Read Literature to Learn and Love the Truth

The other night I testified (via telephone) before the Alaska state legislature, on the standards their public schools are adopting for classes in English.  I’d read the standards but didn’t have them in front of me, so I was taken aback when one of the representatives plucked a directive out of all the verbiage and asked me whether I had a problem with it.

If I remember correctly, the directive he read was this one, for high school juniors and seniors.  It is the Prime Directive for classes in literature:  “Cite strong and thorough [sic; can evidence be weak and thorough?] textual [sic; what other kind of evidence is there going to be in a text?] evidence to support analysis of [sic; meaning: to show] what the text says explicitly as well as inferences [sic; is “inferences” another object of “cite,” or of the infinitive “to support,” or of the preposition “of”?] drawn from the text [sic; as opposed to “from thin air”], including determining [sic; what is doing the “including”? Who in the sentence is “determining”?] where the text leaves matters uncertain.” Translated into English: “Discuss what the author says most clearly, what he merely implies, and what he leaves uncertain.”

Anyway, the gist of the solon’s objection to my criticisms was that we want students to be able to cite evidence when they make a claim about anything.  My objection to his objection, as I was running out of time, was that, as worthy a goal as that might be, that’s not what a literature course is really about.  He was thinking about tests, and I was thinking about David Copperfield.  He was thinking of technique, and I was thinking about the imagination and truth.

Now that I have the benefit of some time for reflection, and for looking at the page in question, I see that I missed an opportunity to make a crucial point.  It has less to do with literature, to which I’ll return in a moment, than with the whole aim of an intellectual life—even of a human life.  That aim is to behold the truth, and to love it for its beauty.

It’s hard to keep that foremost in mind, when we are met at every turn with a barrage of ugliness: expensive, deliberate, programmatic ugliness, such as that of the prose from the Alaska standards for reading and writing; and when the eyes of the soul are washed in the carbolic acid of relativism; and when truth is reduced to what is demonstrable by means of some measurement; and when reason is but a clever tool for procuring what will sate the appetite.

In our world, then, the only arguments considered valid are those that come primped up with academic studies, footnotes, graphs, and, to quote the perspicacious Mark Twain, “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  To teach students to respect only the canny marshaling of pieces of purported evidence is not to teach them to think.  Old Socrates dealt with this folly long ago.  It is to teach them instead to submit to the sophists, just as Socrates’ young friend Phaedrus was about to do, when he encountered Lysias’ plausible self-serving argument that it is better to give your favors to an older fellow who is not in love with you, than to one who is.

Alas, I should have said, in the hearing of those Alaskans, “Truth sometimes comes to us in a flannel shirt and denim trousers.”  But only if we set our hearts upon the truth will we suspect that the farmer over there, who does not have sociological studies at his fingertips, is speaking it.  The trick is to raise people who will not give the field over to the academics, the experts, the well-heeled recipients of grants for discovering what they knew they had damned well better discover in order to justify the grant.  Academe is a cauldron of eels.  It is stuffed full of poseurs and liars.  The trick is to raise people sagacious enough to distinguish between a falsehood even if propped up by sophistication, and a truth even if naively or poorly expressed.

You won’t do that, generally, by raising up people who will pore over somebody’s charts and find where the question-begging crept in, or how the sample was skewed, or what the important questions were which the researcher never bothered to ask.  Yes, some few people will have to do that sort of thing, just as we need some people to clean out our septic tanks.  But most people will have neither the time nor the inclination for it.  That is where, for them, the humanities come in.

The young person who is steeped in history will be armed against the latest fashions in What Everybody Knows.  He’ll understand, if but intuitively, that a study conducted by an eel, in the pot of eels, on the habits of the other eels, is going to be of limited applicability to raccoons foraging freely over the woods.

The young person trained by good books to look at the reality of things will be armed against the sophomoric skeptic.  If you say to him, “Where is your proof that children are better off growing up with a married father and mother?” he will look at you, and rightly, as if you were a color blind person demanding proof of the existence of green.  He might reply, “Do I need to wait for a sociologist to do a study to prove to me that children should play outside?”  Of course they should grow up with a married mother and father.  He sees in his mind’s eye Oliver Twist and the Dodger and the rest of the rabble of boys, huddling in the condemned building with Fagin, who teaches them to steal, and who secretly turns them over to hanging when he’s through with them.  He sees Jane Eyre, and Esther Summerson, and Tom Jones.

You read good books to join in conversation with people who see farther or more deeply than most of us.  You enter the quiet room with Jane Austen, who says, with a sly smile, “Is it really true that we understand our own desires?  How often rather do we conceal them from ourselves by clever names?  Didn’t young Emma do that, when she nearly spoiled the life of her young friend Harriet?”  Robert Browning laughs from the corner, beckoning you to come near.  “Miss Austen is surely right about that!  But have you ever stopped to think that some people do evil by owning up to their desires and revealing them, at the right moment and to the right person?  Allow me to introduce you to my Duke, and the painting of his last Duchess.”

“Yes,” says a slender, sober man in a tunic, who looks as if he’s spent most of his life listening and not speaking.  “The Queen of Carthage was once a noble and pious woman, until she was seized by her dreadful desire.  It spares no one.”  He seems as if he were about to add something, but falls silent again.

“But there are two loves, and not just one,” says a man with a bishop’s miter, “and two cities, each built upon the foundation of one of those loves.  The one city is called Babylon, and the other is called the New Jerusalem.”

“That first city’s name is Florence,” says a sardonic poet with a set jaw and an eagle’s beak for a nose.  “I should know, because I lived there.”

“And they threw you out of the city,” says Browning, coming over to Dante to throw an arm around his neck.  “By the way, that painting you said you were making of Beatrice, what happened to it?  I would give more for that painting, just because you were not a painter, than I would for another fifty of your love poems, as highly as I esteem them!”

