Teach Classic Literature in Context

Teach classic literature in context with Excellence in Literature In last night’s webinar with Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, we talked about teaching the great books in the context of the history, literature, art, and music that can illuminate them more fully. In case you missed the webinar, I thought I’d share this article on the same topic.

“The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature . . .

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (from his Nobel lecture)

As Solzhenitsyn points out, literature enlarges our experiences. Pick up a good book, and you are immediately transported into another life. Reading the great books allows us to learn from the greatest minds of all time, and to gain perspective on the ideas that have shaped our culture. Literature is the foundation of a classical education. Why not make great books the foundation of your high school humanities study?

Reading and teaching literature in context is a bit like studying a map before you set out for a walk in a strange city. Context helps you find significant intersections, decipher archaic language, and find a path through old-fashioned rhetoric. Great literature is worth is all the time and attention it takes to understand and enjoy it, so you need to present it in a way that keeps your student from feeling as if he or she is wandering in the dark.

How should great literature be taught?

How should a student approach a complex work such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, or Homer’s Odyssey? What are the context keys that will unlock their understanding? As I have read, learned, and taught great literature, I’ve discovered some basic truths:

  • First, most students will enjoy the great books as long as they are presented in a way that makes them understandable.
  • Second, the fastest way to put students to sleep is to do all the work for them and tell them everything they need to know. They stand a better chance of staying awake and absorbing everything if they do guided research for themselves.
  • Third, reading and thinking analytically about literature helps students become better thinkers and writers, which translates to success in other subjects.
  • Finally, there’s nothing better than the moment when a student gets through a long and difficult work, and says, “That’s the best book I ever read!”

Present great books in context

When you ask your son or daughter to study the great books, it’s important to present them with a road map and the tools for enjoyment. This includes an annotated version of the book, plus audio, and possibly even video versions of the text. Remember that epics like The Aeneid are filled with myths and stories that their original readers would have heard since childhood. Modern readers don’t have that advantage, so context helps to orient them.

You’ll need to point your student to study resources that will provide the basics of the literary, artistic, and historical contexts of the book, including poetry, art, music, and other relevant resources. You can find these things yourself, but if you use Excellence in Literature, context resource links are all included. Classics are presented in nine four-week learning modules with writing assignments, and the book features a Formats and Models chapter that with instructions for each type of paper plus a student-written model. In addition there is a rubric for evaluating writing and much more.

Most literature studies should begin with a brief overview of the book’s table of contents, as well as a bit of background information on the author’s life. This will provide enough context to begin reading the work and/or context works. If your student is an auditory or kinesthetic learner, it’s perfectly acceptable to listen to an unabridged audio version of the book for the first read-through. If the class you are studying is an epic poem or play that was written to be heard or seen, by all means, listen or view it. By absorbing both the great book and information about the art, music, literature that surround it, students are ready to connect ideas and gain new insights as they compose essays in response to carefully crafted writing prompts.

Guided study ensures active learning

This “literature in context” method has the virtue of providing for self-directed learning. Once students understand what it takes to enjoy the great books, and once they have mastered the process, they have the keys that will help them unlock any difficult subject in college.

Guided research helps students learn deeply and independently, and encourages use of a variety of learning tools as they consider not only elements of the literary work, but also the philosophical outlook of the author, and the validity of various resources. Students don’t have time to get bored, because they aren’t passively listening to long lectures — they are actively engaged in learning.

Literature study helps students become better thinkers and writers

Literature not only presents deep ideas and encourages critical thinking; it also models excellent writing in many different styles. A student who studies full-length great literature in context has an almost insurmountable advantage in test-taking and vocabulary over a student who doesn’t study the great books.

In order to encourage the development of analytical thinking, it’s important to provide writing prompts that engage the student at a “why” level. This is not the time for trivia questions, such as “What color was the dress Cosette wore when Marius first saw her?” (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo) This type of question belongs in Trivial Pursuit®, not in a high-school curriculum! Asking questions that relate to the overall theme of the book, motivations of the characters, the author’s intent, or the reliability of the narrator will always elicit more thoughtful essays than will trivia questions. The right question prompts higher level critical thinking, which is a skill that will help the student in college and the future.

The delight of shared literary experience

Excellence in Literature: The Complete CurriculumBeyond the academic benefits of studying literature, there is one more very fundamental reason to read the great books. Solzhenitsyn had it right when he spoke of literature as “living memory.” When your student reads and writes about one of the classic literary works of Western civilization, he or she becomes part of a great conversation about ideas that has been carried on, generation after generation.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live — a ranch in Montana, an apartment in Los Angeles, a cabin in Tennessee, or even a houseboat on the Yangtze River — your family can live with and learn from the greatest literature of the ages. And as you experience great literature in context, I’m sure you’ll never get tired of hearing, “That’s the best book I ever read!”

We’ve added a new free resource to the Excellence in Literature website! It’s a Chart of Literary Periods that I think you’ll find useful. I will be the first to admit it is not yet exhaustive — I am likely to add more at some point, but it’s a start. I hope you enjoy it!

Article by Janice Campbell and (c) 2013 by Everyday Education, LLC.

4 Responses

  1. June 23, 2014

    […] The classics provide an opportunity to understand history and culture in context. In his 1970 Nobel Lecture in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said […]

  2. August 22, 2016

    […] can read more about teaching great literature in context at Everyday Education’s Excellence in Literature page and at the Excellence in Literature […]

  3. June 13, 2017

    […] Teach Classic Literature in Context […]

  4. July 10, 2023

    […] “Teach Literature in Context” […]

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