a method known as shared inquiry,” Johnson writes, “[students] wade together through a core curriculum of masterpieces in literature, science, philosophy and mathematics, steeping themselves in the works of Homer, Darwin, Kant, Shakespeare, and Einstein, among many others.”

According to Johnson, the Great Books curriculum offers a broader, richer education than most other college curricula.

This sounds like a dream. In a classroom where we look for connections among books, ideas, subjects, current events, philosophies, religions, sciences, et cetera, a Great Books program seems like the perfect recipe for a well-rounded and knowledgeable student.

The Great Books movement began in the early 1900s at Columbia with a literature teacher named John Erskine. “He argued that ancient Greek and Latin ‘are not dead languages unless we assassinate them,’” writes Johnson.

Another educator who jumped on the bandwagon early on was Robert Maynard Hutchins. An educational philosopher and dean of Yale Law School, Hutchins worked with Mortimer Adler to develop a list of great books that could be used to teach a variety of subjects. As president of the University of Chicago, Hutchins tried to get the faculty to pass a resolution to adopt a Great Books curriculum only to be rejected three times. He persisted in his quest, believing that these texts were “teacher proof,” meaning that teachers just had to get out of the way and let the students loose in the books themselves. Great Books would put students in direct contact with the original thinkers, eliminating the middle man, the classroom teacher. The teacher would now be the “guide on the side,” instead of the “sage on the stage,” meaning the end of the lecturer and the coming-of-age of the facilitator in the classroom.

This lead to the development of a main tenet of Great Books: the concept of the Shared Inquiry.

“The goal of Great Books programs us to instill in adults and children the habits of mind that characterize a self-reliant thinker, reader, and learner,” according to the website With this curriculum, the focus is on the questions encountered in the reading. Students are directed toward formulating their own questions and then searching for the answers through discussion with peers as well as critical and analytical thinking on their own. In fact, the emphasis is shifted completely from the teacher to the text itself. “As a Shared Inquiry leader, [the teachers] do not impart information or present…opinions, but guide participants in reaching their own interpretations.” According to the website. Teachers pose thought-provoking questions and direct the conversation in response to student discussion. In doing this, teachers help students develop “the flexibility of mind to consider problems from many angles, and the discipline to analyze ideas critically.”

Students must also listen to each other. “In Shared Inquiry, participants learn to give full consideration to the ideas of others, to weigh the merits of opposing arguments, and to modify their initial opinions as evidence demands,” according to the website. “They gain experience in communicating complex ideas and in supporting, testing, and expanding their own thoughts.” This sounds like utopia, and might, in reality, be a bit idealized.

There are a number of liberal studies institutions that use a Great Books program. One such school is Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. According to their website (, “students analyze and discuss in tutorials, seminars, and laboratories these works of the greatest minds of our tradition. By daily practice in reading, translation, demonstration, and argument, students form habits of thought and discourse which will stay with them throughout their lives. And by means of these habits, they can better lay hold of the knowledge and wisdom recorded in the Great Books.”

The website goes on to list all the authors and works to be studied over the four years of undergraduate residency:

For example, in freshman year, students read Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euripedes, Thucydides, Aristophanes in Greek and Roman mythology; Wheelock and Nesfield in Latin and English composition; Euclid in mathematics; Aristotle, DeKoninck, Fabre, Galen, Harvey, Linnaeus, Pascal, Archimedes and Mendel in laboratory sciences; and Plato, Porphyry, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Holy Bible for philosophy.

Sophomore, junior and senior years offer similarly challenging texts on the reading lists.

The counter-argument to this kind of curriculum might be that it consists of the classical “dead white males.” Indeed, I found the only women represented on the list were Willa Cather, Jane Austen, and Flannery O’Connor. And this being a Catholic institution, there are an overabundance of religious writers present on the list. St. Thomas Aquinas appears numerous times, although one could argue the value of his work in any study of philosophy.

The other problem with this particular college is the strictly enforced Catholic rules of conduct. “Mass is offered in Latin and visiting a dormitory of the opposite sex is grounds for expulsion,” according to Johnson. This is hardly a congruent social environment to a liberal arts college.

Finally, not every student is capable of understanding the source author’s prose and ideas. Arguably, textbooks perform a valuable service by clarifying the original author’s work. However, there is a fine line between “dummying down” and clarifying.

Still, the argument can be made that studying the dead white males on the reading list as a basis for all knowledge is a way of laying the fundamental groundwork for more enlightened study to come in graduate school. The foundations of western culture are definitely represented in a Great Books curriculum. Have we shied away from such reading because it is too difficult? Difficult things are often those most worth doing. Reading and understanding the roots of our cultural traditions can only give us a firm understanding when we compare and contrast our literature and history with that of other nations and people. Would a Great Books curriculum work in every school, public or private? Possibly, but training students and teachers to rethink how they conduct the business of learning will be a monumental task. Administrators would also have to commit to seminar-style, smaller class sizes of ten or so students. It would, however, be an experiment worth trying, especially for honors and Advanced Placement courses.