“But doesn’t my thought shine more brightly in the poetry, in which I’m skilled, than in a painting?”

“I don’t want your thought.  I have that already.  I want the human being in all his ordinary glory and weakness.  I wrote a poem about that painting, you know.  It was a love poem for my wife Elizabeth.  Have you met her?”

You do not read good books so that you can scramble up some tricks, so that you can write clever things about them, so that you can do well on a test and secure a prestigious job and then die.  You learn about the language and about what writers do, so that you can read good books and learn to love them, because they are companions who will tell you what they have seen of the truth, and they tell you it in a way you will not soon forget.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Mack

    So do you vote in your local school board elections?

    • Guest

      Why would that matter at all?

      • Lisa_S

        Because sometimes there is a candidate who doesn’t believe in making our children technocrats, and they have trouble winning because people don’t vote, thinking it doesn’t matter.

        • Guest


  • lifeknight

    I have enjoyed the eProvidence books which you have promoted with Prof. Lassiter. PLEASE begin a lit course for high school , seniors preferably! You have introduced and explained wonderful pieces of literature to our entire family. More, more, more!

  • Guest

    Another brilliant piece. Thank you. It seems it is a battle between technocrats and those who believe in authentic education.

  • Ford Oxaal

    In Heaven, you will have dinner with Mark Twain and laugh yourself to tears and wet your pants. In Hell, you will stare at a Windows 8 manual while two clammy literature administrators look on, slurping their lukewarm pabulum (which has all the nec-es-sary vit-a-mins and min-e-rals for sus-te-nance).

    • James1

      “In hell, you will stare at a Windows 8 manual…”

      While the OS on your computer will be Vista!

      • Ford Oxaal


      • John

        And surf using Mozilla Firefox (guaranteed no Prop 8 funders employed here)

  • poetcomic1

    I had an English teacher who loved Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and shared that love so powerfully that I still get goose-flesh remembering his class. To be fair, I can see where Common Core standards properly applied to the teaching of Conrad’s book could help a young man get a Mr. Kurtz type job – upriver.

  • Linda Wolpert Smith

    A companion to this moving post is provided at today’s “Visiting the Little Prince” by Bria Sandford.

    The writer quotes P. L. Travers: “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in a place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes to comprehend it.”

  • Guest

    Don’t worry, Mr. Esolen, I agree with you, but they’ll never see it our way–never. You see, reading and thinking is for privileged kids, and intellectual pursuits that enrich the souls are for people who believe in a soul and its place beyond the temporal. We subscribe to truths of “dead white men,” reason enough to suffocate all that was good for some, but not good enough for everyone.

    The more I follow the issues in this blog, the more convinced I am that this will be played out violently. I mean’ who’s listening?

    Will any of us survive the long reach of George Soros? of SPLC? Didn’t some fellow just recently lose his job for supporting Prop 8 in California years ago? Isn’t that a violation of his right to free speech? Who’s fighting for us in the courts? Will it matter?

    Who is going to stop the insanity in the public school system? The voices from the graves, the voices we learned from, are losing their place in eternity.

    I’m not in a mood for more talk on this. We are in trouble.

    • ForChristAlone

      Oh, but the final verdict is already in…we’ve won because we are Christ’s. As yesterday’s Gospel pointed out: We have come to believe in the One whose name is “I AM.”

    • Ford Oxaal

      Whatever you do, don’t let them get your kids!

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Maybe the ultimate standard in a high school should be “to love goodness, beauty, and truth.”

    Supporting claims with evidence from the text is important, but not if you don’t really believe the claim is true about the book. And even more important is how you think the claim relates to reality.

    • ColdStanding

      How are the atheist getting along these days? Prickly as ever?

      Oh, and, I owe you an apology. Last time we talked you caught me in rather a fowl mood. Sorry.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        That’s kind of you but I have no recollection of the conversation or if I was offended (not to imply I have forgotten you).

        • ColdStanding

          Strange Notions some few months ago. The first (I think) posting by New Apologetics. No matter.

  • erudite_recondite_eremite

    “If you say to him, ‘Where is your proof that children are better off growing up with a married father and mother?’ he will look at you, and rightly, as if you were a color blind person demanding proof of the existence of green. ”

    One might even quote our very own president who stated, “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realized [sic] at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses.” “

    Unfortunately, too many people (including the president himself) seem to be unable to connect the dots. But let’s bury our heads in the sand and pretend that (regardless of how well-intentioned!) “two mommies” can provide the necessary gender role models for a boy or that “two daddies” can provide the necessary gender role models for a girl!

  • hombre111

    As usual, Dr. Esolen, written with great insight and wit. Congratulations. But I could not help but think of the people you would have addressed, had you spoken to the legislature of my own Red state: A majority of farmers with or without a college education, a pack of lawyers, and some business people. Irony of ironies, this group gets to decide the fate of education in my state. And, of course, they are up in arms about core standards. Once, I served as a member of a board. After a year, I quit. In order to give good advice and make decisions, I had to know as much or more than the people I directed. I doubt if most of those lawmakers know anything at all about the works you recommend.

    When I taught in a college-oriented Catholic high school, my colleagues who taught Shakespeare and the other masters were in a state of endless despair, as they tried to pour the classics into stubbornly resistant minds. This was during a time when kids lived by a different ethic. I can’t imagine the difficulty presented now by kids with smart phones, whose loftiest cultural accomplishment is Saturday spent in the mall.

    This state ranks along the bottom when it comes to expenditures on education, and one in ten high school graduates graduate from college. The average citizen here slaves all week at Red state wages, celebrates the weekend with sports, shopping, or alcohol. In this mental and moral haze, they rush out at the next election and vote Republican.

