Beyond Newspaper Chewing: Why it Matters What is Read in High School (Part II of II)

Editor’s note: The first part of this essay was published in Crisis on July 4, 2013 and can be read here.

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 or 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.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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I repeat that I do not insist upon 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) 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: Fantasy
For   this   year   I   emphasize  fantasy,  in the larger sense of that 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 (This  is the most influential  allegory  in the  English language.)

• William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

• Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables or (perhaps prefer­ably) The Marble Faun

• Robert Louis Stevenson,   Kidnapped or one of his volumes of short stories.

• Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes or Dandelion Wine (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 Morality or The Heart of Midlothian (These are much more important romances than is Ivanhoe, so commonly taught.)

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

It will be noted that for this grade, as for later ones, all recommended books are available in inexpensive paperback editions; it is unnecessary, except with incompetent teachers, to employ a fat and rather repellent anthology; besides, most high-school anthologies nowadays are shoddy.

Tenth-grade Level: History & the Moral Imagination
Here our vehicle for rousing the moral imagination is narrative history and biography (including autobiography). Reading of great lives does something to form decent lives. I draw upon both “actual” and “imagin­ary” sources for this branch of literature:

• Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

• William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra or Henry V

• Francis   Parkman,   The Oregon  Trail or  The Conspiracy of Pontiac

• Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn or Life on the Mississippi

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

• William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry Esmond

• Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

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: Imaginary Realms
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

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

• Herman Melville, Moby Dick or selected short stories

• Charles Dickens, Great Expectations or Bleak House

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

• George Orwell, Animal Farm

• 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: “Scientific” Truth
This is the year for developing a philosophic habit of mind through close attention to humane letters. “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 or Coriolanus

• Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

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

• C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce

• Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

• Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim or Nostromo

It might be useful to add to these a little book of reflections or essays—George Gissing’s Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, say, or Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp, or selections from Hawthorne’s letters, or Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.

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 literature into courses in current social prob­lems. Certainly they will not please teachers who find thinking painful. I have a simple test of 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 and memorable poems—Kipling’s The Gods of the Copybook Headings and Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse? 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 wounded if someone should substitute Trollope for Thackeray, or Tolkien for Bradbury. What I am offering here is 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 questions; 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 (hard to obtain in America 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’ essay The Abolition of Man. 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.

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 letters, 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, “Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.”

Editor’s note: This article was first published as “Humane Literature in High Schools” in the Textbook Evaluation Report, no. 665 (1977).  It is reprinted here and done so with the kind permission of Mrs. Annette Kirk.


  • Russell Kirk

    Russell Kirk (October 19, 1918 – April 29, 1994) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post–World War II conservative movement. Kirk is considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism.

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