The bottom line is, history and science textbooks are rendered in such flat and uninspiring prose that it is no wonder that students see reading as a chore. With the Great Books program, we shift the focus to the reader and writer of the source text and the delicate thread that ties them together, and we eliminate the textbook author and publisher, the people who publish new editions every two years at exorbitant prices that bankrupt students and their parents. Many of the books in the Great Books curriculum come in cheaper paperback editions that do not change year to year. Many are available for free online.

Anyway, who would not want to study physics with Einstein, astronomy with Ptolemy, geometry with Descartes, philosophy with Aristotle, and the personal essay with Montaigne? It is the equivalent of the thinking person’s no-brainer. In our day of failing schools and a collapsing American educational system, a return to Great Books maybe just what we need.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Shadows and Light and the City of New York

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."

-Walt Whitman in "Song of Myself"

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lessons From The Latin

When I entered high school, I signed up for Latin I with Brother Eugenio, a teacher who had been at the school forever, and had taught my father and a number of his five brothers.

A brother is not a priest, although he might dress like one. In certain religious orders, brothers are the teachers. They run the schools. Brother Eugenio had quite a history at my high school. He had taught Spanish to my father, and I had heard many times the story of how he would read the newspaper in class while the students were doing their exercises in the verbs and vocabulary of Espanol.

My father remembers that one day, while Eugenio was absorbed in his paper and possibly asleep, the students threw a bird’s nest into the light fixture. This was in the days before florescent lights, and the bulbs at the center of the fixtures burned hot. The nest caught fire, causing Eugenio to wake with a start and demand that the students flee the classroom.

Brother Eugenio remembered my father and uncles and teased me incessantly about how I would be the disappointment in the family. Immediately upon arriving on campus, I had joined the marching band and music program. I took up the xylophone, marimba, and concert bells. I joined the larger section of percussion, and since drums are loud and not always needed in rehearsal, we worked outside on the fields, playgrounds and open areas of campus every Wednesday night from seven to ten p.m. Brother Eugenio, who lived in a special brothers’ house on campus, heard me practicing one evening and came out to see who was making the racket. This led to him calling me “Tinkerbell” in class, and mocking me for not being a tough football player like the other men in my family.

Of course, at an all-male school, this went over like a bomb. People I did not even know began calling me Tinkerbell, and even though I now shunned the concert bells entirely for the marimba and xylophone, nothing seemed to repair my damaged masculinity in the eyes of my fellow students.

So the torment continued, and I struggled on in Latin. By the end of the year, I squeaked by with a barely passing grade. I now had a choice: I could opt for Spanish I and start over with the freshmen. Or, I could enroll in Latin II and try to finish the program. The only thing worse than being called Tinkerbell in front of other males was being a sophomore in a class of freshmen. I took Latin II.

The fall of my second year in high school began with a surprise. Brother Eugenio was feeling his age. He struggled to make it across campus from the brothers’ residence to his classroom. He climbed steps one at a time, and rested a good thirty seconds after each climb. He taught the class from behind his desk and rarely wrote on the chalkboard anymore. After his two classes each day, I would watch from the window of my fifth period class as he struggled back to his rooms. Often, the seventy-five yard trip took him forty-five minutes.

By October, he could barely gasp out a sentence. The class was stalled. We were doing most of the work on our own, and Eugenio now missed at least two days a week. There were rumors of heart failure and bypass surgery. His skin was the color of wood glue and his eyes were swollen and red. Once, when I was going over one of my tests with him, I noticed his fingertips were blue.

Sure enough, as the air turned colder and we made our way toward Thanksgiving, I arrived at Latin class to see the principal at the front of the room. “I regret to inform you,” he started, “that Brother Eugenio passed away last night in his sleep.” My fists clenched under my desktop in silent celebration. “We will find you a substitute teacher as soon as possible. Seeing that the course is Latin, this might be difficult, but you will have a teacher.”

A week or so later, we arrived at class to find a woman standing behind Eugenio’s desk. She stared at us intently as we took our seats. “I am Miss Phillips,” she announced. “I am a feminist and your new Latin teacher. I do not believe in make up or in shaving my legs or underarms.”

We froze in our places, our mouths hanging open. The principal breezed into the room. “Good morning, boys. I see you have met Miss Phillips. We feel very grateful to have her here. She is a linguist, proficient in many languages, especially Latin. I expect you to welcome her and get right back on track where dear Brother Eugenio left off.”

Miss Phillips was a competent teacher for the first two weeks. As Christmas break approached, someone asked her what she would do for the holiday. We sensed she was not from around these parts.

“Well, I have started dating someone on campus, so I will probably stay here in California for the holiday, unless he goes out of town.”

