Alienum phaedrum torquatos nec eu, vis detraxit periculis ex, nihil expetendis in mei. Mei an pericula euripidis, hinc partem.

Reading as the Heart of the Matter

An interview with John Briggs, Ph.D.

 

“Experience” is an important word for Lewis. He’s drawing that from the root meaning of experiment.

black and white photo of CS Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) Irish-born literary scholar, author, and apologist. Photo by John Chillingworth.

What do you see in C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism that may help us to prepare students, prepare ourselves even, to be better readers?
“Experience” is an important word for Lewis. He’s drawing that from the root meaning of experiment. It’s striking that this is a book about the application of ideas that he developed in The Abolition of Man (1943); about 20 years later, he wrote An Experiment in Criticism.

He does not provide a list of steps to take. In fact, part of his project is to warn against the users of literature, or the uses we tend to think are most important when we encounter literature. He doesn’t dismiss these as ridiculous. He just says that these tend to be barriers when the core experience is missing.

So, the book is organized around trying to understand, layer by layer, what that core experience of reading is, because there are so many diversions. When he gets to it, at the very end, it is about a form of immersion.

That’s very important in his autobiographical thinking, as well. It’s an engagement that is giving up oneself, involving the spirit and choice, being drawn to it, reaching for something higher in life. It’s an expression of humility, as well, in saying that when (the reader) stands on that promontory, that’s not enough: there are moments when he must dive in.

He does distinguish those who are prepared to dive in, to immerse themselves, but he believes those readers are rare.
Yes. I think that he’s a realist about how difficult it is, in our time, to do this, but I think he is very democratic in his attempt to articulate the process. The book itself is very inviting, because it begins with our own universal preconceptions, and does not stigmatize one group over another.

Why are many readers not diving in and taking advantage of the immersive experience, according to Lewis?
He believes it is both the common culture and the university—and he’s writing around 1960, so this is not an inspiring precedent. He says things are really difficult in the university, where professional criticism, skeptical criticism, and other kinds of interpretation have created new barriers, especially when they’re detached from that original experience, which we keep trying to recover and which becomes more difficult as things pile up.

So, he’s not pointing a finger. He’s talking about a human condition, knowing the need, and remembering. He’s saying that there’s enough of our common experience for us to know when we’re there, when we rest in our natural self. This is an important concept in the book. When we’re there, we have reached a point at which we are at ease with ourselves and the place we are, if only momentarily, as though it were where we ought to be, as though it were our natural selves…natural here interpreted to be much more than Darwin might make of it.


“[C.S. Lewis’s Experiment] is organized around trying to understand, layer by layer, what that core experience of reading is… It’s an engagement that is giving up oneself, involving the spirit and choice, being drawn to it, reaching for something higher in life. It’s an expression of humility.”
— John Briggs


Working with students and families, how do we recover some of the wonder, the immersion, and the experience of inhabiting a work of fiction? How would Lewis recommend that we should go about that?
I think he embodies the sort of person that the Great Hearts schools, classical education schools, make possible among more young people, because those schools are about wonder. They are about reverence. They are about robust engagement. They are about spirit. What are all these things? These are the elements of genuine human nature.

So, I would say to parents, look around, visit a school. What are you seeing in the children’s faces? What is the spirit of the place? I think Lewis has made that contribution: he’s gone to the center of the change (in education), and he’s pointing to the thing that needs to be rediscovered.

I think parents know, because they’re raising children. The daily drama of the unfolding of the child’s humanity is so striking, if one’s eyes are open to it. The parents are looking for a response in the schools, to this life they see emerging. It’s not about selling a pedagogy. It’s about enabling them to see what’s really happening.


black and white photo of john briggsDr. John Briggs teaches the history and theory of rhetoric and composition, as well as courses on Lincoln’s speeches, Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, and others at the University of California- Riverside. He is currently serving as the Director of the University Writing Program. He is the author of Francis Bacon and the Rhetoric of Nature and Lincoln’s Speeches Reconsidered.

 

Artwork: Map of Narnian world as described in “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis (1976), by David Bedell.

Since 1992, “The Nation’s Report Card” has informed us that barely a third of the country’s school age children are becoming proficient readers. For nearly 30 years, policy makers have responded to these discouraging findings with a handful of solutions—namely, more explicit standards and assessments, along with various teaching techniques.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is one of the greatest and most original American poets, whose verse has provided generations with the short lines of slant rhyme that tease the reader out of thought.

As a child, I loved school and wanted to be a teacher: I was drawn to children with special needs, babysat a little boy with Down syndrome, worked every summer at a camp with children from the inner city, and later majored in special education.

Seminar discussion, the classroom model most Great Books and Socratic practitioners aspire to, is highly under-informed.

Much of K-12 classical education is learned by apprenticeship, and the craft of teaching often takes years to develop. That is why we honor the craftsmen among us.

“Experience” is an important word for Lewis. He’s drawing that from the root meaning of experiment. It’s striking that this is a book about the application of ideas that he developed in The Abolition of Man (1943); about 20 years later, he wrote An Experiment in Criticism.

About Virtue Magazine

Virtue is the flagship publication of the Institute for Classical Education. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Subscribing to Virtue’s mailing list is absolutely free. Sign-up today to receive your first copy!