    • cestusdei

      Ah yes. Blame the GOP. When it is the blue state liberals who run the educational establishment, teacher’s unions, and schools of education. Oh and most TV is left wing in the extreme as is most news. I live in a red state and would pit our kids against California’s kids any day of the week.

      • hombre111

        My red state is probably in a race to the bottom with your red state.

        • Thomas

          Move to Massachussetts.

          • hombre111

            Naah. My roots are here. There’s fair bass fishing. I was invited to teach at Catholic U. Went up and spent a week. Decided you get the guy out of the fields and mountains, but you can’t get the fields and mountains out of the guy. So, I returned to the trampled people trapped in the poverty of their red state,

            • cestusdei

              Not like DC where everyone lives in mansions…well the liberals do anyway.

        • cestusdei

          Life here is good. I once lived in DC. Huge government with the highest amount spent per student in the USA. Do you think liberals send their kids to public schools there? LOL, no. They are hell holes of failure. Thanks to the unions and liberals.

          • hombre111

            As I said, it seems to depend on you zip code. Go to bed hungry? Hear shots in the night? Watched your mom high on dope? Got to school by threading a gang zone? Etc.. Now, get into that school and flourish.

            • cestusdei

              Which zip code to the liberals in DC live in? In Georgetown they made sure the metro didn’t put a stop in to keep those “other” people out. Blue of bluest area in the country. And of course how many rich white kids do you see in DC public schools?

              • hombre111

                Non sequitur. I am talking about the zip codes of the poor and disadvantaged. It is there that the public schools are doing a lousy job, because it is like teaching the walking wounded in a war zone. But the public schools in the zip codes of the advantaged are often among the best schools in the country.

                • cestusdei

                  You are talking blue vs. red. So am I. You just don’t like it when I expose the truth. DC is totally blue and it is a 3rd world country. I was even nice and didn’t mention Detroit which is what the whole nation will look like with you blues are done with us.

                  • hombre111

                    I don’t know enough about DC to even talk about it, and the same with Detroit. With Detroit, I can say at least that it exemplifies what happens when industries leave town because of mismanagement for greener pastures (as in cheaper wages, fewer environmental regs, etc.). That is certainly true when you travel through the rust belt. It was a calculated movement by capital to shake off the unions and get to the South and the Third World and make money without anything so vexing a social justice to get in the way.

                    • cestusdei

                      They leave because liberal Democrats drive them out. Unions assist in the process. You just made the usual talking points knee jerk response that is programmed into so many people today. It is not the conservatives who are at fault.

                    • hombre111

                      Read from the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” which summarizes Church teaching over the last 150 years. There, you will discover the importance of unions and a just wage. Industries move to the places where they can pay the lowest wages and ignore environmental laws. I know this is hard for somebody who imagines he is the fist of God, but it is immoral.

                    • TheAbaum

                      Unions are fine. They cease to become unions when they act as violent cartels.

                    • cestusdei

                      Yeah, the unions that are pro-abortion and pro-democrat. Who stole member dues and used them for organized crime. Where is Hoffa buried? So how is industry doing in Detroit where your utopia can be found? Nice clean Detroit. Plenty of unions and big government. Paradise right? It is immoral for you to blame conservatives for what people like you have created.

                    • hombre111

                      Let’s see: 1920: Growing gap between rich and poor…7 day work week…no minimum wage…no retirement… no medical benefits… company stores… etc.. 1950–Unions organize majority of workers. 48 hour work week…weekends off…one wage earner could feed a family, buy a house, buy a car, take vacations, save some money to send kid to college, wages rise as productivity rises. 1975–business figures out how to break unions, takes steel and garment industry south to cheap wages without benefits, etc.. Right to work laws begin to break unions right and left. 1980–wages have gone flat, no longer rise as productivity rises. This goes to the top. Fewer and fewer good wage jobs. K-Mart and then Wallmart. No benefits as business skirts law and employs workers part time. More and more workers work two jobs. Women go to work. Takes two incomes to buy a house. No vacations in low wage paradise. No health benefits. No retirement. 2014–Unions found among 14% of workers, half in federal and state jobs, Wages have actually gone down. Fewer and fewer people with health benefits. A huge underclasss developing. Angry white workers who have been left behind, follow usual path and blame almost non-existent unions, immigrants and everything but the capitalist system which worked its inevitable logic and brought all this to pass.

                    • cestusdei

                      2014 taxes go up for everyone. health care debacle begins, costs rise, welfare goes up, and Detroit goes bankrupt and enters terminal stage. Unions get more money, pay off Democrats, who ensure unions get more money…round and round she goes. Huge underclass votes Democrat to keep the free stuff coming. Nation declines rapidly under Obama. Rich are blamed, yet liberals somehow stay rich. Liberals like hombre work hard to keep people from opening their eyes. Freedom slowly dies.

                    • hombre111

                      Taxes are the lowest they have been for about sixty years. Did you notice that unions represent only 14% of the workforce? Not much power there, or a whole lot of money compared to Wall Street and its financial sector that do not really contribute anything to the real economy, but manage to run off with about 20% of all the wealth our country produces.

      • hombre111

        In California and in any red state, it all depends on the zip code. If you, for instance, live in a poor school district in Atlanta, I would be glad to compare your results with the results of some district in Marin County, CA.

        • cestusdei

          Yes, the rich liberals make sure their kids go to the best schools. But suggest vouchers so that poor kids get the same chance…and suddenly they howl. Much like they supported busing and then moved to new neighborhoods and new schools.