We were shell-shocked by this news. Who could she be dating? Just the day before we had gotten a clear shot of her hairy legs. The hair was almost as thick, black and wiry as the unstyled mop on her head. One kid spontaneously threw up. No one had the nerve to ask her who the lucky guy was, but we all took bets.

The mystery was solved a few days later when we were shocked to discover Miss Phillips in the bleachers during our soccer match. Mr. Singleton was the soccer coach, and the best looking male teacher on campus, hands down. All the girls in our sister schools swooned over him. In addition to coaching soccer, he also taught chemistry. Later, after the game, several students saw him leave with Miss Phillips. Singleton and Phillips—who would have figured them for a match?

We started trying to get her to talk about the relationship in class. “Is it true, Miss Phillips, that Latin is the language of love?”

“Well, it is the father of the romance languages.”

“Yes,” but we insisted, “is it possible to use Latin to get women.” She hesitated just a second. “I mean, you’re a woman,” one student continued. “Does Latin get your blood going?”

She smiled secretively at us. “Let me tell you about love, boys…”

And with that one phrase, we left Latin behind. Our hormones were raging like a cliché, and we soaked up knowledge. Most of us knew little about sex, about what turns women on, about the intricacies and details of lovemaking. Miss Phillips laid it out for all of us.

We left for Christmas break in a white-hot stream of testosterone. My only hope was that we could keep her on sex and off of Latin in the new year.

The first day back to class, my worries vaporized. “Guess what I was doing at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, fellas?” Miss Phillips, now Mrs. Singleton crooned.

We heard every detail, ever caress, every thrust of the two weeks of honeymooning the two teachers completed. The marriage had been incredibly spontaneous. She told the tales, and we listened with an intensity that left us sweaty and exhausted by the end of the period. I felt like my brain would explode. To teenage guys locked in a classroom, this kind of information was earth-shattering. As it was, we all lied about sex; that is the nature of the beast in teenage males. But this was not a story from our peers; this was the real deal, and we ate it up.

As winter turned into spring, we had more love and less Latin. What little of the language we studied was Greek to me, and by the close of the third quarter, I was failing the class. I went to Miss Phillips for help, but she was brusque and brief with me. Evidently, I was not her type. There were a few boys she liked in the room, but she made me feel like I had somehow missed the joke. My interest in her sexcapades was waning.

As we began the fourth and final quarter of the year, Miss Phillips came into the room and announced that her contract would not be renewed. She was livid. It seems someone’s parents had complained about the content of the course. We all looked around at one another. We had universally agreed that no one would tell anyone about the sex talks. I knew that other students knew; we could not prevent the gossip from spreading among students, but I was sure no one told parents.

After a few days of silent work and sulking on her part, her mood shifted. It seems another colleague ratted them out for an “encounter” after hours in the science room. Or was it the faculty room? With Miss Phillips, it could have been any room.

For the rest of the year, she let us do whatever we wanted during her class period. Latin was done, a dead language returned to the grave. During the last week of school she announced that anyone with a B or an A in the course would get an A; anyone with a C, D, or F would get a B. I was now “above average” in Latin II. I had made it through the language requirement.

Miss Phillips left at the end of the year without incident. Mr. Singleton lasted another year or two, but left eventually as well. We heard they got divorced.

Years later, when I became a teacher, I had to teach English grammar, and I realized that what little I remembered from Brother Eugenio in Latin I was helping me get a better handle on English grammar ten years later. I also drew on my Latin roots when teaching vocabulary—many English words have their origins in Latin. My students spoke Spanish, as did my wife and in-laws. I could almost understand everything they said simply from my long ago, halfhearted study of Latin. I came to the conclusion that if I had learned Latin adequately all those years ago, Spanish would have been a breeze.

I dug up my old Latin books and began thumbing through them. I vaguely remembered a few things as I tried to work through several lessons. I decided to give learning Latin a try on my own. I called our textbook company and asked for some samples of teaching manuals. Latin is still taught today, and Latin textbooks are still begin published. I went to the bookstore and picked up a book I had heard about in teaching circles: Wheelock’s Latin. I renewed my efforts to work through some exercises. It was slow going.

The worst thing about Brother Eugenio is that he taunted me, goaded me into being frustrated in class. But I did learn at least a little something about Latin. The only thing I can say about Miss Phillips is that we learned nothing about Latin. Sex education came again to our classroom during senior year when our religion class was called “Family Life.” Sex was explained scientifically. We learned birth control methods, how the sperm and egg join, why a child has blue eyes, and the philosophical reasons why one should wait for sex until he is committed to another person. The Church calls this marriage; we were urged to think it through and define the commitment and our sexuality for ourselves. We were mature enough to handle it.

Those classes we had about sex were not as titillating as Miss Phillips’ true confessions. They were however honest, clear, straightforward, and instructive. We learned everything we needed about the subject.

I wish I had learned as much Latin.