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An Experiment in Criticism (Canto Classics)
An Experiment in Criticism (Canto Classics)
C. S. Lewis
Cambridge University Press, 2012
152 pp., 19.99

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David Neff

Escaping Ourselves

Why it is vital to teach students to read carefully.

My senior year in high school, I didn't read what the other kids read. I was an experiment. Our progressive high school administration wanted to see what would happen if they turned a few of their brightest students loose. And so I was cut loose.

It was the autumn of 1964, and Congress had just passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that handed President Johnson a blank check to use U.S. forces any way he wanted in Southeast Asia. In the previous 13 months, Bob Dylan had released two albums with the title tracks "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" These tunes were mainlined into the bloodstream of American youth as I tried to decide what I would do with the loosely supervised study time my school had granted me.

How natural it was, then, that I chose to study Antigone, the 5th-century BC Greek tragedy about the clash between a determined individual's moral sense and the iron will of the state. My generation was in a mood to challenge the (obviously) immoral state in the name of our own (also obvious) moral sense.

And so, that year, I didn't read the poem, plays, and essays that my classmates read. Instead, I gathered a few theater junkies around me to tape Sophocles' tragedy on my oversized Ampex reel-to-reel recorder.

Was I richer or poorer for the experience? I was certainly enriched through my encounter with a classic work of literature that was still relevant after two-and-a-half millennia. But I was also impoverished for being ripped from my social context and having to mine for meaning without anyone else as a guide or a sounding board.

I recalled my feelings from that solo senior year a few months ago when I was introduced to the Common Core educational standards. There is nothing solo, idiosyncratic, or freelance about the Common Core State Standards. They were produced by representatives of state governors and their chief education officials, and they have been adopted by 44 states and territories. (No matter what critics say, this is not a federal intrusion into state educational responsibilities. It is a project of the states themselves.) Their purpose is to articulate a common vision of what it means for high school graduates to be ready for college. This includes, of course, the ability to read, absorb, and analyze texts—a series of intellectual and moral moves that the 16th century prayer book summarized as "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest." Thus the English Language Arts standards carefully outline a progression in complexity from kindergarten to the end of high school that will help students develop the necessary abilities for an effective college experience.

One key reason for this joint effort across our state governments is that a student's zip code is currently one of the best predictors of college readiness. As in real estate, so in education: It's location, location, location. It is thus a matter of justice in our democracy to do what we can to overcome the handicaps created by the accidents of geography.

But my personal appreciation for the pedagogy the Common Core outlines and the texts it strongly recommends is that it can bring us back to the vision of Horace Mann, the pioneer of our Common School movement. Mann's major goal was training disciplined citizens. One of his key principles was that classrooms should pull together children from varied backgrounds, yet provide them with common understandings.

Mann aimed to establish schools with a common vision. The Common Core State Standards aim to help existing schools provide essential preparation for a diverse population. It is hoped that through a common experience with both literary and informational texts, students will gain insights and skills needed in order to rebuild the common foundations of our diverse society. Thus the recommended texts include key passages from Patrick Henry, George Washington, the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Learned Hand, Margaret Chase Smith, and Ronald Reagan. All of these help us think beyond ourselves to engage a grand social experiment.

In his Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argued that "the necessary condition of all good reading is 'to get ourselves out of the way.' " We get out of the way of the text when we read it closely for what it has to offer. The Common Core Standards encourage such close reading. We get out of the way when we check our own interpretations in constructive dialogue with others. The Common Core Standards call for publishers to produce materials that "provide opportunities for students to participate in real, substantive discussions that require them to respond directly to the ideas of their peers."

One of my favorite pedagogues these days is James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In his series-in-progress entitled Cultural Liturgies, he argues that human beings are not primarily thinking animals but must be regarded instead as "desiring animals." Head knowledge, especially head knowledge gained from an instructor who is "teaching to the test," is aimed at the wrong part of the moral anatomy to make good citizens. We need a pedagogy that "aims below the head," says Smith, in order to help students rightly order their loves and desires.

Smith's explicitly Christian approach to teaching is designed for Christian higher education. But it is a reminder that the kind of education that builds communities will get students outside of themselves long enough to order their desires in relationship to the needs of others.

The kind of close reading advocated by Lewis meets what I believe is an innate desire for self-transcendence. "We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own," Lewis writes. He compares close reading with love, with moral action, and even with the fundamental act of learning. "In love we escape from our self into one another …. [E]very act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person's place ."

Studying Antigone on my own during my senior year helped me put myself "in the other person's place." But my study would surely have been far less effective without the American literature class I took the year before. There we learned to read closely (including reading our own writing with a careful, critical eye). But we heard the human story not only through the approved literature but also through song. Our teacher was fascinated by the folk movement and lugged his tape recorder to coffee houses and hootenannies. Then he correlated the songs with the literary selections in our curriculum so that the material could be aimed "below the head" to penetrate the organ where we order our loves and desires.

I have not intended here so much to defend the Common Core Standards against their critics (though most of the criticisms I have seen raised in the press are at best tangential to the standards themselves). What I have intended to argue is that the kind of close reading advocated by Lewis and embodied in the Common Core Standards is an important part of creating a community of discourse composed of people who have learned, as Lewis wrote, to reject "the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are"—and thus to step outside themselves for the sake of others.

David Neff is the former editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine, where he served for 28 years. This essay was underwritten by funding from the Clapham Group.

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