Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 22, 2006<

Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 22, 2006


We are near graduation weeks again (see "Catholic Commencements",, June 4, 2005). The perennial question comes up: "What did our students get for their education money during their high school or college years?" No one, as far as I can tell, thinks anyone is getting too much, whatever too much of knowing might mean. And I know that we cannot measure in economic terms what we are supposed to learn in school at whatever level. Moreover, if we do use this economic criterion, we know that what we measure by such means is not what we most need to know.

Still, the question is not frivolous. Even if intangible, something is supposed to happen in our souls in college or graduate school, something that makes us more human, more of what we are supposed to be, being what we already are. As Professor E. O. Hirsh has pointed out (Education Week, April 26, 2006), it does seem possible systematically to teach children how to pronounce words, and in this sense how to read and write, without their ever actually coming to learn anything from their reading.

Indeed, this separation of content and method seems to be the preferred way, so that educational tests seek to measure "reading" as opposed to "reading what?" After a few months or years of instruction on this premise, it turns out, in survey after survey, that students, who apparently know how to read, do not read much. Hirsch makes the marvelous, counter-intuitive comment that the best way to incite students to read is to give them something worthwhile reading. We know we are in a period of civilizational decay when such an amusing comment is in fact "news," as if we never thought of it before.

In a 1953 Peanuts, we see Lucy, absorbed in a book, walking by kids playing, shouting, "Hey, Lucy! C'mon and play in the pool." She replies, "Nope, I'm reading." Another girl invites her to jump rope. "Not now, I don't want to do anything but read my book." She tells her friend, "this is the best book I've ever read." Sitting on the step, she continues, "It's called, 'The Three Little Kittens Who Lost Their Mittens' and it's all about these three kittens, see?" With her nose still in the book, Lucy explains to an increasingly annoyed little girl with a ponytail and a jump rope, "I've never read a book that I've enjoyed so much." To which the girl logically inquires, "What other books have you read?" Lucy walking away, still with her eyes on the book, oblivious to the import of the question, replies, "This is the only one" (The Complete Peanuts, 1953). They say the "man of one book" is dangerous. But I am with Lucy. You have to start somewhere. It is one of the blessings of life to enjoy the first book we ever read, as well, no doubt, as the last one.

Recently, a grand-nephew of mine, who is about to enter a public high school, showed me the school bulletin listing the classes offered in the rather large school this coming fall. It was bewildering. There seemed to be as many courses offered at this high school as we have here at Georgetown, which is not a few. Whenever we see a school claiming to have a "core curriculum," moreover, with about seventy different ways of meeting the requirement (mostly up to the student to select which ones to take), we know no real core curriculum exists.

Furthermore, we know that we have no real "core" curriculum because we cannot agree on what it ought to contain, or even whether it ought to exist. Thus, in practice, there ends up being many "core" curricula, take your choice. Each politically correct view has its input of what "ought" to be there, no one having any other criteria by which to include or exclude anything. The average core curriculum is closer to the Tower of Babel than any other known construct. The end result is that what was once considered something that everyone had to read to be at all aware of the nobility of our lives is not read by anyone or, if so, only in an adversarial context. Not only is Aristotle's Ethics itself "beyond good and evil," to steal a phrase from Nietzsche, but it is beyond comprehension in a world where all "values" are either equal or less than equal. If all "values" are equal, then nothing that is called "value" is of much importance.


Recently, Magdalen Goffin gave me a copy of her new biography of her father, the English Catholic writer, E. I. Watkin (The Watkin Path, Sussex Academic Press, 2006). It seems that one of her great-grandparents on her mother's side, from the early 19th century, was Herbert Ingram. He was the founder of the Illustrated London News, a major newspaper innovation of its time. Ingram is said to have formulated three "sure-fire" principles of how to run a successful journal: 1) "people enjoy reading about crimes and disasters;" 2) papers with photos or pictures "sell more copies than those without," and 3) "human beings of the poorer sort are exceedingly credulous especially when it comes to matters of health."

These principles, when put together, I take it, mean that if we want to interest most people in reading and make money at the same time, the best way to do it is to produce an essay or text about some disaster, accompanied with graphic photos, preferably something related to health and its easy restoration, say with non-prescription pills. This formula still works like a charm and is repeated regularly in the daily editions of almost any paper any place in the world; we get, for the readers' information, USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Catholic Standard, and the relatively photo-less Wall Street Journal.

This useful information, however, does broach the question of reading in our education, especially about what was once known as "book learning." I am familiar with the notion of a paper-less world. In fact, almost everything today that appears on paper first is formulated and then preserved in an electronic environment. Paper is not where you begin to write, but where you end and not always then. After about ten years of e-mail, I no longer can calculate the number of good letters I have received which have ceased to exist because they were on ephemeral electronic format and not written by hand on paper. I sometimes wonder if someone has yet written a printed book entitled, My Favorite Deleted E-mails.

Now, I know that it is almost impossible to eradicate something that once appears on-line. From comments of lawyers seeking to convict us, nothing we have ever put in electronic format ever disappears. Its permanence is the closest thing we have to immortality in the modern world. Still, we do not usually read whole books on-line unless we have to, and even if we have to, we usually first print them out. As far as I can tell, far from the computer eliminating paper, it is one of its primary generators, precisely both for ease of reading and for a kind of alternate permanence. The growers of trees and other paper pulp products must love the computer.

