by Adam Andrews
The young writer squirms. It is just as he feared. A vast empty page before him, a clock ticking ominously behind, and nothing to say! The bugaboo “what do I write about?” flits a ghostly flight across his page, and he suffers a debilitating attack of brain lock. He looks to the assignment for help, but finds none. “Evaluate _ _ _ _ _.” “Discuss the implications of _ _ _ _ _ _ .” Evaluate? Discuss? How? He throws up his hands and admits defeat. Writing is too hard, he decides. I hate writing.
Part of the reason this scene is so common is that we teachers have not taught our students to write about ideas. The mature writer views “evaluate” and “discuss” questions as opportunities to express well-formed opinions about matters physical, musical, historical, political, philosophical, theological, or literary. In fact, this is the goal of all writing: to discuss, handle, judge, approve, express, reject, weigh, and generally traffic in ideas.
Really, writing is but one of three great human pursuits destined to this end. All three are necessary components of a sound education, and were famously summarized by the 16th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, who said: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”
READING AND DISCUSSION: CRUCIAL COMPANIONS TO GREAT WRITING
Writing teachers often haul out this famous quote to remind kids how important writing is, and with good reason: writing alone forces the student to choose one word over another; to weigh the relative merits of the two and decide which one is best. Writing alone empowers a student to express himself in such a way that he cannot be misunderstood.
However, Bacon’s quote has other pearls of wisdom that writing teachers would do well to heed. Though writing makes an exact man, reading and discussion (conference) make a full and ready one. Reading and discussion force the writer to choose one idea over another, to weigh their relative merits in the crucible of conversation and decide which one is best. Reading and discussion supply the writer with raw materials to build and express his own opinions.
In reading, we confront and acquire ideas. In discussion, we evaluate and judge them. In writing, we express our judgments persuasively, with grace and power. Perhaps this is what Bacon meant: that reading, discussion and writing, when pursued together, make a complete man.
CLASSIC LITERATURE: A STOREHOUSE OF GREAT IDEAS
What then should the aspiring writer read? Classic literature, of course. Here, in every genre and at every level, the student finds ideas beautifully expressed. Even in this age of information, classic literature remains the purest avenue to worlds of experience beyond our own. Because it beautifully portrays the tragedy, pathos, and wonder of the human condition, great literature is a mine of riches for the writer in search of ideas. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, is the source of dozens of terrific discussion questions about human nature: What is heroism? What should loyalty require? Is a man bound by fate, or does he determine his own destiny?
Young writers taught to join in discussions like these will soon be able to participate in what Mortimer Adler called the Great Conversation, a dialogue the human race has been carrying on within itself since the dawn of history. It is a dialogue about ideas, including God, honor, duty, justice, revenge, loyalty, free will, happiness, friendship, and peace. The record of this dialogue is preserved for us in classic literature, the best writing of history’s most thoughtful individuals.
Consistent interaction with classic literature will eventually bring a sense of perspective to a student’s writing that would otherwise be unavailable to him. He will never again ask himself, “What should I write about?” for the wisdom of the ages will be at his fingertips. Writing will have ceased being an assignment; it will have become an impulse, the inevitable result of reading and conversation about ideas.
An understanding of a classic book’s basic themes and structural components, coupled with a passing knowledge of the literary devices used by its author, gives a growing writer plenty of ideas to write about when the next assignment comes along. But more than that, a literary education supplies him with intellectual tools: tools of analysis, evaluation, and judgment. These are critical in developing writers who not only write with cogent form and sparkling style but also with understanding and conviction.
Teachers can best supply these things by leading their students into discussion through Socratic questioning. Asking students carefully selected questions about the books they read encourages them to develop their own powers of observation, deduction, and evaluation. The Socratic Method thus encourages good reading, and helps develop better writers, too.
Francis Bacon said it five hundred years ago, but it is as true as ever: reading, discussion, and writing are the key components of a sound education. By starting with classic books and making use of Socratic discussions, today’s teachers can prepare their students to think and write with eloquence and power.
Adam Andrews—as speaker at this year’s Virginia Homeschool Convention—is the director of the Center for Literary Education, a PhD candidate in history, and a homeschooling father of six. Since 2003, he has traveled throughout the United States and Canada, presenting an innovative and accessible method for teaching the crucial skills of literary analysis and interpretation. You can learn more about his resources and approach at www.centerforlit.com.
This article was originally published the summer 2009 edition of the Virginia Home Educator.
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