Teaching Humane Literature in High Schools

A principal purpose of studying literature is to give us all a common culture.

Russell Kirk | January 29, 2016

A principal purpose of studying literature is to give us all a common culture.
Teaching Humane Literature in High Schools

In many American high schools, the teaching of literature is in the sere and yellow leaf. One reason for this decay is the unsatisfactory quality of many programs of reading; another is the limited knowledge of humane letters possessed by some well-intentioned teachers, uncertain of what books they ought to select for their students to digest well.

In this brief essay, I propose to suggest, first, the sort of literature which ought to be taught; and then to list certain works of imaginative letters—poetry, novels, plays, philosophical studies, and other branches of letters not embraced by the natural sciences or by social studies—especially commendable for this purpose. T. S. Eliot remarked that it is not so important what books we read, as that we should read the same books. He meant that a principal purpose of studying literature is to give us all a common culture, ethical through the works of the mind. There exist a great many good books, Eliot knew: of these many commendable books, we need to select for general study a certain elevated few for particular attention, that nearly everyone may share in our cultural patrimony. This is my purpose here—though I claim no sovereign authority, and stand ready to have other people substitute books of equal merit for some or many of the titles I suggest.

What is wrong with the typical high-school anthology or program of literature nowadays? I am of the considered opinion that the usual courses in literature, from the ninth grade though the twelfth (also, generally, in lower grades), suffer from two chief afflictions. The first of these is a misplaced eagerness for “relevance.” The second of these is a kind of sullen purposelessness—a notion that literature, if it has any end at all, is meant either to stir up discontents, or else merely to amuse. Let me touch briefly here on both troubles.

Literature certainly ought to be relevant to something. But to what? Too many anthologists and teachers fancy that humane letters ought to be relevant simply to questions of the hour—the latest political troubles, the fads and foibles of the era, the concerns of commercial television or of the daily newspaper. Such shallow relevance to the trivial and the ephemeral must leave young people prisoners of what Eliot called the provinciality of time: that is, such training in literature is useless to its recipients within a few years, and leaves them ignorant of the enduring truths of human nature and of society.

Genuine relevance in literature, on the contrary, is relatedness to what Eliot described as “the permanent things:” to the splendor and tragedy of the human condition, to constant moral insights, to the spectacle of human history, to love of community and country, to the achievements of right reason. Such a literary relevance confers upon the rising generation a sense of what it is to be fully human, and a knowledge of what great men and women of imagination have imparted to our civilization over the centuries. Let us be relevant in our teaching of literature, by all means—but relevant merely to what will be thoroughly irrelevant tomorrow.

As for the second affliction, purposelessness, the study of literature would not have been the principal content of formal schooling for many centuries, had humane letters seemed to offer only a kind of safety-valve for personal discontents, or else merely a form of time-killing, the filling of idle hours. In every civilized land, literary studies were taken very seriously indeed until recent decades. Literature and related arts usually were called “rhetoric,” in times past; and this word “rhetoric” means “the art of persuasion, beautiful and just.” Literature, in short, was and is intended to persuade people of the truth of certain standards or norms. Literature has been regarded as the peer of theology and philosophy because literature’s real purpose is quite as serious as the purposes of theology and philosophy. But literature’s proper method differs from the methods of theology and philosophy. Unlike these disciplines, literature is supposed to wake us to truth through the imagination, rather than through the discursive reason. Humane letters rouse us to the beautiful and the just through symbol, parable, image, simile, allegory, fantasy, and lively example. The purpose of literature is to develop the moral imagination. If human beings do not feel the touch of the moral imagination, they are as the beasts that perish.

Or, to put it another way, the aim of humane letters, of our courses in “lit” or (hideous phrase) “communications skills,” is to form the normative consciousness. That I may make myself clear, indulge me here in a digression directly related to this general topic of what books to study in literature courses.

Until very recent years, civilized folk took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness: that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their rightful place in the scheme of things. Such has been the end of poetry—in the larger sense of that word—ever since Job and Homer.

The very phrase “humane letters” implies that literature is meant to teach us the character of human normality. This is an ethical discipline, intended to develop the qualities of manliness, or humanitas, through the study of important imaginative books. The literature of nihilism, of pornography, and of sensationalism, arising in the eighteenth century and stronger still in our time, because of the decay of the religious understanding of life and of the Great Tradition in philosophy, is a recent development. Or rather, it is a recent disease.

This normative end of letters has been particularly powerful in English literature, which never succumbed to the egoism that came to dominate French letters at the end of the eighteenth century. The names of Milton, Bunyan, Dryden, and Johnson—or, in America, of Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, and Henry Adams—may be sufficient illustrations of this point. The great poplar novelists of the nineteenth century—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope—all assumed that the writer lies under a moral obligation to normality: that is, explicitly or implicitly, he is bound by certain enduring standards of private and public conduct.

Now I do not mean that the great writer incessantly utters homilies. With Ben Jonson, he may scourge the follies of the time, but he does not often murmur, “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” Rather, the man of letters teaches the norms of our existence, often rowing with muffled oars. Like William Faulkner, the writer may write much more about what is evil than about what is good; and yet, exhibiting the depravity of human nature, he establishes in his reader’s mind the awareness that there endure standards from which we may fall away; and that fallen nature is an ugly sight. Or the writer may deal chiefly, as did P. Marquand, with the triviality and emptiness of a smug society which has forgotten norms. The better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation commonly is the strategy of the literary champion of norms.

This principle prevailed almost until the end of the eighteenth century. Since then, the egoism of one school of the Romantics has obscured the primary purpose of humane letters. And many of the Realists have written of man as if he were brute only, or, at best, brutalized by institutions. In our own time, and especially in America, we have seen the rise to popularity of a school of writers more nihilistic than ever were the Russian nihilists: the literature of merde, of disgust and denunciation, sufficiently described in Edmund Fuller’s mordant study Man in Modern Fiction (1958). To the members of this school, the writer is no defender or expositor of norms: for he fancies that there are no standards to explain or defend; a writer merely registers, unreservedly, his disgust with humanity and with himself—and makes money by it. (This is a world away from Jonathan Swift, who, despite his loathing of most human beings, detested them only because they fell short of what they were meant to be.)

Yet the names of our twentieth-century nihilists will be forgotten in less than a generation, I suspect, while there will endure from our age the works of a few men and women of letters whose appeal is to the enduring things, and therefore to posterity. I think, for instance, of Gironella’s novel The Cypresses Believe in God (1951). The gentle novice who trims the hair and washes the bodies of the poorest of the poor in old Gerona, though he dies by Communist bullets, will live a long space in the realm of letters, while scantily disguised personalities of our nihilistic authors, swaggering nastily as characters in the best-sellers, will be extinguished the moment when the public’s fancy veers toward some newer sensation. For as the normative consciousness breathers life into the soul and into the social order, so the normative understanding gives an author lasting fame.

Malcolm Cowley, writing a few yeas ago about the recent crop of first-novelists, observed that several writers he had discussed scarcely had heard of the Seven Cardinal Virtues or of the Seven Deadly Sins. To these young novelists, crimes and sins are merely mischances; real love and real hatred are absent from their books. To this rising generation of writers, the world seems purposeless, and human action meaningless. And Cowley suggested that these young men and women, introduced to no norms in childhood and youth except the vague attitude that one is entitled to do as one likes, so long as it doesn’t injure someone else, are devoid of spiritual and intellectual discipline—are empty, indeed, of true desire for anything but notoriety.

This sort of aimless and unhappy writer is the product of a time in which the normative function of letters has been badly neglected. Ignorant of his own mission, such a writer tends to think of his occupation as a mere skill, possibly lucrative, sometimes satisfying to one’s vanity, but dedicated to no end. Even the “proletarian” writing of the twenties and thirties acknowledged an end; but that has died of disillusion and inanition. If writers are in this plight, in consequence of the prevailing “permissive” climate of opinion, what of their readers? Comparatively few book-readers nowadays seek normative knowledge. They are after amusement, sometimes of a vicariously gross character, or else purser a vague “awareness” of current affairs and superficial intellectual currents, suitable for cocktail-party conversation. Nature abhorring a vacuum, into minds vacant of norms must come some force—sometimes force of diabolical bent.