          • hombre111

            Talked to my sister who just retired from teaching in public schools in this red state. Budget for schools now near the bottom of 50 other states. Teachers took a 10% pay cut for the last three years. Oops, sorry. The legislature, against the recommendations of the Catholic governor, just gave them a 1% pay raise. Her daughter enrolled her special needs daughter in a charter school. They got rid of that kid in a hurry, because she lowered their success profile. The local Catholic school does the same, but maybe with justification, because it simply does not have the resources to take care of anybody but the kids who are going to succeed, anyway.

            • cestusdei

              Gee, work 6 months of the year, great vacations esp. summer, pension, benefits, and lifetime employment. Impossible to fire no matter what they do. Nice work when you can get it. Plus the unions feed the local Democrats and vice versa. They learn all about my two mommies, but reading? Nope.

              And the rich liberals kids go to private schools. No vouchers for the poor. Keep the masses down and easy to control so when Obama promises goodies they will clamor with joy. That’s the blue state strategy. At least in my red state the kids are not ruined yet. But just give the NEA time and that will change.

              • hombre111

                Well, first of all, teachers teach at least nine months of the year. And son of a gun, vacations, pensions, benefits, a decent job. That was the reality for even blue collars until the middle 70’s, when business figured out how to break workers by moving to cheaper wages and no benefits etc., first in the South, and then in the Third World. Now, the Right wants to demonize teachers so they can drive them down to the level of the ordinary American worker, with little or no vacation, maybe a pension but probably something tied to the fluctuations of a stock market controlled by the .01% for the .01%, few or no benefits, and fire at will for any reason. Oh, by the way, the Church says most of this violates social justice.

                • cestusdei

                  Most of them work 180 days total. Notice that the middle class has declined rapidly during the Obama years. If anyone is being demonized it is the GOP, by YOU. The Left causes problems and then blames conservatives. Sorry bud, all of these problems are the fault of liberals. Social justice? When your side never met an abortion they didn’t like? You are kidding.

                  • hombre111

                    Abortion, the inevitable default position of the outraged conservative who is losing an argument. I know many liberals who don’t like abortion and wouldn’t have an abortion. What they want is choice. Even as the Right instinctively rejects government’s presence in almost anything, so many on the Left instinctively feel that it is not government’s role to make laws against abortion. They say, God gives us choice on this issue, and so should we. Now I am not swayed by this argument, but I am also not swayed by the conservative ploy that turns pro-choice into pro-abortion.

                    • cestusdei

                      Much like your position is the default of a liberal who got called on his propaganda. You compound that with mentioning gun control, another liberal idol. You make “choice” another idol and the result is millions of abortions. We both know that pro-choice is pro-abortion. You need to start thinking with the Church rather then the liberal elites.

                    • hombre111

                      And pro-gun is pro-fear, pro-murder, and pro-suicide.

                    • TheAbaum

                      Tell us again how you let loose with a couple hundred rounds on a Saturday afternoon, as you did several months ago.

                      Are you a hypocrite or a liar?

                    • hombre111

                      I hunt, enjoy target shooting, and own eight guns. But the gun culture, with its paranoia and its refusal to accept any limit after 30,000 die by the gun every year, is a moral monstrosity. As everybody in the world but El Salvador and the lunatic fringe in the U.S. notices, this is crazy. I am not afraid of gun control. And if the government really is out to get me, I can stand tall with my fellow militia members and perish from a strike by a drone.

                    • TheAbaum


                    • cestusdei

                      Pro-choice is pro-infanticide, pro-euthansia, pro-death.

    • Thomas

      Don’t expect the public school system to reverse society’s ills, for this system is controlled by forces that subscribe to all things opposed to Mr. Esolen. While you might find voting Republican distasteful, their basic premise regarding education is “anything but public schools,” which makes sense given the current state of affairs not only in education, but in secular society as well.

      I’ve worked many years in both the Catholic school system and the public school system, and I see some truth in what you have written. Mr. Esolen’s agenda has a better chance of success under Republican governance than the current Democratic Party.

      • Dick Prudlo

        Education of any sort should not be in the hands of lunatics, and that is what we have on both sides. Two sides of the same coin is not a difference. Can anyone really believe that the parasititocracy we have can solve any issues for Catholics or anyone else?

        • Thomas

          As a parent and as a concerned citizen, I like “choice.” I don’t believe in the government monopoly, especially when it multi-culturally and relatively based. So, the Rep’s are the lesser of two evils, perhaps; I do not absolve them of any blame, nor do I consider them wise to the truth.

      • hombre111

        “Anything but public schools” has become sending our tax dollars to Wall Street to support for profit charter schools. Lots of research on charter schools recently. Check it out.

        • Thomas

          I make it my duty to check it out. The choice I prefer is private education. Charter schools are a desperate backlash to the government monopoly. The government monopoly has failed. On this score, the Rep’s have it right. The Rep’s support vouchers, and tax credits to allow parents to send their children to a school of their choice.

          • hombre111

            I went to parochial schools and you have a point. But both my sisters taught within both school systems, and concluded that, all in all, the public schools did a better, more professional job. The parochial schools lack a good budget, adequate supplies, and decent teachers’ salaries. They kept up their reputation for excellence by cherry-picking the good students. If a marginal student showed up, they found a way to get him over to the public schools.

            • Thomas

              A better, more professional job? Supplies? Do you know what public school students to public property, i.e., “supplies”? Do you know what they do to calculators or computers that the taxpayers provide?

              Public school buildings look better maintained, their teachers look more affluent. The inside does not look like the outside at all. How would I know this?

              I’ve taught public schools for 20 years, prior to which I taught 15 in Catholic schools. Ask your sister to explain why my public high school students never learned how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Ask her to advise me, a parent and teacher, how one would expect these same students to do algebra and geometry with this so-called “professional” preparation. Ask her why girls are talking to each other during a lesson about getting their condoms from Planned Parenthood instead of engaging in the lesson. Ask her why public school teachers spend so much time handling discipline problems, and why kids don’t think getting an education is important. Once you completely understand the answers to these questions, you will then understand why “cherry picking” students is a great concept, and why parents, and teachers, flee public education.

