The Waiting Room (Sonnet on Stress #2)

But if a day of rest, though washed in sun
and of repose and worship sweet with draughts,
folds into dread while yet the goldfinch laughs,
the dread of anxious waking, Sunday done;
then what has hope to say in its defense
which hurried this while last week yet was green?
Then rest is youthful dread that dead hopes wean;
or else hope is the enemy of sense.
I better know the stifling weekday womb,
which as it hastens growth more balks at birth,
than any other waiting room on earth,
till I shall learn to loiter in a tomb.
What breathes in thrashing surfs of day on day,
if not this scowling midwife of decay?


An Arbiter (Sonnet on Stress #1)

(About a year ago I was going to do a series of sonnets about stress.  Only two emerged.  Here’s the first.)

An arbiter we crave to set the terms
in which we drink of joy and in which mourn.
The sage is growing jaundiced, who affirms
the humors’ spikes as beauties that adorn
the robe of liberty, the bower of love.
It was a specious proverb that could say,
There is no bliss before us or above
but what each heart can feel in each heart’s way.
I do not know! In truth I do not know!
All things are but themselves and I must change!
The universe bound up in joy and woe,
and must I navigate that endless range?
The veins fill up to burst amid the quest,
with poisons and with nectars they must test.

“Intro to Reading”

I am really impressed with C.S. Lewis’s little book, An Experiment in Criticism.  I can’t imagine how I passed through a Christian college’s department of “Literature” without ever hearing it mentioned.

The book has, first of all, rendered me very sheepish about my own claims to being a literary person.  Lewis applies to books his usual doctrine of unpretentious joy and exposes those who read for the purpose of “egoistic castle-building.”  The real literary person surrenders to the power of a book and relishes being swept up into its world.  Earnest self-discipline is a good reason to read good literature, and perhaps it will evolve into this joyous zeal and surrender, but those who read in order to win medals of intellectualism and cultivation are missing the point entirely–they have “received their reward in full.”

Second of all, Lewis’s Experiment has changed my stance on the weird world of criticism.  I already suspected that critics were overworking literature by trying to strain out its “worldview” or (on the other hand) inspecting it for signs of pure “genius.”  Stories and poems are to enjoy, and what they teach us they teach by pleasure, as Johnson says.  But Lewis suggests a specific benefit of such works: they enlarge our minds by allowing us to experience a perspective other than our own.  A philosophic work explains a viewpoint to me and tries to persuade me to incorporate it into my opinions–a literary work does not explain or persuade but shows me what it is like to see the world a certain way.  Lewis says Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and Dante’s Divine Comedy aren’t effective at explaining or defending Epicureanism or Thomism, but they are effective at showing me what it is like to be an Epicurean or a Thomist.   Experiencing someone else’s viewpoint like this, according to Lewis, expands the world I live in.  It broadens my scope for experiencing events and interactions.

This explanation helps me with the sometimes infuriating question of why stories and poems are even worth deep consideration.  If we use them the way we use philosophic or practical books, the result feels doubly incomplete–because we usually can’t piece together a complete logical system from them, and because even a complete logical system would fall short of grasping the significance of the story or poem itself (think Cliff Notes).  But Lewis helps to show how reading literature is a different task from reading books meant to supply us with knowledge.  It requires a different kind of discipline.

This brings me to what I wanted to write about, which is the third impact Lewis’s Experiment has had on me.  Considering it as an educator, it has given me ideas about how “Literature” should be taught when we reform education.  The old education teaches “Literature.”  All it seems to know, however, is that books are good for some reason.  It puts up banners in elementary schools that say “Reading is Cool,” it aims for universal child literacy and produces an eternal stream of new books that bend over backward to get children to read instead of watching television.  The old education supposes that it is better to read awful books than to read nothing at all, so its books imitate cartoons and video games with all their might, hoping to beat by joining.

Then, when students are older and in need of social and moral education, they are given books that mix poor writing with mature social and moral “themes.”  The average high school student knows the study of “Literature” as a boiling down of a text into “themes” followed by the exercise of considering how they themselves feel personally about those “themes.”  This story is about sexual violence.  How do I feel about sexual violence?  This poem is about racism.  How do I feel about racism?  (It could be that the United States’ poor ability to address realities about race springs in part from decades of literary and historical education that forced students repeatedly to consider race as a “theme” subject to their own and their classmates’ personal feelings.)  The books (and especially the poems) are handpicked for how painlessly they deliver the “themes” that need to be covered.  Consequently, the exercise of humbly entering into a text and experiencing its power is usually not learned.

Then these students enter the university world, where “Literature” is supposed to be taught as a serious discipline.  They jump from easy reading and “themes” into a lightning-fast survey of 500 years of British literature taught by a professional academic.  If they are English majors, they go on from there to something as opaque and esoteric as critical theory, which really requires a strong basis in continental philosophy in order to be understood.  Lit surveys, even good ones, do not help.  Then, very swiftly, the student is expected to specialize in a certain author or genre or period and to familiarize himself or herself with the “current academic consensus” on his or her chosen specialty in order to prepare for graduate writing.  There are many critiques swirling around of specialization and the academic consensus, but those seem the smallest problems to me.  Ideally it would be very nice for professional academics to focus on different areas and compensate for one another’s weak spots in mature academic dialogue, but it is a point beyond dispute that an American English major in his third year has lightyears to go before he is ready to become a specialist.  The real problem is that (almost without exaggeration) the majority of college students do not know how to read.  They know how to read words, no doubt, but many reach their limit at a certain caliber of sentence.  Much less can they read a good story or poem well.  How can they be expected to?  They were taught words when they were young and then given bad books for a decade and a half.