Literature can corrupt; and it is possible, too, to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all may forever adrift in life, unless he lives in a community still powerfully influenced by what Gustave Thibon calls “moral habits” and by oral tradition. And absolute abstinence from printed matter has become rare. If a small boy does not read Treasure Island (1883), odds are that he will read Mad Ghoul Comics.

So I think it worthwhile to suggest the outlines of the literary discipline which induces some understanding of enduring standards. For centuries, such a program of reading—though never called a program—existed in Western nations. It strongly influenced the minds and actions of the leaders of the infant American Republic, for instance. If one pokes into what books were read by the leaders of the Revolution, the Framers of the Constitution, and the principal men of America before 1800, one finds that nearly all of them were acquainted with a few important books: the King James version of the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-84), Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, something of Cicero, something of Virgil, perhaps the Book of Common Prayer. This was a body of literature highly normative. The founders of this Republic thought of their new commonwealth as a blending of the Roman Republic with prescriptive English institutions; and they took for their models in leadership the prophets and kings and apostles of the Bible, and the great Greeks and Romans of antiquity. Cato’s stubborn virtue, Demosthenes’ eloquent vaticinations, Cleomenes’ rash reforming impulse—these were in their mind’ eyes; and they tempered their conduct accordingly. “But nowadays,” Chateaubriand wrote in nineteenth century, “statesmen understand only the stock-market—and that badly.”

Of course the understanding of the framers of the Constitution was formed by more than books. They learnt the nature of reality in the business of life, as well as in family, church, and school. Yet great books counted for much with them.

For we cannot apprehend enduring standards of conduct or of taste if we rely only on personal experience. Private experiment with first principles frequently is ruinous, and at best time-consuming; while, as John Henry Newman wrote, “Life is for action.” Therefore we turn to the bank and capital of the ages, the normative wisdom found in literature, if we seek guidance in great concerns. Ever since the invention of printing, the printed page has had a large part in molding opinions. Sometimes this is no better than what D. H. Lawrence called “chewing the newspapers.” Courses in literature are supposed to lift us above mere newspaper-chewing.

For some fifty years, in America, we have been failing to develop the normative consciousness of young people through the systematic and careful study of great literature. We have talked about “education for life” and “training for life-adjustment;” yet many of us seem to have forgotten that literary disciplines are a principal means for learning to accept the conditions of existence. Moreover, unless the life to which we are urged to adjust ourselves is governed by norms, it must be a wretched life for everyone.

One of the faults of the typical “life-adjustment” curriculum has been the substitution of “real-life” reading for the study of truly imaginative literature. A young teacher of high-school English tells me that her tenth-grade pupils do not take to the stories of virtuous basketball players, dutiful student nurses, and other “real-life” idols thrust upon them. These pupils turn, instead, to what they may procure at the corner drugstore: Ian Fleming, Mickey Spillane, or worse. If we deprive young people of imagination, adventure, and heroism, they are not likely to embrace Good Approved Real-Life Tales for Good Approved Real-Life Boys and Girls. On the contrary, they will sort to the dregs of letters, rather than be bored. And the consequences will be felt not only in their failure of taste, but in their misapprehension of human nature, lifelong; and, eventually, in the whole temper of a people.

Nowadays the advocates of life-adjustment education give a little ground sullenly, before their critics. The intellectual ancestor of their doctrines was Rousseau. Although I am no warm admirer of the notions of Rousseau, I relish still less the doctrines of Gradgrind, in Dickens’s Hard Times (1845). So I hope that life-adjustment methods of teaching may not be supplanted by something yet worse. A mistaken zeal for vocational training in place of normative instruction; and emphasis upon the physical and biological sciences that would push literature into a dusty corner of the curriculum; and attempt to secure spoken competence in foreign languages at the expense of the great works of our own language—these might be changes in schooling as hostile toward the imparting of norms through literature as anything which the life-adjustment folk have perpetrated.

What I have written here ought to be commonplace. Yet these ideas seem to have been forgotten in many quarters. This normative endeavor ought to be the joint work of family and church and school. As the art of reading often is better taught by parents than it can be taught in a large schoolroom, so a knowledge of good books comes from the home at least as frequently as from the classroom.

