What Should a Student Read Before Going to College?

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I’m often asked, “What does my high schooler need to read before college?,” as though there were one or two novels out of the hundreds and hundreds of spectacular works in the Western tradition without which any primary educational journey would be void of meaning. I don’t mean to ridicule the impulse to choose wisely what we offer our students. We clearly should. But I do sense an undercurrent of misunderstanding about the educational project in questions like these.

To rephrase for clarity’s sake, I often hear these parents saying, “I want to give my student a classical education and that’s about reading the right books so that my student can acquire the right set of intellectual opinions or precepts. So which ones are those? Which books? Which opinions?”

As I said, we should obviously be circumspect in choosing the works we present to our students. Having said that, though, the above paraphrased question is firmly the wrong one to ask. Education rightly understood has far less to do with which conclusions we ought to draw, than it does with how one ought to go about drawing a conclusion at all; less to do with what one should think, and more to do with how one ought to think.

This can be, and perhaps should be, a terrifying reality! After all, empowering a student to think for themselves is a little like handing a driver’s license to a 16 year old; one can only pray they come home in one piece! There is, however, a comfort in knowing that having learned to think for themselves, your students will not be easily taken in by any of the proverbial wolves crouched at the door in most institutions of higher learning. Inquiry has a habit of producing more safety than dogma when it comes to intellectual warfare.

The question remains, though, which books? The simple answer is: any one you like! There are book lists under every rock and most have a smattering of classics that amply cover the waterfront. If I may, however, I’d like to offer a brief plug for a little-vaunted genre: Children’s Literature.

When I was a kid, my favorite book was Caddie Woodlawn, the story of a young girl on the American frontier—it might as well have been an American Girl novel for all the credibility it gave me with my buddies in our rural neighborhood. We spent our summers dashing around half-clothed in the woods, whacking each other with big sticks, and hooting like barbarians; let’s just say the fellas didn’t care for my choice of reading material.

When I think now about the reasons I loved that story, an idea sticks out at me that I think pertains to classical education: simple stories encourage humble, delight-driven reading.

Perhaps the main reason Caddie Woodlawn was and remains so wonderful is that it took little to no effort to read. It was simple, direct, and powerful, and I think that can be said of most excellent children’s literature. Children’s literature is poignant, in the main, because it is written with little pretense to a room full of kids who read, because they’re kids, without pretense as well. They’re there simply to be delighted by the story. In order to delight them, the author must write so clearly and simply that readers understand him or her instinctively – they haven’t learned yet how to sort through layer upon layer of implications or to engage the story on a thematic level. Their principle talent as an audience lies in a low tolerance for boredom.

Mark Twain is rumored to have called Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm one of his favorite novels, describing it as “beautiful, moving, and satisfying.” I’ll confess, I’m not a huge Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm fan, but I think Twain is chiming in on this same principle. There are myriad great novels written by adults for adults and any student’s goal ought to be to prepare himself for a lifetime of reading and interacting with that corpus. Education, after all, initiates one into a life of the mind that lives in these books and has for centuries. Thinking that this endeavor involves “growing out of” certain books, however, is plain nonsense.

In fact, I would argue that the submission necessary to read such childish fancies well prepares a student to read literature at any level with poise and mastery that cannot easily be learned elsewhere. After all, acceptance of true thematic content from so meek a source requires the reader to lay down his or her own intellectualism and simply be delighted by a story. This is not unlike the humility required to sit before a professor whose ideas are new and therefore threatening, and yet glean from him a measure of helpful and perspective-altering insight.

C.S. Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to his goddaughter, Lucy with these words: “I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairytales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But someday, you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again.” I consider this prophecy an apt description of education: the educated man is one able to read and appreciate the unique power of a children’s story, because he himself has realized that no matter his wisdom, intellect, or maturity, he will always be a child in the face of the sheer wealth of knowledge and truth available to him.

So, ask your students to read some Aristotle; dive headfirst into Melville; tackle Tolstoy; cherish Chaucer. But along the way, also require that they sit with Milne and study the wisdom of Pooh Bear. Free them to join Rat and Mole on the river and let The Wind in the Willows teach them to wonder at and be delighted by beauty. True education aims to create, protect, and exalt unselfconscious appreciation of simple truths; what better way to prepare the student for such a project than to remind him that he is a child? One doesn’t study to grow out of Caddie Woodlawn – one studies to grow into it. And that is as it should be.