              To me, the public system and its comprehensive nature, its mission to serve all kids, is not a virtue–it’s a mandate, and an ineffective one at that.

              I suspect, from your comments on this and other boards, that you believe overturning sound conventions, from either the past or from the right, is the solution to our ills. From my vantage point in the trenches, I can tell you this: the liberal-left path and its version of “choice” is pure evil.

              I won’t argue with you about whether a Catholic school is a better alternative, not after reading Ms. Hendershott’s article on another page. But, that article only proves my point: the liberal-left are now destroying the only real, and once great, alternative to a degenerative public school system.

              • hombre111

                Your time in parochial and public schools is about the same as one of my sisters. The other spent more time in public schools. One taught mostly 1st. grade, the other, first and then fifth grade. Here are some things they gripe about.
                1) The parents never get the blame. But primary teachers have to deal with parents who: a) Send their kids off to school dirty, hungry, and without school supplies. Each of my sisters spent 500-600 dollars every year buying pencils and paper, etc.. But they also bought socks and even underwear. b) Ignore letters informing them of problems their child is having, and fail to come to parents’-teacher meetings. c) Always take the side of their kid in a disagreement. d) Have absolutely no books or other educational material at home. e) If the teacher wants to hold a struggling child back because of poor learning, insist that the child is passed on to the 2nd., then the 3rd., then the 4th., etc.. f) Parents who take their kids out of school for trips, and unqualified parents who homeschool their kids, then drag them back for remedial work. g) The chaotic family lives of so many kids, with several fathers among several siblings, alcohol, and drugs, mental health issues, and etc..
                2) The periodic educational fads that are imposed on teachers by administrators. Being forced to teach for the test. The fact that political fads also decree what is going to happen in education. (For instance, my sister who teaches 5th. grade has to allocate scarce time for hunters’ education!)
                3) The fact that education is actually in the hands of non-educators, like legislators and governors, who determine priorities and allocate funds, etc..

                • Thomas

                  First, God bless you and your sisters. Your sisters told you everything. I feed kids, buy supplies, etc. We do it because we like and love the kids. And, are you ever correct about “fads.”

                  Since we began this discussion on the subject of Republicans, it is not possible to credit either party with helping to solve this mess. Not wanting to put words in your sisters’ mouths, I think we might agree that what we see in the classroom is a microcosm of American society, and kids’ progress in school can be affected by their socio-economic situation, but moreover, our culture is sick. Why don’t reformers and commentators all talk about this? Instead, they focus on pedagogy and politics without examining the root causes. Those that do write about root causes, rarely discuss it with the depth that one finds on these Catholic blogs.

                  The Republicans want reform, chiefly to kill off the union and fire lots of teachers. Duncan and Obama also think the teachers are inept, but gladly take NEA contributions. Diane Ravitch sees it more realistically, and supports teachers and the union’s existence. Strangely for me, a Republican, I respect and agree with her on that point, even though we might disagree about alternative schooling choices. On that point, the Republicans offer the only sensible action, and that is choice. My Catholic colleagues also believe that the rejection of Church teaching, the decline of moral values, and the negative consequences for family living since the sexual revolution, all have had a devastating impact on American education.

                  Enjoy your bass fishing. I used to bass fish with a former Christian Brother and he wouldn’t allow the use of the T-word in his boat.

                  • hombre111

                    Thanks for a good post. I apologize for the Republican bit. It seemed an ironic comment that applies in my state, but I could have left it out, if I wanted an unheated discussion.

                    • Thomas

                      There was no offense taken.

            • FranklinWasRight

              The Catholic school I taught in had wonderful benefactors who made it possible for us to offer financial assistance to anyone. We had some very poor students, and affluent students. There was no cherry picking, and we out performed the public school. Our staff made about half of what the public school unionized teachers made, but we were satisfied being able to help so many at risk youth.

              There are areas where Catholic schools are in decline and can’t attract talented teachers. There are areas where Catholic schools have essentially become prep schools for the wealthy. This is always a shame, but it is not true of all Catholic schools everywhere.

              • hombre111

                There are some extraordinary Catholic schools. As a pastor in a state with many medium sized parishes, the school can become the center focus, siphoning off all the money and energy, so there is no money left for other ministries. At that point, what we have is not a parish with a school attached, but a school with a parish attached. While the school is draining off all those resources, the majority of students are not in the school. They get second best, at best.

    • ForChristAlone

      Be honest, you are intimidated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the Republican party. Anyone who exposes the hypocrisy of your bankrupt socialist thinking is subjected to your scorn. You fool no one; you are a frightened man.

      • hombre111

        No. Just amused. So many millions swallowing without question the bloviations of one clown.

        • ForChristAlone

          I find it amazing that you have divined the minds of millions of people who inhabit a listening audience yet you struggle with what to make of your own celibacy. Perhaps you might spend more time in your own mind.

          • TheAbaum

            How can you spend time with your own mind when you are out of it?

        • TheAbaum

          So many millions swallowing without question the bloviations of one clown.

          You mean like the zombies swaying in unison with elevated cigarette lighters in Grant Park in November 2008?

  • ColdStanding

    A Bitter Contention:

    A book? A book! by duly elected crooks
    Bought lies for eyes; not tears, but looks
    Come old friend, shelf rest end,
    Down to hound pound these purblind
    Editions. Official? Official sedition!
    For no nation! For no contrition!

    God counters? Ha! Be gone!
    Hear: Thunders our pen and anon,
    Indited Truth, (which is the long of tooth?)
    Jailed now; Crossed off; museum booth.
    Kneel? Not me, you fury fastidious!
    Love God? Ha! Invidious!

    Man, whoa! Woe man is me
    Near to, dear to, made one are we.
    Open your ledger: count!
    Pray, what’s the tally? An infinite amount!
    Query: is this a tale to dismiss?
    Rein in passion! Reign in bliss!

    Strangle your chant, miserable ant
    Trollops by dollops! I’m unrepentant.
    Under the eye amid fortune’s river
    Vagrants? Maybe, but by state you’ll deliver.
    Willing or knot, bow or blot
    X on a ballot! My vote? You rot!

    Years are not an end when by sin we descend
    Zeal for the Word! On Him we ascend!

  • Allison Grace

    Sir, I made my 16 year old, homeschooled son read this and his comment was, “This makes me want to read a lot more.” A million thanks for writing!

  • Elwin Ryan Ransom

    As a public school English teacher struggling to keep alive this love and this truth in my classroom, I am deeply moved. Thank you.

  • Patrick Brandon McCaffery, Jr.

    This is an incoherent article. It’s as if Dr Esolen wants to say that literature is a subcategory of ethics, or at any rate an exercise in moral discernment. I won’t say I do not learn things about my self when I read EMMA, but I will say that I don’t read EMMA in order to learn those things.

    Is that the “truth” being expounded here? Is that the “reality of things” that literature is supposed to uphold?—its roots grown fat on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Literature is a practice in perspectivism,—and no, I don’t say relativism. One hardly thinks of oneself at all. A great literary critic has called it a literary epicureanism, and I think that is one of the few intelligent ways to view it.

    Perhaps Dr Esolen ought to quit the university scene altogether and establish a desk on top of a pulpit. He may do a great deal of good there, I think. Good books are not written for any type of moral catechesis: they are written, first and last, in order to please. The rest is incidental. This sort of deep pleasure is not taught in a classroom, by the way. In Literature classes professors can teach several types of “reading”; the lofty kind, the kind that Dr Esolen is clumsily getting at, can only really be self-taught. That is why there are so few true or common readers. And really, it is only natural for there to be so few of them. I think learning how to say or write clever things about books and to scramble up “tricks” make up an entirely realistic curriculum. It is the sort of education, at any rate, English professors are prepared to give. Think of the professor as a sort of exalted waiter, delivering the goods,—in a restaurant not very democratic. (The analogy, we agree, suffers.) We students don’t pay, after all, for testimonies. THAT, I think, would be immoral—or perhaps just silly.

    • ForChristAlone

      You think that what Dr Esolen has written is incoherent. I’d suggest you re-read what you have written. It’s unintelligible.

      • Patrick Brandon McCaffery, Jr.

        Evidently not.

    • redfish

      No, I’d agree with him on the point that good art is indirectly about truth. Its not that its directly some form of moral catechesis, its that its about beauty, but in order for the artist to capture beauty, he has to understand truth. Poems are about things, and novels are about things, and if they don’t ring true they can’t express anything that’s more than superficial.

      But from that basis, I really don’t know that I agree with Dr Esolen is saying on other fronts. Its important that kids be able to explain why they think a poem or a novel shows some truth, and not *bs* about it and really just constantly substitute either their own views or vacuous nonsense for an intelligent reading. That’s why English teachers have to constantly tell their students “I don’t want bs;” because students learn how to say things that sound good but mean nothing. The instructions by the particular standard he’s citing does seem anal, though.

      On the other hand, I’m a philosophy major, and I was constantly disappointed how both students in philosophy departments seemed more interested in “debating” than in truth. Many graduated, I’m sure, and moved on to law school.

      • Tony

        Replying to several of my interlocutors above:
        To Patrick: The idea that good books help to form our minds and hearts and to orient them towards the good is not original to me. It’s the dominant view of literature until, perhaps, our own time. It’s to be found in the pagan Horace, who said that the goal of poetry was to be “utile et dulce,” profitable and sweet. It’s to be found in Ruskin, whom I quoted above. It’s to be found in Chaucer, who begs his readers to take the kernel from his poetry and leave the chaff behind. It’s to be found in Jane Austen herself; it is why Colonel Brandon recommends to Miss Dashwood the reading of Milton, as she’s been doing too much reading of a sentimental sort…. Of course no one of them believed that good morals made a good book; but then they did not also consign beauty to moral or epistemic irrelevance. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a single great literary artist, before our own age, who would have said that beauty had nothing to do with truth or goodness. See Lorenzo’s speech about music in The Merchant of Venice.
        To Redfish: A poem or a novel must be received, first of all, as a gift, from the author to us; a great gift that we have not deserved. To treat it as “text,” using the revealingly ugly abstract substance-word, like “igneous stratum” or “resultant,” is to misconstrue what it is. It is to fall into what I’d call the “constitutional fallacy,” whereby you mistake a thing’s constitution or its parts or its material stuff for the thing itself. Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is not primarily “text,” or even “a text.” It is a poem, literally a song, in which the poet is meditating upon the power, the timelessness, and the meaning of great art, as he looks at the work of a master sculptor upon a piece of ancient pottery. Only when we receive the poem with an open heart, and agree to “hear” it, because it speaks to us of things that matter, will we even know enough to ask about the particular choices Keats has made — why, for example, he writes a line that should be banal but is not: “More happy love! More happy, happy love!”
        Both of you seem to believe that I do not teach my students to look carefully at words or phrases, or odd rhymes, or striking uses of any linguistic or rhetorical tool in the hands of our master poets. My students would find that misconstruction pretty laughable. My experience with students and with other English professors has rather been that those who treat poems with the reverence they demand are far MORE likely to appreciate their specific features, and to be able to say intelligent things about them, than are those who begin by reducing the poem to “text,” and who then essentially inject into it the viruses of their political or philosophical predilections. Gratitude, attentive silence, and care for the work of art all go together. Condescension, noise, and pretenses of sophistication all go together, too. English professors who gabble the most about “text” are usually, in my experience, the least capable of noticing what the heck is going on in one.
        To Seven: See above. But also think again of what my imagined authors in one room are saying. Let’s suppose you are reading Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” and you sense, with some unease, the truth of what my imaginary Browning above says, which is that some people use self-revelation as a means of evil. You will have derived that truth from the organic whole of Browning’s dramatic monologue, but you must also then have perceived it in at least some of his sly poetic choices; and when you read the poem over again, you may perceive it in more and more of them. In one sense this is like “analysis” of the text; I prefer to call it attentive reading. In another sense it is not like “analysis” at all, because the poem is simply not a kind of thing subject to that procedure, in the same way that a chemical substance is subject to it, or even the terms of an argument. Wordsworth: “We murder to dissect.”