Whether one’s reading tastes are developed in the school, the public library, or the family, there are certain patterns of reading by which a normative consciousness is developed. These patterns or levels persist throughout one’s education (whether it is school-learning or self-instruction). We may call these patterns fantasy; narrative history and biography; imaginative creations in prose of verse; and philosophical writing (in which I include theology).

With these levels or patterns in mind, I have arranged a sample program of reading for the concluding four years of secondary schooling. I list only works in the English language (or translations which have become part and parcel of English literature) both because my space is limited and because really “foreign” literature should be taught in classes in French, German, Spanish, and the like.

I repeat that I do not insist on the particular books suggested below, although I think them excellent ones; all I am trying to do here is to suggest the general tone and quality of a good program in humane letters. I have included some old school favorites because their merit and importance have not diminished; on the other hand, I have excluded some old chestnuts (like George Eliot’s Silas Marner [1861]), because they were never first rate.

Because style and wisdom did not expire with the nineteenth century, among my selections are a number of our better recent authors. Students between the ages of thirteen and eighteen ought to be treated as young adults, actually or potentially capable of serious thought; therefore this is not a list of “children’s books.” But neither is it an exercise in pop culture and contemporaneity.

These are books calculated to wake the imagination and challenge the reason. None ought to be too difficult for young people to apprehend well enough—provided that they are functionally literate.

Ninth-grade Level

For this year I emphasize fantasy, in the larger sense of the abused word. If young people are to begin to understand themselves, and to understand other people, and to know the laws which govern our nature, they ought to be encouraged to read allegory, fable, myth, and parable. All things begin and end in mystery. Out of tales of wonder comes awe—and the beginnings of philosophy. The images of fantasy move us lifelong. Sir Osbert Sitwell, when asked what lines of poetry had most moved him in all his life, replied candidly, “Froggie would a-wooing go, whether his mother would let him or no.”

So here are my fantastic recommendations—

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-84)

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596-96)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851) or (perhaps preferably) The Marble Faun (1860)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (1886) or one of his volumes of short stories

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) or Dandelion Wine (1957) (Bradbury is something far better than an accomplished “science fiction writer;” he is a  man of remarkable ethical insights and great power of style.)

Walter Scott, Old Mortality (1816) or The Heart of Midlothian (1818), (These are much more important romances than is Ivanhoe (1819), so commonly taught).

Select poems of Spenser, Burns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, Whittier, Longfellow, Chesterton, Kipling, Masefield, Yeats, Frost, and others—selected with and eye to the marvelous and the mysterious.

Tenth-grade Level

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719-20)

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (1607-08); Henry V (1509-99)

Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1847); or History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851)

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (1884); or Life on the MIssissippi (1883)

Plutarch, select Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (1914-28), (probably in the Dryden-Clough translation)

William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry Esmond (1852)

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1771-90)

(These choices, like those for ninth-grade students, range widely in time and approach; but all are very readable. They offer something to every educable student.)

Eleventh-grade Level

Here, as “imaginative creations,” I recommend for the third year of high school certain books which require serious interpretation and discussion.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels(1726) (only two or three voyages thereof) (Need it be remarked that Gulliver was not intended for the amusement of children?)

Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851); or selected short stories

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860-61); or Bleak House (1852)

T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (1935) (No drama is more relevant to the conflict of loyalties in the twentieth century.)

George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

Select poems of a philosophical cast-George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Alexander Pope, and others chiefly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

(Fiction is truer than fact: I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled judgments of writers of remarkable perceptions—views of human nature and society which we could get, if unaided by books, only at the end of life, if then.)

Twelfth-grade Level

This is the year for developing a philosophical habit of mind through close attention to humane letter. “Scientific” truth, or what is popularly taken for scientific truth, alters from year to year—with accelerating speed in our time, but poetic and moral truths change little with the elapse of centuries; and the norms of politics are fairly constant.

Select Epistles of St. Paul (King James version), taught as literature (I assure you that this is quite constitutional, even in public schools.)

