Notes on teaching literature

May 26, 2010
When you are done the body must be alive. Literature provides models or types of the virtues in at least three ways: characters, writers, and texts. The protagonist will almost always model a virtue. The writer might be virtuous in his lifestyle or writing disciplines. The text itself is virtuous if its form and content fulfill the law of propriety. Therefore 1. Select the best models 2. Encounter these models directly and whole. Don’t moralize. 3. Identify the core question in a text. For example, my son Andrew wanted to know why the Scarlet Pimpernel was rescuing French aristocrats if they were so bad. Great question and one worth a lot of discussion and reading. 4. Explore everything in light of the core question. Beware of murdering a text in order to dissect it.
Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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Hi Andrew,
Can you elaborate on identifying the core question? Is there one correct one for each work of literature, or do we encourage our students to find their own?

Can you share some types of moralizing to show what not to do?

Can a work of literature be virtuous in only 1 or 2 of the three areas and still be worth studying?



I probably shouldnt' have said "the" core question because it doesn't matter all that much what you ask. