A few weeks ago I bore my soul to you about my deep love of the classics and how they heal the sick, feed the hungry, create world peace.
What? You don’t remember that?
Oh, that’s right! I told you about how stories are the most effective teachers. My bad.
In my haste to impress upon you the importance of stories I forgot to tell you another essential characteristic of the classics: They teach you HOW to think.
Let me put it another way. We can’t get snowflakes from cookie cutters.
Each child has it’s own personality, insecurities, and life experiences. The way that they view the world is colored by every interaction with every person, place, thing, and idea. You don’t believe me? At the age of 13 I heard someone say that running for less than 20 minutes was a waste of time. Since that time, if I can’t run for at least 20 minutes (in addition to the time it takes to change and a shower) I don’t run at all. I could have logged hundreds if not thousands of miles had I not thought those miles were “a waste of time”. It doesn’t just happen when you are a child. As a young mother a friend told me that if you don’t read 13 picture books to your children in a day, then reading to them wouldn’t do any good. Even now, as silly as I know that “statistic” is, I still have difficulty reading to my little kids unless I have the time to read a huge stack of books. We are changed by the things people say to us, the movies we watch, the books we read, and countless other experiences we have on a daily basis. If you think the things we read while in our formative years don’t effect our worldview you are sadly mistaken.
What does this have to do with literature and the classics? The classics change us. What we read shapes our character and if we read nothing of worth then our characters are worth nothing. Each book we read changes us and it changes us each in different ways because we are all different.
Think of every classic work as your very own rorschach test. Just as every person sees something different in each ink blot, every person learns something different in every classic.
It is said that you never read the same book twice because you are a different person every time you read it. This is absolutely true.
I have mentioned before that I am taking an online Mentoring in the Classics class. One of the books that we were asked to read was Gift From the Sea. This is a book that is highly recommended by several well known and respected personalities. If you read my review of it then you know that I hated it. But it DID change me. I found myself more dedicated to my family with a stronger testimony of familial love and service. I fully expected to toss this book in the trash and never touch it again. But due to the timing of the lectures and my commitment to the class I found myself needing to read it AGAIN. This time I was able to gain insight into my life and my education and the successes that I have had as a mother and teacher. I more fully understand my relationship with my husband and how I can look forward to the years we have together. The second time through Gift From the Sea I still found it terribly selfish, and it is still not a book I would recommend… but I allowed it to change me on a deeper level. I saw something different with the ink blot the second time I looked at it.
In my high school AP English class we read Jane Eyre. I fell in love with that book. I wrote a seven page paper (quite the feat for a high schooler who hated reading and writing) on Jane’s qualities and how her Godly character was instrumental to her success as a woman. The general consensus from the rest of the class was that it was a waste of time. I was able to see something that my classmates couldn’t because of my life experiences.
Removing classic literature with it’s stories, antiquated language, and poetry leaves no room for personal interpretation of the world around us. Reading “informational texts” (which is to account for 70% of the reading material by grade 12) does not allow for individual thought or unique perspectives. Period.
How is reading a decade old article from the New York Times about Ethiopia supposed to teach our children how to use their unique talents and passions to help feed the hungry? Even in the instances where classic literature is referred to in the new “standards”, our children aren’t required, or even encouraged to read the books themselves in their entirety! They are asked to read papers by other people ABOUT the book in question.
Now, I love writing my reviews as much as the next person but you can’t deny that if you read my review of Gift From the Sea before reading the book itself, you would find your view tainted by my opinion. I know many of you have decided not to read it at all based on my recommendation. I’m assuming that you made that decision because you know my views well enough to trust my judgement. I appreciate and am humbled by your faith in me. But would you allow a stranger to do the same thing to your children?
This is one of the most dangerous aspects of Common Core (and there are many). The idea that our states are committing to “standards” that have no history of success (quite the contrary) and that our children’s literary vocabularies are being whittled down to “papers about books” rather than books themselves. The standards are constantly being rewritten to incorporate new theories about how children should be taught and what they should be learning; and beyond that, for many subjects, haven’t even been written at all! Sounds a lot like buying the farm sight unseen to me. Are “standards” actually “standards” if they are constantly being moved based on the whims of those who call the shots? What happens when you no longer agree with those in power?
But I’ve gone off on a tangent. Let’s move back to the subject at hand. How do the classics teach us HOW to think?
I’ve already shown you how the classics touch each of us differently. That characteristic is an important foundational principle to the next characteristic of the classics.
The classics are allegorical and multilayered.
To illustrate this point I want you to read two very different passages, both about the same topic. The first is from a newspaper article about some of the psychological effects of Pinterest.
I’ve fallen victim to the, “Man, I wish I was as good as her at baking/crafting/ quilting …” many times since the world of insta-sharing. It may seem ridiculous for a post about perfectly iced cinnamon buns to make me feel somehow less than qualified to be a “good mom,” but I admit that’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago after scrolling through my photo feed.
“Those are perfect!” I thought to myself. “How come I don’t make cinnamon buns like that?”
Whether intentional or not, women always seem to be striving for perfection and feeling terrible about themselves when they inevitably fall short.