William Shakespeare, King Lear (1605-06); or Coriolanus (1608-9)

Samuel Johnson, Rasselas (1759)

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (preferably in Long’s translation)

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942); or The Great Divorce (1946)

Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus (1604)

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900); or Nostromo (1904)

(It may be useful to add to these a little book of reflections or essays—George Gissing’s Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft [1903], say, or Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp [1863] or selections from Hawthorne’s letters, or Kempis’s Imitation of Christ [1426].)

Tentative though the preceding recommendations are, I think them calculated to rouse the moral imagination of many students, and not to bore the average pupil. They pay close attention to the greater poets in the English language since the beginning of the seventeenth century; they include three years’ study of the most powerful creative writer, Shakespeare; they touch upon both the classical and the Christian roots of humane letters; they introduce students to a dozen major novels; and—unlike most existing programs in literature at the typical high school—they give some place to history and biography.

Quite possibly these suggested lists may not please teachers who merely accept whatever they happen to find in anthologies, nor yet teachers who attempt to convert courses in current social problems. Certainly they will not please teachers who find thinking painful. I have a sample test teacher-competence, which any instructor in high school literature might do well to apply to himself. It is this: can you understand, and explain to a class, two very direct memorable poems—Kipling’s The Gods of the Copybook Headings (1919) and Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (1911)? If you cannot, you have chosen the wrong vocation.

Certainly many of the folk who edit high-school anthologies have chosen the wrong vocation. They think of classes in literature as a kind of adolescent-sitting, or at best an opportunity to impart Approved Social Attitudes. They despair of competing with Demon Television. They seem strongly prejudiced against anything published before 1920, say. One way to escape from the clutches of this breed of “educator” is to abjure anthologies altogether and turn instead to the original works of literature, not to the anthology-snippets. And today the price of all the cheap reprints for a semester’s study may be less than the price of the bulky and unloveable anthology.

How many favorites of my own have I omitted from this list! Where are Chaucer, Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Edmund Burke, Lord Macaulay, John Henry Newman, Benjamin Disraeli, Oliver Goldsmith, John Ruskin, Washington Irving, William Morris, Fenimore Cooper, George Gissing, George Bernard Shaw, Roy Campbell, William Faulkner? I would not be offended if someone should substitute Trollope for Thackeray, or Tolkien for Bradbury. What I am offering here a not a dogmatic syllabus, but rather an approach to the study of humane letters by young people—an approach meant to induce them to ask themselves and one another and their teachers certain ultimate question; also meant to help them learn the difference between praiseworthy writing and wretched writing.

Of course I do not mean that the books listed above, for those four grades, are the Great Books, exclusively, of English letters. They are some of the great books; all of them are important books; those who read these books will be led to many other important books, in school or out of it. We are embarrassed by the riches of English literature, nearly eight centuries of it.

Readers of this inadequate essay who are interested in other lists of the books we ought to know would do well to take up Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s slim volume The Art of Reading (1920) (hard to obtain in American nowadays), or more recent books about great books by John Erskine, Montgomery Belgion, and others. To know what is wrong with the typical school Program in literature (on either side of the Atlantic), read C. S. Lewis’s essay the Abolition of Man (1947). And to the teacher who seeks to learn how to make dead books come alive—why, I commend particularly Gilbert Highet’s The Art of Teaching (1950).

The survival or the revival of sound study of literature is bound up with the survival of civilization itself. Literary culture will endure through these dark days if enough men and women are aware that the purpose of literature is not simple amusement, nor sullen negation, but rather the guarding and advancement of the permanent things, through the power of the word.

If literature has no object, it does not deserve to survive. Many writers and publishers and reviewers clearly are of the opinion that literature exists only to fill their pockets and tickle their vanity. Any honest physical labor is more edifying than that. But perhaps we will see the beginning of a reaction against such decadence in letter, if only from mankind’s primal instinct for the perpetuation of the species.

The rejection of humane letters is an act of childish impatience and arrogance. The consequences of that rejection are not restricted to juvenile years, but may endure to the end of life. When the great books are forgotten or burnt—why, as George Orwell reminds us in 1984 (1949), “Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.”

This blog post has been reproduced with the permission of The Imaginative Conservative. The original blog post can be found here. The views expressed by the author and The Imaginative Conservative are not necessarily endorsed by this organization and are simply provided as food for thought from Intellectual Takeout.

Image Credit: David Flores via Flickr