It’s fashionable today (and usually with very good reason) to bash textbooks. But I have very fond memories of my upper elementary, middle school and high school readers and literature textbooks. Today I’m going to show what’s to love in the literature textbook of my school days.
This series of literature textbooks was outstanding. Let’s look at a few samples of what made it great and why it is a shame that it has disappeared from our Middle Schools and High Schools.
Rigorous, classic content
Plutarch’s Lives, in days gone by, were an essential piece of the Western Canon–that now much vilified era of great literature dismissed by many today as the story of “Dead White Men.” I happen to think it is an excellent way to study character–and so do the Advisory Committee of the outstanding Charlotte Mason homeschool curriculum, Ambleside Online, whose Retreat and Conference I will soon be attending [Sorry, registration is Closed–see you there next year]. I had the seemingly daunting task, back when my daughter and I were homeschooling for her 6th grade year, of leading her thru Plutarch’s life of Poplicola. In the end, in spite of the demanding language, my reluctant reader listened to the story then retold it perfectly in one short, very public school sentence: “All that to say he was stuck up?” Indeed. It is as possible to relate Plutarch to gritty modern “relevant” situations as it was to do so when my Grandmother studied them in school during World War I (when, incidentally children in the public schools of Bloomington, Indiana, learned German and later Latin as a matter of course, regardless of their abilities or career goals). A corrupt man is a corrupt man–as my daughter’s response shows modern kids can understand the story and relate to it. One now all-but-forgotten campaigner for educational excellence in the 1970s and 1980s, Marva Collins, used Plutarch and other classic works to educate children seen as, in a few cases, “uneducable” by the Chicago Public Schools of that day. Other inspiring stories of great men were offered as well as a way of showing students what they could become if they worked hard. I loved all of these stories.
Notice the piece in the right–David and Goliath. Back in the 1970’s it was still fine to teach the Bible–either retold in age appropriate ways or in the King James Version, as essential literary knowledge–a work so beyond compare that everyone should learn some of it, if only for the beauty of the language or for the timeless lessons it convey. David’s triumph over the giant Goliath is a timeless tale of faith, course, belief in self and in God and in perseverance–a story as relevant today in a world plague by the ultimate Philistines. For what but Philistines are gangs? And gangs perfectly illustrate the literary reference “a Philistine.” Instead of reading gloomy, profane, violent books with “relevancy” this story shows the power of doing right.
Students were taught the essential vocabulary not simply by memorizing the terms, but by being introduced to them and then studying a great work that illustrated the term, style, tone or voice. By using time-tested outstanding works, we learned from the best of the best. Drama, for example, featured great plays such as “Abe Lincoln of Illinois,” by Robert Sherwood as well as a play by Shakespeare in each grade. Now, I know these things are still done in school. Our schools are not always terrible–in fact many ARE excellent. But too often the path of least resistance is taken–“easy” Shakespeare re-tellings or other modern language versions are used. That’s ok up to a point as is pre-teaching with a modern movie version of the play. I fully agree with reading the play and then watching it–after all it was not written to be “literature” but entertainment. I do think that discovering that the Bard’s works are accessible and finding the many, many references in our language from his work is as essential as it ever has been.
I remember discovering in my textbook that Shakespeare could be performed in modern dress and with modern imagery due to a photograph of a production of Julius Caesar with the bad guys in Nazi uniforms–an image that resonated well in my brain. Years later as I sat in Stratford-Upon-Avon watching the Royal Shakespeare Company present a Midsummer Night’s Dream, I wished it had been done in modern dress. Later my daughter and I saw Timon of Athens done with Timon as a Bill Gates figure with his photo on the cover of Vanity Fair! I wonder how I had responded without that photo to “educate” me to ways actors and directors interpret the works they are staging.
Fine Arts Literacy
Just like with literary styles or genres, fine arts literacy and vocabulary was taught by illustration. There was a short reading passage, then paintings, sculpture or other “art” to illustrate the lesson. I loved this part of the books. With my great-uncle and great-aunt working artists and with my mother having helped start the “Picture Lady” at our former school to introduce students to one or two great works of art per year, I found the illustrations the perfect escape in boring classes or on the bus or even at home. My brother was so taken with one he reproduced it in his painting course in high school–The Old Guitarist by Picasso. These textbooks introduced students to the world of beauty and esthetics. It saddens me to think how many children today grow up without any contact with either.
When I first visited the Art Institute in Chicago, a few of the paintings I most wanted to see–other than those my Mom’s group had shown–were from these books or were ones Mom or my brother had mentioned, perhaps in a car or diner table conversation, as being “like” one in the textbooks. Sadly, today fine arts education, art classes, music ensembles and music classes have all but disappeared. Learning the vocabulary of drawing, painting and sculpting and having even a vague notion of artists eras enhances our lives by making art approachable and understandable, but it also helps us to find moments of beauty and awe when we stumble across great art in the fleeting glimpses modern life sometimes offers. It makes coping with the cacophony of images, or visual chaos a little easier to process. Art, when understood even superficially, can provide an oasis of calm and restoration of the soul.
The School-ish parts
These are textbooks were meant to have accountability as well. For me, and I suspect for everyone else–teachers included, this was what ruined the experience. Having to read to answer the questions at the end and not just to savor the story, the language, the painting or whatever, made a great book switch instantly from engaging and exciting to dull and loathsome. There is no way around this when you have 20 or so in a class, I fully appreciate this. And accountability is part of school. Our eyes glazed over, we hunted back thru the story for the one “right” answer and our interest in the story was just gone because of that.
As my 35th high school reunion looms this weekend, I have to wonder how many–whether they have read a book or seen a play or looked at a painting ever again, I wonder if they nod and remember when the see the American Gothic used somewhere if they recall seeing it or another Grant Wood thanks to a bored moment flipping thru one of these textbooks and landing on, say, this painting….
I hope you have enjoyed this childhood memory. Take a look at the textbooks your kids bring home, whether traditional “print” textbooks or e-books on their I-pad. You may be pleasantly surprised to find things like this. Don’t make it a lesson. Just remark that its a lovely painting, or that you remember and love that poem. “Strewing” or “scattering seeds” can be done verbally as well as physically. Try it.