The Director’s Take
by Robert Jackson
Ultimately, the authors we choose to read will affect the students’ level of interest and their likelihood of becoming truly fluent readers. Frankly, if a book doesn’t have the power to enliven the imagination, then it doesn’t deserve to be read.
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. Meanwhile, the selection and quality of reading materials in schools are given little attention. This often leads to the default acceptance of what mainstream publishers see fit to produce: informational texts, contemporary stories with social commentary, literature anthologies, etc.
To raise a generation of fluent readers, we must look beyond the enumeration of reading standards (“determine a theme of a story… summarize the text,” etc.) to a more profound encounter with books. From the very beginning, even as we teach students to decode the language, we must instill an enthusiasm for stories and a fascination with the written word. We must allow the sounds and sense of language to permeate the classroom as books are read aloud, scenes are dramatized, and language is embodied by the careful, thorough reading of great authors.
Ultimately, the authors we choose to read will affect the students’ level of interest and their likelihood of becoming truly fluent readers. Frankly, if a book doesn’t have the power to enliven the imagination, then it doesn’t deserve to be read. Whether ably depicting other peoples, places, and times (history), deftly describing natural phenomena (physical sciences), or persuasively enacting a dramatic event (literature), a great author brings a subject to life, transporting students to worlds beyond their personal experiences. Such is true reading, for it inspires us to explore “the realms of gold.”
This issue of Virtue is derived largely from the theme of the Institute’s inaugural event: the National Classical Education Symposium, held last February in Phoenix. Our focus was on reading great books and discussing such works in effective seminars. We drew upon the scholarship of our friends in higher education to enrich primary and secondary school teachers. More than 400 registrants representing 75 schools from 26 states (plus several homeschoolers) were in attendance— along with scholars, publishers, legislators, and philanthropists—all interested in the recovery of K-12 classical education.
One of our beloved informants at the Symposium was Dr. John Briggs (University of California, Riverside), whose exposition of C.S. Lewis’s thought helped frame our understanding of reading great books. According to Dr. Briggs, Lewis diagnosed what’s gone wrong with reading in the modern era in The Abolition of Man (1943). Nearly twenty years later, in An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis proposed a remedy to our malady: a thought-felt way of experiencing the world of books—which is the focus of our interview with Dr. Briggs.
Of course, given our deep commitment to great conversations, we have two more interviews: the first with Mr. Dennis Staffelbach, a master teacher with three decades of experience at the Trinity School at Greenlawn, who reminds us that the art of teaching requires deep empathy for our students; and the other with Mrs. Cheryl Swope, a teacher, author, and curriculum designer who is devoted to bringing classical education to students with special needs. Inside, you’ll also find an article concerning a consulting group, Cana Academy (with a century of teaching experience!), that is bringing extraordinary support to K-12 classical educators across the country.
Those involved in K-12 classical education are keenly interested in developing proficient readers. But, we know that it will take more than revised materials and assessments. It will require a thoroughly evocative approach by teachers and school leaders, caring for students’ imaginations above all else. As we raise the standard for selecting the best books, students’ proficiency will follow (including the test scores). We will read the best authors, in order to amaze our students with the power of language—and inspire them to explore the wonder-filled world of books.
Artwork: Alice in Wonderland (circa 1879), oil on canvas, by George Dunlop Leslie, located at Brighton and Hove Museums & Art Galleries (Brighton and Hove, England)
Virtue is the flagship publication of the Great Hearts Institute. 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.