        • redfish

          Prof. Esolen, I wasn’t at all judging how well you teach your classes. I was just expressing an observation based on my past experiences.

          You may be right that those teachers who reduce poems to “texts” don’t often appreciate with what they’re dealing with. I’ve certainly seen that before. I’ve seen Marxist professors analyze a painting or a book and completely miss what was happening in them, because they were more concerned with some social relevance of the text than actually what was going on. They become completely blind to what was happening, or blind to everything except the parts they want to see. But I’ve also seen the reverse can happen, too; people who put too much stock on the “feeling” of the work really unable to justify why an artwork is great; they’re often just expressing their own biases.

          This is maybe buttressed by the fact that I’m coming from a different perspective. I love great literature, but one of my main area of interests has been in visual art. Its too easy for critics of paintings to say something completely non-convincing and based on their feelings, and expect you to accept it as true, because they feel it so much.

        • Patrick Brandon McCaffery, Jr.

          Dr Esolen: I am also hard-pressed to find the quote you mention in S&S. Perhaps you are thinking of the BBC film version, where it has Brandon guiding Marianne’s literary interests. At any rate, your point is clear. But I am not saying that beauty has nothing to do with goodness or truth, or that passion should prevail over reason. What I am saying is that an ethical focus is not the primary concern of good books. It is not principally why they are written, nor why we read them. Nor have you stated that this is the case, in fact. Your article, however, implies that one should turn to Austen, or Dante, or Fielding, principally for ethical questions, as though that is what their “use” is,—or as if this is why we read them. A novel’s moral perplexity can enable a reader to develop morally, but it is, as I said, “incidental.” I can agree with Walter Pater (and, to an extent, with Oscar Wilde) and still benefit from the sane ethics of Jane Austen. But the view that Austen’s greatest or highest “gift” to readers is a Christian ethical awareness—again, you have not stated this, even if your article implies it—seems to miss the whole point of literature. And I fear that other persons,—some of those who may read your article, for example—will take this stance to an extreme and will adjudicate over libraries with some moral imperative. Yes, by all means, do not become a rake like Tom Jones—but I don’t think Fielding worried his cleverest readers would.

          I will not quote Shakespeare, because a quote from Shakespeare can be refuted by a dozen other quotes of his. But it seems to me that he understood the point, as did Aristophanes, Longinus, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. (Chaucer’s Retraction need not be the lens through which we read his poetry.)

          • Tony

            Yes, Pater — Pater was wrong, and Wilde was better than his philosophy. It is true that a work of art is a work of art, and not a treatise in moral philosophy dolled up in fancy stuff. But I never said that it was that, or implied it. All I assume is that you are reading a literary work to enter into a conversation with the author, and with his characters; it is what Ruskin is saying above. That conversation is going almost inevitably to be about what is good …
            Chaucer’s whole work is the context for his persona’s retraction, which is the final note of a grand and complex symphony. But you don’t really want to engage me in an argument about the moral arrows in Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s quiver, do you? Or even Boccaccio’s? Let alone that rather conservative moralist, Aristophanes …

            • Patrick Brandon McCaffery, Jr.

              Dr Esolen: I posted what was my impression of your article, and you responded in defense of it. I haven’t indicated that I want to engage you in any argument—least of all in a place like this. We both follow different lights, is what I have learned here. I have no doubt that your students benefit from your passionate, educated reading of literature. As a lover of literature, and a young scholar (of Classics), I have tried to be the sort of reader my mentor-teacher Harold Bloom is at pains to discover. Rather—I try to avoid being the type of creature C. S. Lewis warns us against: that sort of reader who allows “the text before [him]…to exist not in its own right but simply as raw material; clay out of which [he] can complete [his] tale of bricks.” For though Lewis is referring here to the sort of student that you, in particular, hope to avoid encouraging into existence,—one with a mind of wheels and metals—his meaning is that the student is “using” the “text” as opposed to “receiving” it.

              I believe one can receive “moral light” from a novel. I have not said otherwise. I do not believe one reads a novel, however, in order to enter into a conversation with an author or a character. I don’t believe you enter a novel at all. If it encourages you to do so, I’m afraid it is only then worth its money. The novel’s ideas may strike you as interesting, and you may reflect upon a character’s moral choice, or on a philosophical question or bias, but going at a “text,” with a mindset that encourages any sort of “going at,” is not a proper disposition for genuine reading. And I agree with Bloom (and even his “angelic Lewis”) in thinking that Ruskin is wrong to believe that literature is—even in part—supposed to make a reader “better” morally. That’s a reader coming at a text with an agenda. And what does that turn into? I’m afraid it becomes a lot of silly sermonizing and a bunch of Christians crowding safely against an Index. God forbid such an “Index” become a bludgeon, and an enemy to true freedom, understanding, and imagination.

