In half a dozen classrooms they gather then,—here to follow the love song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander among men and nations,—and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queer world. Nothing new, no time-saving devices, simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living.
– W. E. B. Du Bois
When I read civil rights activist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois’s reflections on his time at Atlanta University, I can’t help but picture my own literature students. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois promotes classical education as a means to achieve equality. While he wrote in the context of achieving freedom during an era of segregation, he acknowledges a truth our own culture has abandoned. Education should have the goal of making us more human by teaching us critical thinking about the world in which we live. We were meant to wander with and wonder at the stories of struggle in this world. This is why one of the distinctives of education for freedom is the reading of great books.
Great books have survived the test of time because what they house is true. The great books wrestle with the central themes of humanity: good vs. evil, suffering and redemption, love, courage, and corruption, among many others. There’s a reason that the themes in literature class are repeated every year: those perennial themes echo God’s redemption narrative. Because the authors are making statements on these themes, reading great books is an exercise in discernment in which our students get to put their worldviews to the test.
Last week, my Classical Literature students evaluated Achilleus’ statements on the sanctity of life in Book IX of Homer’s Iliad. Instead of embracing the Greek hero code, kill or be killed, he sits out the battle because he doesn’t think gaining honor by killing is worth risking his own life. His speech left his fellow warriors baffled because it contradicted the values they had been taught. I asked my students to compare their ideas and decide which they believed were in line with Scripture. As Du Bois put it, during this activity my students were “delving for Truth.”
Likewise, Du Bois noted that great books are beautiful. All art cultivates either the ugly or the beautiful. Christians in particular should care that art is beautiful because beauty elevates the soul by acting as a gravitational pull that draws the soul onward toward the true and the good, namely to God. The writers of great books use well-chosen words and detailed imagery, which is one of the reasons we memorize and recite so much poetry!
This week, my American Literature seniors are memorizing Emily Dickinson’s “I Died for Beauty.” In it, Dickinson illustrates a conversation between someone who died for beauty and someone who died for truth. They recognize that the two concepts are intricately intertwined. Eventually, moss covers up their names, and their memories are thereby erased. To sum up the poem in a phrase, Dickinson asks the reader to love what lasts. Our utilitarian culture doesn’t appreciate beautiful things such as this poem. Yet beautiful things call us to delight in something bigger than ourselves. Reading great books is therefore an act of worship of a beautiful God who made the world in his image, a creative act repeated by the authors of great books. As Dostoevsky’s Mitya Karamazov remarked, it’s beauty that will save the world.
In the great books, characters wrestle between virtues and vices. These characters help our students learn to distinguish what is good from what is not. The good life is the life marked by virtue. Du Bois described the love song of good queen Dido as she is deceived by Aeneas into a sham marriage. This tragedy teaches our students that to live well is to care for the lives of others and to value integrity. Our students cringe at the carelessness of Rome’s ancestor, and then rejoice when he develops piety. I hope they don’t make the same mistakes Aeneas made, but choose instead the path of goodness. In this way, the great books cultivate our students’ moral compasses.
“If you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones,” C.S. Lewis wrote in “Learning in War-Time.” Our children are either reading well or they’re reading Instagram comments and consuming hours of visual media. At Cary Christian School, we fight the temptation to fill our minds with things that won’t last by leading our students through the great books. We want them to develop appetites for things that are true, good, and beautiful. We want them to be free.
One of the things that makes great books great is that we never grow too old for them. Have you considered reading a great book alongside your son or daughter? Check out our Lower School and Upper School reading lists for ideas.