Teaching Humane Literature in High Schools

Thoughts from Professor Russell Kirk on why and what. It’s gratifying to see that our reading lists at Providence Prep stack up fairly well with his picks. Even better is the depth and breadth of his apology for a Great Books education. I particularly loved his thoughts on why the standard “literary” fare in today’s classroom is so impoverished. Here he deals with the common quest for “relevance.”

Literature certainly ought to be relevant to something. But to what? Too many anthologists and teachers fancy that humane letters ought to be relevant simply to questions of the hour—the latest political troubles, the fads and foibles of the era, the concerns of commercial television or of the daily newspaper. Such shallow relevance to the trivial and the ephemeral must leave young people prisoners of what Eliot called the provinciality of time: that is, such training in literature is useless to its recipients within a few years, and leaves them ignorant of the enduring truths of human nature and of society.

Genuine relevance in literature, on the contrary, is relatedness to what Eliot described as “the permanent things:” to the splendor and tragedy of the human condition, to constant moral insights, to the spectacle of human history, to love of community and , to the achievements of right reason. Such a literary relevance confers upon the rising generation a sense of what it is to be fully human, and a knowledge of what great men and women of imagination have imparted to our civilization over the centuries. Let us be relevant in our teaching of literature, by all means—but not relevant merely to what will be thoroughly irrelevant tomorrow.

Read the entire article at The Imaginative Conservative. Brew yourself a cup of tea and enjoy a leisurely stroll through his thoughts. Be sure to wander through the why before arriving at the what. Yes, you will probably be tempted to skip to the booklists at the end — perhaps I was similarly tempted; perhaps I gave in just a little . . . Well, as my wise grandmother always said, “Do as I say and not as I do.”

2 thoughts on “Teaching Humane Literature in High Schools

  1. I loved this part: “We have talked about “education for life” and “training for life-adjustment;” yet many of us seem to have forgotten that literary disciplines are a principal means for learning to accept the conditions of existence. Moreover, unless the life to which we are urged to adjust ourselves is governed by norms, it must be a wretched life for everyone.” Mic drop!

Leave a Reply