Clear, concise, and to the point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this article. Now let’s read a favorite excerpt of mine from Pride and Prejudice.
“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”
“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”
“Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”
“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”
“Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.
“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”
“Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”
“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”
“Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?”
“I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.”
Now let’s look at this same exchange in my favorite version of the film (heresy I know, since my favorite is not the BBC version). There are slight variations but it’s basically the same thing. The visual aspect also adds to the meaning.
The moral of both passages could be the same: The perfect woman doesn’t exist and comparing our reality to another woman’s facade isn’t productive. Even though that moral is a perfectly correct moral to glean from both passages, it’s about all you can get from the first. You may find yourself silently resolving to try and compare yourself to your neighbor a little less but I find it difficult to believe that the first passage seeped into your soul for you to recall later as anything more than an article you once read.
Now let’s dissect the conversation from Pride and Prejudice. You can gain the same lesson as the first: the perfect woman does not exist; but since it takes the form of a conversation within a story it is far more memorable than the newspaper article. The phrase “I never saw such a woman” has been burned into my memory for years and I try to remember it whenever I find myself in a position in which I am comparing myself to others.
The first line, “It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.” Here we have a young man who clearly has a high regard of women in general. Not only are they all talented and “accomplished” but the fact that they have the patience to develop those talents is a feat in and of itself as far as he is concerned.
Already I find myself inspired to write an article on how important patience is to developing your talents. Far too many people these days feel that if something doesn’t come naturally than you must not have a talent for it. Do you know what doesn’t come naturally for me? Motherhood. I have to work very hard to be the kind of mother that I want to be BECAUSE it is so contrary to my natural selfish inclinations. Yet I am a very good mother. I’m not ashamed to say so because I have worked hard at becoming one and I know that it is only by the grace of God and with His help that I was able to change into the person I wanted to be.
Now what can we learn about Bingley from his statement? I think him to be a very friendly man who looks for the good in other people.
His sister on the other hand answers incredulously, “All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?” Clearly she doesn’t agree. Right here I see a little bit of insight in to the fallen nature of women. We are far more judgmental with other women than we ought to be.
Bingley then goes on to explain how not a single woman he knows does not have a talent to which she can call her own. He admires this quality in women. With this second remark Bingley solidifies his character as a man who values femininity and womanhood. If you are familiar with the rest of the story you also know that Bingley, while not our hero, plays a large part and is well known for his friendliness, generosity, and kind nature. He may seem a little foolish sometimes but I think it is less foolishness than a joyful heart combined with the naïveté that can come from a pampered upbringing. He is without guile and lacks the cynicism that colors Elizabeth’s character, though she shares the same love of life. Bingley is also very rich.
From the Character of Charles Bingley alone we can guess that Jane Austen did not universally hate the aristocracy nor did she (as several modern critics suggest) despise the patriarchy. We know from the political undertones of her novels that the deep divide between the have and the have nots did bother her; and as the underlying financial pressure felt by many of her characters indicates, while she may disagree with several of the policies of the day, she did not blame the individual demographics for those problems. Yes, there were snobbish aristocrats, but their wealth was not the cause of their snobbery nor was poverty a virtue. Similarly, Austen clearly protested the chains that the system had placed on women in general but she did not blame men as a whole for those chains, nor did she think that being a woman automatically gave her moral superiority over men. Even the dreaded cousin, Mr. Collins, as bumbling, foolish, and hated as he was, was a man of honor. He was the heir to Mr. Bennett’s estate and sought a wife among Mr. Bennett’s daughters, not because he was particularly attracted to them (though he did find an attraction after having met them) but because he also thought it unfair that he should be the sole benefit of another man’s fortune. His desire to marry one of the Bennett daughters is his honorable attempt at righting this wrong.
In fact, while most of the selfish and lazy characters in the book are looked down upon, the only universally despised character is Wickham. A man who’s selfish disregard for tradition and propriety earned him the wrath of everyone who knew him long enough to see behind his charming veneer. He shirks his responsibilities in favor of a life of immediate gratification and exploitation for personal gain. These are not characters written by a woman who is protesting tradition and patriarchy; but a woman who desires a more elevated appreciation of the female mind and increased opportunity for women and the poor. Indeed, unlike many contemporary “leaders” of women’s rights, Austen did not seek to tear down the current establishment, but to add to it.
Darcy then chimes in to agree with the Bingley’s statement but not the sentiment behind it. In the movie version he says, “the word is indeed applied too liberally.” As if to hint at the idea that uniqueness is more important than the skills themselves. “I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.” Clearly, Darcy saves his praise for a select few.
Now we get to talk about Caroline. ” ‘Oh! certainly,’ cried his faithful assistant”. We can tell here that Caroline is not only a snob, but a sycophantic one. Her reflexive response is to agree with the man whom she is pursuing, somehow thinking that her agreement will increase her standing in his mind. She gives a list of qualities and skills of which she possesses (she would certainly include herself in Darcy’s list of six) and is sure to suspect their guest does not. In closing she says, “… and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.” As if to say that she reserves the right to say that her competitor is still not accomplished, even if she does happen to measure up to the impossible list Caroline has given.
