Teaching Reading—the Detour
About ten or eleven years ago, my friend Andrew Kern came to speak at The Geneva School in Winter Park, Florida. I hate to admit it, but I don’t recall the specific topic of the talk he gave to the parents and faculty assembled in the gymnasium that day. What I do recall, however, is a point he made about teaching reading in the grammar school. It was something of an aside, but it has had a profound effect on my career in education.
Rather than taking sides in the familiar debate between the two most popular methods for teaching reading—phonics and whole-language—Andrew took a detour. He told us how he enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s sonnets with his grammar-school–aged daughter and, more importantly, how much she enjoyed the experience, too. He reflected on the fact that while she really had no idea what Shakespeare was saying (I can often relate), she delighted in the sound of his words and the cadence of his poetry. The point of Andrew’s aside was that his daughter’s experience was not simply a matter of play; it was grammar education at its most basic. For, what our discussions of method tend to omit but which all true education depends upon, is that we begin reading with the stories we love.
Like many, I came to Christian classical education seeking a better method than what is offered in progressive education. So, when Andrew introduced the topic of teaching reading, I had expected him to vindicate the traditional phonics method, to state once and for all why it was truly classical and the whole-language method merely modern. What I heard instead was that I had come asking the wrong question. Determining how to teach reading is an important consideration, of course, but it is not the most important consideration. As long as we approach education from the question of method—even if we choose better and more traditional methods over the fashionable, progressive ones—we are still firmly in the camp of modern education. For, as Lewis shows us unforgettably in The Abolition of Man, traditional education is not a matter of mastering methods or techniques, but about forming habits and ordering affections. We make our departure from the modern educational project when questions of method are framed within larger questions: What stories ought our children to love? and How best can we arrange that meeting?
At the time, I took Andrew’s aside as a helpful piece of advice for teaching literature to children. Mental note: Read poetry aloud at least part of the time. From my perspective all these years later, I have begun to see his insight for what it truly is: the point at which the liberal arts tradition confronts our merely modern imaginations. Education is fundamentally about cultivating loves, not mastering techniques. The seed Andrew planted that day has come to full-flower in my own philosophy of education. When it comes to reading—indeed, when it comes to education in general—it is not primarily a question of what we do or how we do it, but of what we love.
Like Martha in Luke 10:41–42, we Christian classical educators are “anxious and troubled about many things.” So, like Martha, we must be reminded that “one thing is necessary.” Before we are careful about identifying phonograms or introducing new vocabulary words, we must first place our students at the feet of stories or poems—indeed, at the feet of language itself—and help to awaken a sense of what the philosopher Josef Pieper calls receptive openness or attentive silence. That is to say, we must help our students to choose, like Mary, that good portion that will not be taken away from them.
What if we began to think of grammar-school education not primarily as providing the building blocks for later education—as providing so much grist for the dialectical mill—but as cultivating a character of loving contemplation of whatever is true, good, lovely, or of good report? For Pieper, our children’s education is not all that is at stake here, but also the survival of human culture.
Inspired by Pieper’s insight, and by St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians, I’m beginning to think of the goal of grammar education in terms of seeing the truth in love. Part of learning to see the truth, of course, is learning how to read—learning grammar and history and geography and all the other things that go into understanding a work of literature. But the insight coming from the heart of the liberal arts tradition is that all of our efforts must begin in receptive openness and issue in loving contemplation of the beauty that is the splendor of truth.
“They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,” answered Sam slowly. “It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected—so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.”
—The Fellowship of the Ring