Heads of School Speak - PRIVATE
Every Student Should Be Required to Read...
What a huge question this is! Choosing from the wealth of great literature while selecting materials that are relevant to today’s youth presents a unique challenge to the responsible educator. Let us, for the moment, set aside the actual selection of materials and address the principles under which those choices might be made. Since students graduate after completing eighth grade, the texts cited and the criteria for their selection are most relevant for seventh and eighth graders.
As an independent school, we have the good fortune to be able to make literary choices based on time-honored ideals that are not governed by state textbook lists. We try, where possible, to have our students read original texts rather than bowdlerized versions. Many of the world’s classics, both old and modern, have been edited, trimmed and revised to suit a variety of political sensibilities. Secondly, we would like our students to read material presenting those aspects of character, virtue, and human nature that have been traditionally prized by western civilization and that are in danger of disappearance through lack of exposure. Finally, we seek literary ideas that will engage the minds of adolescents. They need to test great ideas against the canvas of the world.
So, ‘every student should be required to read…’ Shakespeare—two plays (The Tempest and Twelfth Night) and selected sonnets. Human nature, from the ridiculous to the sublime, has no finer author than the Bard. The plays cited demonstrate the transformational potential in the human being as well as mankind’s foibles. As for the sonnets, the sheer beauty of the language alone makes them ‘musts’ for our students. American authors—Mark Twain (Life on the Mississippi), John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men), Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), Willa Cather (O! Pioneers) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451). Our country’s history, ethos, conflicts and ideals are all to be found in these authors’ works. Plato—in particular, the Apology and excerpts from the Republic such as the ‘allegory of the cave’, the ‘origins of war’ and the ‘myth of Er’. Adolescents are profoundly interested in the question of justice and its application in the world. Plato’s work unflinchingly addresses these questions. His ideas have been valued for their philosophic depth and fine use of reason for 2500 years.
The suggestions found above are by no means meant to be exhaustive. No mention has been made here of great historical documents or fine poetry (other than Shakespeare). The principles of choice would apply to these as well. The world of ideas held in works of great literature is a worthy field of engagement for the minds of the young. As educators,
we should give great care to its use and development.#
Howard Schott is the Headmaster of Abraham Lincoln School www.abrahamlincolnschool.org.