No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
(1 Corinthians 10:13, NIV).
What makes a book a classic? As a classical, homeschooling parent and tutor, I have been asked this question often. There is another question that usually follows: “Even if a book is a classic, why would anyone want to read it?” Mark Twain reflected on this when he quipped, “A classic is a book which people praise and don’t read.”
Reading the classics is like eating a balanced diet. We praise the person who eats well…and then we go grab a hamburger and fries at the nearest fast food joint. That was Twain’s point: While we all know we should read the classics, we are likely—when left to our own devices—to choose something mostly entertaining.
There may be foods in a balanced diet which we do not like; some foods, we will no doubt find downright disagreeable. Such a diet, however, is nourishing. For the same reasons that children need to eat healthy diets, they need a nutritious diet for their minds, hearts, and souls. Indeed, we must cultivate minds, hearts, and souls so that we can do as Jesus commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, NIV).
A large part of this mental and spiritual diet is found in the rich legacy of classics we have inherited from great writers. Why should we read them? Just as a healthy diet cultivates physical strength, classics cultivate our minds, hearts, and souls. Why should we see to it that our children read them? Just as we need to train our children to eat well, we need to train our children to read classics. In so doing, our students will not only be nourished by the classics, but they will enjoy reading them—they will be trained to perceive the eloquence, meaning, and inherent value in classics. As they will enjoy the physical well-being that comes from a good diet, they will take pleasure in the mental and spiritual health provided by classics.
That is the why of reading the classics. Now, consider what makes a book a classic. The most common answer is something along the lines of: “A classic is a book that has stood the test of time and has a universal message.” But what exactly do we mean by this? The Teaching the Classics curriculum explains it well:
“Great literature… portrays the tragedy, pathos, and wonder of the human condition…Achilles…still lives, 3,000 years later. Hamlet lives. Huckleberry Finn…they are all immortal…there is something about them…that touches our humanness, that mirrors our own glorious potential and our own sinful wretchedness. These characters have the power to move us and inspire us, to ennoble us. They are the gifts of God to men, and he who would know God, not only in his heart, but in his mind, would do well to meet Him in the history of ideas.” (Teaching the Classics, Introduction: Why Literature?)
In A Thomas Jefferson Education, Oliver Van DeMille also gives a rich explanation. I recommend taking a look at Chapter 5, in which DeMille explores the following characteristics of a classic: it provides insight into human nature; through it, we encounter greatness and become more virtuous; it introduces us to new frontiers to be conquered; it turns our thoughts to the characters in a story, then inward to ourselves, then outward to others, and finally to the potential greatness of humanity in general; it “connects us to stories,” to “cultural, national and family stories” and to a “personal canon” –a collection of stories around which we base our lives. All of this is a tall order. Yet, classic books fill it.How so?
To explore this question, let us take a look at a Newbery Award winning novel, set on the cusp of America’s Revolutionary War: Johnny Tremain, by history Pulitzer Prize winner Esther Forbes. This gem of a novel is an excellent resource for this purpose as our Classical Conversations communities immerse themselves in Cycle 3 American History (making Johnny Tremain a great choice as a read-aloud with Foundations students). It is also an appropriate selection as some Challenge scholars examine original American source documents and American literature—including this very novel—during the Challenge I year.
Johnny Tremain provides insight into human nature. The main character, Johnny, presents the nuances of what it means to be human— strengths as well as weaknesses, talents as well as sins. For example, Johnny’s pride causes him to treat others arrogantly. This in turn spurs a boy whom he treats high-handedly to strike back, literally crippling Johnny for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, through the trials that result from this disability, Johnny learns humility and grows in integrity; he learns virtue.
Johnny Tremain shows us greatness. Set at the very onset of the American Revolution, we observe the characteristics of Johnny’s role models, such as John and Samuel Adams. Through Johnny’s ears, we listen as some of the great and faithful men of American history defend their reasons for revolting against the English crown in the name of freedom.
We cross into new frontiers in this novel. For the younger child this might simply be encountering vivid moments from the past— the sights, smells, and rhythms of colonial life; for the older student, this might include the recognition of his own pride, and then the perception that consequences always arise from sin; for the older teenager, the new frontier may be a sudden comprehension of how God works even through sin and suffering to providentially bring about the greater good of all those who love Him; for the reader of any age, Johnny Tremain can foster a richer appreciation for the sacrifices others have made for the freedoms we often now take for granted.
Johnny Tremain encourages us to become better. We empathize with Johnny, but also see his failings. We put this to work in our own lives, recognizing our hubris; identifying areas in which we need to strengthen integrity; or perhaps realizing we need to work towards goals that are bigger than “us.” Johnny Tremain makes us more virtuous by raising up our hopes and dreams beyond ourselves, by sharing with us the vision of a nation of people who have more freedom because they embrace the responsibility of making their own choices, and then decide to do what they ought to do—even if those choices involve great personal risk. We set the bar higher; we step out in faith more boldly.
Finally, Johnny Tremain gifts us with stories. We bond individually with the story of a boy who struggles through his own sins and their consequences. He becomes more virtuous, thereby growing able to participate in something much bigger than he is. The book then connects us nationally to the story of the founding of our own nation, as we walk with Johnny in the streets of Boston, and finally come to stand with him as witnesses at the Battle of Lexington where the first shots in the Revolutionary War were fired. Johnny Tremain then connects us to a grand story of humanity with a particularly biblical perspective: Despite its fallen nature, humanity is able—because of the mercy and grace of its Creator—to yearn for something more than a life that is, as Thomas Hobbes famously put it in his classic treatise, Leviathan, “nasty, brutish, and short.” We grasp an understanding of mankind which recognizes that humanity truly yearns for the realization of a biblical worldview wherein the role of each man is not simply to meet his own needs, but to serve God—and in so doing, to uplift all those around him to a better world in all respects. We embrace a story of humanity that is part of the process of renewing the world through Christ. The last lines of the novel, sharing Johnny’s final thoughts, reveal that in the end he understands this; we, the readers, are fully meant to comprehend it as well:
Please God, out of this New England soil such men would forever rise up ready to fight when need came. The one generation after the other…
Hundreds would die, but not the thing they died for.
‘A man can stand up….’
These final lines express exactly why we should read the classics:
• So that we truly come to know that we can stand up: We have the ability through God’s grace to overcome temptation and sin;
• We will recognize when we should stand up: We will have the discernment to perceive when God wishes to use us and for what purpose;
• We will know how we are to stand up: We will have been trained in the knowledge and skills that enable us to carry out that purpose.
Read classics. Train your students to read classics. They are one of the gifts with which God blesses us so that we can stand up.