              Lorenzo’s speech at the end of MOV is an eloquent defense of the aesthetic position. Of course—I do not pretend that, because Lorenzo said it, Shakespeare believed it.

              But I hope he did.


              • Tony

                Dear Guest — I believe we are saying much the same thing, in different ways. Right now I am combing through the Spanish text of Calderon’s Life Is a Dream. It is a beautiful and fascinating tissue of motifs, which Calderon introduces and then alters, or places in a new context; it is like hearing a characteristic measure in a fugue by Bach, given again and again, but never the same. Now then, what makes the play powerful is not simply the fact that Calderon engages in this constant, spiraling self-reference, because he might more easily have done so with words that have no particular import; it might have been a kind of post-modern tacked-on ornamentation. But he’s asking us to consider and reconsider the meaning of a few momentous things, like liberty and what is translated as “free will,” but what really means “judgment.” So I cannot really draw a distinction between the linguistic beauty and complexity of the drama, on the one hand, and its appeal to my moral imagination on the other. The first is not only for itself; it is that, but it is also for the second. The work of art is that integral whole.
                Yes, I do think that Lorenzo is speaking for Shakespeare there; or we can be as confident as we ever are, in saying such a thing. Music, while Adam is restored to health in As You Like It; music, for the child-changed King Lear; music, as Paulina brings Hermione back to the world of the living, as it were; music, as Prospero brings his visitors out of their trance …

                • Guest

                  Very nicely put. I can certainly agree with that. Thank you, Dr Esolen.

    • PeterG

      Eel parody – well done!

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  • Peter Freeman

    I wanted to think of a witty comment to leave, but I’m afraid this English department assessment report has sapped all of my intellectual vigor.

  • John

    Hi Anthony. I love this article as I do all you writing and generally agree with your premise. HOwever, I am disturbed by the link you seem to make between reading great books and morality. Yesterday, I heard a programme about people who saved Jews in Vichy France. As ever, very few of them were well-read intellectuals; they were all “ordinary” people, peasants and farmers. Sure, there are many cases of people who have obviously read the great books helping in times of trouble, but I often think that the unread see things more clearly. Regards

  • Seven

    Need analytical skill and appreciation of aesthetic beauty be mutually exclusive? The ability to support one’s understanding of a text does not negate the ability to appreciate truth and beauty. The skills used to validate understanding of, for example, an academic article on economics or history are more likely to enhance than to diminish the subtleties and nuances of language skill that would allow a person to appreciate literature as art.

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  • randinha

    I always look forward to Professor Esolen’s articles! I love literature to pieces and hated studying it. Thank you, thank you, so much.

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  • DS Thorne

    I always enjoy your articles. And I would agree there is a recurring attempt among those we put in charge of our intellectual lives to morph literature, and other studies as well, into science. In a recent blog I hope to have utterly demolished Stephen Pinker’s attempt to turn history, which is as much an evaluate task as it is a fact-based task, into science. If you’re interested:

    Indeed: with history as with literature, we need to tarry with the written word, to spend time with those who see. We come to resemble those we love, so we must love the right things. Reducing literature to argumentation assures that that won’t happen…

    But at the same time, just getting at the denotative meaning of a text, what it says and how clearly, and what it passes over in silence is an important step in ascending to the proper appreciation of literature. I myself in a clumsy reader by nature and had to learn this. I owe a whole lot to the Plato professor who made me do it. Because it is only when I tried to systematically abstract the marrow of the dialogue in question that I noticed the whole world of ambiguity and dialogic that Plato deploys and saw, for the first time, that dialogue live and breathe.

    On a sympathetic reading, I would see the Prime Directive you cite as aiming as such students as I was in high school: somewhat likely to do the reading in the first place, somewhat less likely to do it well, highly unlikely to “get into it”. We who are unnatural readers but perfectly capable of learning the art are legion…

    ~DS Thorne,

  • DS Thorne

    One further note: I wonder how much of the emphasis on saying with the denotative meaning of a text in the Directive has to do with a desire to avoid ideological battles with parents? To wit: delving too much into the spiritual situation of a text, say, when Hamlet deliberates whether to kill Claudius in the confessional, could easily generate a firestorm, given the very different world views held by families attending the same school. Not that high school lit. teachers *aren’t* prone to pontificate from time to time…

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  • Jose Elizabeth Allen Hawkins

    I have always been angry, amazed and deeply saddened by the fact that to really educate a child properly and deeply is easy and inexpensive. We make it impossible for children to learn by making education look difficult. This gives enormous power to second rate educators and people who would dominate the poor. If that sounds crazy then just read the first part of this article…the directive..TThe first step in education is to read to your child…any child. And then teach a very young child to read. keep reading to them…because their understanding will outstrip their ability to read.Read them the classic books…the Victorians in England produced children’s versions of nearly all of them a little Latin.Teach them arithmetic and how to write.these simple educational practices have produced the greatest minds. The Elite (Public ) schools in England have never had the facilities of the government schools but they have always produced the top two percent of the countries (and worlds) leaders. Some, as in Birmingham were one roomed schools..that one produced a number of geat people…not leadt Dir Edward Burne Jones…why can’t the poorest child from the ghetto have the same chances?

    • Tony

      Yes, you are absolutely correct, and it is indeed infuriating. Textbooks from a hundred years ago were lean and spare, because people could not afford frills; and then came the Everyman Library, to try to put classic literature into the hands of as many people as possible, in handsome cloth-bound books. Still, what with mass-produced paperbacks, a great education in arts and letters has NEVER BEEN CHEAPER. The trouble is that we do not have the teachers who even value such a thing.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    “Discuss what the author says most clearly, what he merely implies, and what he leaves uncertain.” This is an important standard in the English classroom. This standard makes possible an even higher standard: “Is what the author says true?”