Darcy agrees and adds that continued scholarly pursuits are necessary as well. We have no reason to believe this is the case other my own feelings on the characters, but I can imagine Caroline bristling at this last point. This is not a trait she, herself possesses.
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” Here Elizabeth shows us that she is, first of all, fully aware of the limits of humanity and the fact that different backgrounds allow for different experiences and opportunities. Not everyone is blessed enough to have an endless stream of tutors and governesses to bow to every whim.
Elizabeth also has no scruples about challenging the proclamations of her social superior; something that, even now in 21st century America, can be looked upon as verboten. She clearly has no patience for social tradition when her ethical sensibilities have been trodden upon. She is insulted on behalf of her gender by the arrogant and impossible standard set by a privileged few. Here we begin to see the pride she feels in defense of her peers. We are not rich, but that does not mean we cannot be accomplished.
Elizabeth’s proclamation of the limits of feminine nature comes as a shock to her audience. “Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?” Darcy asks, possibly for the first time realizing that his high regard for the select few has tainted his ability to see virtue in those outside of his usual circles.
“I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.”
With unmistakable finality, Elizabeth shows that she is not, as Darcy says, severe on her sex, but severe on unrealistic expectations. The addition of the line in the clip above is highly appropriate. “Certainly she [that mythical creature] would be a fearsome thing to behold.
If you have stuck with me up to this point I commend you! You must love Pride and Prejudice! If the statistics consistent with my church sister spotlight information sheets are any indicator, Pride and Prejudice is most women’s favorite book. That being the case you have likely felt (if not articulated) many of the sentiments I have mentioned to you today. You likely also have had several ideas and thoughts that never occurred to me. That is probably why book groups are so popular. People enjoy thinking about ideas and sharing them with each other.
The dissection of this one scene proves that the most effective way to teach people how to think is to give them material that will force them to do so. Why else would they create entire semesters’ worth of college classes dedicated to one work of fiction? Informational texts are certainly helpful and necessary for certain things in life but they are not what great minds are made of.
We need to give our children classic literature because they need to stretch their minds and think abstractly. Works that are treasured generation after generation continue to be passed on because they speak to our souls about what it means to be human. The struggles that an Elizabeth Bennett would have felt two hundred years ago are the same struggles that Courtney Wilson deals with today. Human frailty and weakness are constant. The classics allow the wisdom of the ages to reach through the years and heal our broken homes.
The classics teach us eternal principles that allow us to distinguish between those times when there is a clear right and wrong answer to a problem, and those times when the world looks gray. Several modern thinkers believe that there is no definite right and wrong, and that every person has the right to decide his or her own morality. I believe that while sometimes there really is no right answer, moral relativity cannot long exist in a world in which there are no moral absolutes.
Unfortunately current educational experts are trying to teach abstract thought and moral relativity with math instead of literature. The result is that not only have ethics, morality, and individual thought fallen by the wayside, but our children are also mathematically illiterate.
Two hundred and fifty years ago the revolutionary ideas of a few obscure men and women converged to help usher in an era of unprecedented individual freedom and prosperity. Do you think the minds that invited that kind of environment were created with informational texts? Could they have so completely changed the political and sociological landscape of the world without the ideas of Locke, Smith, Plato, Aristotle, and Milton? 150 years ago brother fought against brother over the fundamental idea that all men and woman could be masters of their own destiny. Could they have done that without the writings of Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and Madison? 75 years ago our grandfathers fought to defend the defenseless when that very same idea was threatened for yet another race of people. And a mere 50 years ago we heard the words of a man who forever shattered the idea that someone could be judged by anything other than the content of their character.
Today we find ourselves fighting that battle again, but this time we aren’t fighting a faceless enemy. This time we again find ourselves fighting brother against brother, sister against sister, and politician against citizen. We aren’t fighting with cannons, bayonets, or tear gas, but with schoolbooks, state regulations, and blog posts.
Individual thought and the ability be master of your own destiny are under attack yet again, but this time they aren’t putting steel chains on our legs or throwing us in concentration camps. This time they are removing the ability to cultivate a great mind capable of changing the world by hiding the tools that allow us to use it.
Our potential is what makes us human. It’s what separates us from animals. If we can’t own our own minds then how are we different from our pets? What makes us the masters? Common educational standards are the antithesis to what our children need to reach their potential. An individualized, literature based, classical education is the only option for those who are meant for greatness.
It’s no use telling me that kind of education is only for a select few and we need something else for the masses. You will never convince me my child isn’t meant for greatness, and you should never let anyone convince you that yours isn’t either. If God meant our children to be standardized then they would be much easier to train.
The great thing is we don’t need to spend billions of dollars, and thousands of hours worth of research to make a superb education available to all. All we need to do is invite the timeless authors and great leaders of history back into our lives: Shakespeare, Austen, Lewis, Dickens, Bastiat, Milton, Jefferson, and countless more. From Homer to Rowling every one of us (even those of us whom, like Elizabeth Bennett are without fortune) can find ourselves, as Oliver DeMille says, face to face with greatness.