I spent March on the road traveling to homeschool conventions. These are interesting events: educators, professionals, and entrepreneurs of every stripe fill exhibit halls with their wares and spend literal hours on concrete floors explaining their materials. Wide-eyed parents are just trying to figure it all out so that their precious charges can get what they need to survive in the world. Of course, need is a broad term; perceived needs range from learning toys, science kits, workbooks, curriculum products and pedagogical techniques, to parenting helps, cleaning helps, scheduling methodologies, marriage tips, and t-shirts that say things like, “I’m in love with my kid’s teacher.” Amid this sea of products and services, convention organizers have targeted a select group of educators to offer helpful lectures to parents. For those educators who have something to sell, these lectures often lead to the products at their booths. This is education on the free market, and like all markets, this market is noisy. Everyone talks at once, and they aren’t all saying the same thing. Distinguishing between the wares at the booths and the ideas in the lecture halls is no small task.
Among this cacophony of voices, a few brave souls endeavor to equip parents to give their children a liberal arts education. These voices are concerned with the permanent things, the universal, transcendent experience of man in the fallen world. Their wares are harder to hawk than a widget; the tools of their trade are reading, thinking, writing, and argumentation. Their lectures are sophisticated, and parents who attend them often leave simultaneously inspired and discouraged. They are inspired to cultivate the contemplation of beauty, truth, and goodness in their home schools, but discouraged by their ignorance of how to do so.
How is the average parent to bridge the gap between the beautiful philosophical ideas they imbibe at these conventions and the daily drudgery that characterizes so much of the homeschool experience? What is the missing link that brings a classical education within reach?
The answer to this question is deceptively easy, while essential across the curriculum. The fundamental skill necessary to achieve a liberal arts education is the ability to read well–I warned you that the simplicity of this answer is deceptive! This is because sound reading requires much more than phonics proficiency. It requires a proper critical theory: an appropriate answer to the principle questions of why and how we read. In fact, the reader’s answers to these questions will either enable or prevent them from engaging with the great thinkers of Western literature. If they fail to become sound readers, they will never become participants in the Great Conversation regarding the good, the true, and the beautiful.
In order to determine how to read, we must first define why we read. We read in order to understand others, to partake of their experience, vision, ideas, and gifts. We read to hear and to learn. Granted, it’s important to remember that not every idea an author expresses is a good one. Literature, even the classics of Western Civilization, contains a hodgepodge of truth and error.
This leads us to question how we ought to read, and I would proffer this answer: carefully. In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis addresses this matter: “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” Lewis encourages readers to strive to hear and to understand. If we would read well, we must do the difficult work of sitting on our hands. We must control ourselves so that we don’t start talking before we’ve finished the arduous task of listening. Like any conversation, reading demands courtesy and consideration of the speaker, and what is an author but an absent speaker? Humility is the posture of a good reader.
17th century author John Milton also addresses this idea in his defense against book banning, Areopagitica. He suggests that books are the distillation of the best and most carefully articulated thoughts of our author-neighbors and enjoins readers to be respectful and to refrain from criticism before having heard and understood an author. He takes this metaphor of books as absent teachers even farther than Lewis, suggesting that books contain the very eternal spirit of the author’s mind so that destroying a book is akin to murder! “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.”
How are we to refrain from this prideful sin Milton indicts? Look for pedagogical techniques and curriculum materials that teach the art of careful reading, and be cautious with those that skip this step and go straight to evaluation. Evaluation is an important part of a reader’s job, but it comes last, not first. The classical approach to learning requires that we do all things in an orderly manner. Every subject must be approached in the same way: one must learn the grammar of the subject before attempting to understand its logic or engage in its rhetoric. In order to read classically, one must be careful not to put the rhetoric of reading ahead of the grammar.
If a reader is a judge, he ought to be a good, honest judge. He ought to hear his plaintiff’s arguments fully before rendering a judgment. Anything else would rob the citizen author of justice and do violence to both the man and the truth. Patience and humility are required as sometimes seamy and difficult arguments are presented, but nothing is taken from the truth in this hearing. It is in fact fostered. We have nothing to fear from the arguments; the truth will out. Failing to patiently hear the cases – which come to us in books of a variety of stripes and genres – before rendering judgment robs the author of his rights. Carting presuppositions about an author’s guilt or innocence into the procedure of reading is nothing short of participating in a kangaroo court, rigged from the start. Where is the justice in such a reading?
Teaching your children to read soundly ought to be the primary goal of education, since every subject requires sound reading. Many would take issue with my suggestion that a philosophy of reading is prime, suggesting that a proper Christian worldview supercedes this in the pursuit of educational excellence, but I would defend my opinion. Many a well-meaning Christian teaches students to bear false witness against their author-neighbors in an effort to protect them from the evils of competing worldviews. Remember, though, that lying is no bulwark against error. We must traffic in truth.
I’m aware that these are big accusations – lying and bearing false witness are sins, and leading the young into such sin will earn harsh judgment. ”Let not many of you aspire to be teachers, knowing that these shall be more harshly judged…” (James 3:1). Indeed. What do I mean by these things? Only this: the first principle of sound reading hearkens back to the injunction in Philippians 2 that we consider others as better than ourselves. That is, reading requires that we cease our chatter and listen to the absent speaker whose voice survives in the pages of the book. His is a quiet voice, and if we fail to quiet our own minds, we will certainly overpower him. Courtesy and common sense require that we read first to hear an author, asking questions when necessary only to better understand him and always letting him get to the end of his idea before we hijack the conversation to make our own statements and proclamations.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But you would be surprised by how many fail to do this principle thing. The vast majority of interpretive disasters result from ignoring or dismissing this critical first step of reading and interpretation. This is as true in the university as it is in homeschool circles. There, various special interest groups use literature as a platform to promote their own agendas – racial, feminist, sexual, or political. They are little concerned with hearing or understanding the voice and ideas of the author, except in so far as it might serve their own. Most Christian readers would condemn this treatment of literature; however, when Christians press texts into their own worldview rather than allowing the author to speak, they share in these errors, regardless of their good intentions.
To avoid such pitfalls and presumption, teach your children to interpret the literature they read before they evaluate it. Teach them to read to understand before they judge. Teach them to ask the “what” question before they ask the “should” question. “What does the author say, specifically? What does the author mean? How do you know?” Only once the reader has carefully listened to the author in an effort to understand him on his own terms is he ready to evaluate his answers and offer competing ideas. Teach your student to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. As James suggests, the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Evaluating before we read does not produce the perception of goodness, truth, and beauty. One must perceive before he is to contemplate.