The universities retain high expectations despite the bad preparation the rest of the education system affords, and “Literature” as a field of study suffers devaluation and derision.  English?  You can’t get a job with a degree in that!  The study of good books actually ceases to be even coherent to the majority of people because good books are largely absent from their thoughts and lives.  I don’t merely mean the “great books,” either.  I mean Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth and Winnie the Pooh.  I mean Ender’s Game and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I mean the poetry of Shel Silverstein and George MacDonald.  When C.S. Lewis was writing, unsophisticated children and adults read unsophisticated books.  Now we are somewhat impressed with an adult who reads John Grisham or James Patterson or Danielle Steele or even self-help books for enjoyment.  She is “a reader.”  We are proud of a child who reads Star Wars fan-fiction instead of only watching the Star Wars films.  He is “our little bookworm.”  An adult who reads The Count of Monte Cristo, however, is probably trying to get some “culture.”  An adult who reads Homer is presumably reading it for a college class.  As for a child reading Homer… maybe the book has pictures in it?  There is a certain level of reading for which most people simply have no framework.

The new education, therefore, needs to take a different tack with books.  It needs to quit pretending to teach “Literature” at lower grade levels in imitation of the universities.  Schools divide books into “reading levels,” which are really a least common denominator system based solely on the difficulty of grammar and vocabulary.  While this is important, books are more than grammar and vocabulary. Once some mastery has been established of basic words and sentence structure, students of reading need to begin to work with greater structural complexity at the scale of paragraph, stanza, narrative, argument, etc.  We cannot hit a certain level of technical reading education and then cut it off to focus solely on content and ideas.  Even the best schools are making mistakes in this regard.  Classical schools trying to bring the “great books” down into junior high and high school are having a painful time of it.  The reason: too difficult books introduced too abruptly.  While an 8th grader may have the vocabulary and grammatical skills for Rousseau’s Social Contract, and while he may indeed have the intellect to talk about some of the political issues addressed there, the problem is that the book is at a higher level of reading than he has been trained for.  I do not say he is too young to read the book; increasing the challenge for younger students is possible and beneficial.  But in order to achieve it, the increase needs to be gradual.

Instead of jumping from elementary language arts courses to junior high “Literature,” I would therefore propose a course, stretching from 6th to 12th grade, called “Intro to Reading.”  The title is a hyperbole, of course, but I think it a fairly apt rhetorical device to imply to students that by the time they’ve spent 13 years in school they will only just have made the acquaintance of books.  The course’s focus would be the method of good reading, and the material would be picked, not first for its life-relevant content or its influence on Western Culture, but for its relative ease in rewarding observant reading.

The complexity, the depth, and to some extent the length of the readings would increase from year to year.  A 6th grade student might be introduced to myths and then read the same myth as told by several different authors to compare the effect.  An 8th grader might read detective stories and piece together how they were composed and what interest they might hold other than the suspense of “whodunit.”  High school students might study the epic tradition, or try to understand the union of the widely divergent texts of the Bible.  Instead of assigning massive excerpts at a time in order to cram in more content, teachers would need to require slow and repeated examination of more compact selections.  Schools need to give up on the impossible task of acquainting students with entire eras of literature.  It will need to be left to history teachers to tell what was done and written at certain epochs.  The “Intro to Reading” curriculum cannot hope to fit it all in.  After all, it is far more important that a graduate be a good reader than that he be well read.  So reading assignments must decrease in volume and instead be accompanied with rigorous exercises in hermeneutical observance.  The goal of this training in observance would not be strictly technical, as if we were running a school for editors.  The goal would actually be to pique interest.  C.S. Lewis says that we must “surrender” to a book, give ourselves over to its power, before we can understand and judge it.  So if a funny poem by Lewis Carroll were the subject, the point would be to lead students to the perspective that makes them laugh at it.  “What makes this poem funny?” is too technical.  Why force students to lie about the humor of a poem they never laughed at?  The exercises must encourage surrender to the text, which–especially at first–is an active, not a passive, affair.

Successful training in reading develops taste.  It painstakingly persuades a student to open drowsy, lazy eyes long enough to see a kind of sunrise.  The pains we take are worth only as much as how good we think it is for everyone to see that sunrise.  If we do not think that good taste is a good goal, we should stop teaching literature immediately.  That is, we should restrict assigned reading to informative textbooks and clear modern summaries of the opinions of great thinkers.  Even philosophy need not be read from primary sources until college when specialization and research become important.  As for novels and poems, why force them on anyone?  Whatever ideas they convey can be very well discussed in the abstract.  And whoever is predisposed toward that kind of reading material can go after it in his spare time anyhow.

In fact, any school, whether it teaches literature or not, should expect students to do the bulk of their reading in their spare time.  That is another reason why my imaginary course is called an “Intro.”  The goal is to require a little bit of reading so that the student will do a lot more reading at home.  We help a student to read a good story the right way the first time, hoping that she will be unable to resist reading it again with a flashlight under the covers.

This is what it means to choose texts that reward good reading.  A lesser book might be fun for non-literary reasons.  It might be very suspenseful or full of action or sentimental.  Fine.  But it offers up its reward without requiring observance or surrender.  A book that is too hard for the student certainly makes demands, but if it overworks the students and they miss the reward, they are more put off from good books than they were before.  Thus the task of creating the curriculum requires great discernment, and I imagine that the best strategy would be to start with many short excerpts rather than entire books.  My classical school friends might be aghast at the suggestion.  But remember, we are dealing with a comparatively illiterate age, including ourselves.  It is no good hoping to load an entire Western Canon into the mind of every teenager.  It won’t work.  What might work is to revive the skill of good reading and hope that it spreads.