Besides, something about a book irradiates its own mystique. I continue to maintain that what we mean by education, that strange word, still has mostly to do with books -- books we possess, keep. Recently, I was given yet another book; this time a friend of mine was in London, the same man that gave me Belloc's Places. He came across Maurice Baring's Lost Lectures. Somewhere he found a copy of this relatively rare book, a book published by Peter Davies in London, in 1932. The Preface to this book begins with the following sentence: "These Lost Lectures are for the most part talks delivered to imaginary audiences." What else does anyone need but this enticing invitation to make him hasten to join this "imaginary audience!"

John Paul I wrote a famous book called Illustrissimi. The book contained his never-delivered letters to famous people from Don Quixote to Chesterton. I rather like the idea of giving a talk to an imaginary audience or writing a letter to someone long dead to express my appreciation for what he wrote even if I came across it long after the author had died. A Jesuit companion also gave me the review from the New York Times (May 5), replete with photos of author and book cover, of Peter Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of Great Books You'll Never Read. This title is not unlike a medical encyclopedia, with graphics, of diseases not yet known, but, as Herbert Ingram implied, still who can resist reading about such terrible diseases?

After a certain age, one begins to suspect that the world is full of books that he will never read. One of my definitions of a noble and well lived life is one in which, on the occasion of death, the man in question still has many books on his shelves not yet read. This is not to deny that we want to check also the ones that he did read. Tell me what you read, and I will tell you what you are. I believe the same principle would hold if we put it negatively, "Tell me what you don't read, and I will tell you what you are."


But, as I intimated, it is not so much whether you are able to read, but what you read when you are able. The world is full of folks who can read but who, in fact, have read little or nothing. It is also full of folks who constantly read but reading nothing that is noble, nothing that really might move their souls. But to read well and accurately, we need the grammar, we need to know the parts of speech, how things fit together. This seems basic, even when spell-check and grammar-check are on our standard computer software.

However, a gentleman in Canada recently sent me an online review of a book called The War against Grammar, which review appeared in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review in 2003. He suspected that I would be astonished to read the following sentence: "Opposition to the teaching of grammar is now almost universal among professors of education and the 80,000 members of the NCTA (National Council of Teachers of English)." I was indeed astonished, but also I was delighted at the further comment of the reviewer, Jeremiah Reedy. It seems that teachers of foreign languages find it difficult to teach when students do not know their English grammar. To keep their jobs, foreign language teachers resort to attracting students by using culture to replace grammar as a tool of learning. They study maps, menus, and monuments. Finally, the author of the book, David Mulroy, "took his son out of a public school and began home-schooling him when homework in French consisted of making a dessert of mangoes and powdered sugar, 'a favorite (dessert) in Francophone Africa!'"

So we must have what Dorothy Sayers once called the "tools" of learning, which she said, in a famous essay that can still be easily found on Google, were in fact "The Lost Tools of Learning." Still, as we think of graduating seniors, of whatever stripe, the most important thing that they can possess in their young souls is not just the "tools" of learning, but the desire, the eros, the love of learning. We see some of it already in Lucy reading her first book and ignoring every other distraction or temptation to do something else presumably more delightful, like swimming or jumping rope.

To all of us, there must come, as Plato said in the seventh book of the Republic, that awakening of our minds -- minds we already have -- that turning around, that astonishment that something exists that we do not know about but want to know. If our schools or universities conspire, by their theories or their atmosphere, to prevent us from wondering about the highest things, we are on our own. We need not be defeated by a very expensive education that teaches us that relativism is true, or by a free education that teaches things that corrupt us. I suppose what I want to say to students, at the end of any academic year, especially to those whom Plato called the "potential philosophers," not to be defeated either by one's own vices or one's own ideology or one's own lethargy. But this reaction can only happen to us if we suddenly are alerted by something outside of ourselves, something that is true or beautiful, something that is.

Fortunately, not a few passages can be found in our literature that serve to alert us, to wake us up. Let us imagine a young Lucy or the student taken out of the French class in which the making of a mango dessert was a substitute for learning grammar, but now grown to be twenty-one or twenty-two years old, still young. Their souls have now hopefully acquired some virtue, some grammar, some curiosity. To these, I would give as a graduation present the following famous passage from Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

The day was Tuesday, October 19, 1768. That morning Boswell and Johnson breakfasted on the Island of Col. They took leave of "the young ladies, and of our excellent companion, Col, to whom we had been so much obliged." Finally they land on "that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived their benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion."

Johnson, in seeing this place, was much moved by the scene before him. Fortunately for us, Boswell was there to record what he said, which was as follows:

To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground that has been dignified by wisdom, bravery or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

Should those graduating this year from whatever college, in whatever place, not know of the plains of Marathon or the ruins of Iona, they can assume they have lost much time in what is called their education.

In a footnote to this passage, Boswell adds: "had our Tour produced nothing else but this sublime passage, the world must have acknowledged that it was not made in vain. The present respectable President of the Royal Society was so much struck on reading it, that he clasped his hands together, and remained for some time in an attitude of silent admiration." We can find much in local things. If we have never stood before something that moved us to "silent admiration," we have not begun our proper human lives.

Yet we can read without learning. Or we can have read only one book that is the "greatest" one we have ever read. We can read many things none of which move our souls to attend to what is. Johnson was right. The man is "little to be envied" who can come across great, pious, and noble things without their causing a ripple of light in his soul. What makes education, such as it is, worthwhile are precisely those defining moments of turning around, of being struck by something that calls us out of ourselves, be it the crimes and disasters recounted in the London Illustrated News, the Lost Lectures of Maurice Baring, the "Lost Tools of Learning" of Dorothy Sayers, the Book of Lost Books of Peter Kelly, or the plain of Marathon and the ruins of Iona, where our patriotism should "gain force" and our piety grow "warmer."

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Visit his Author Page, which includes a list of his essays for And read more of his essays on his website.

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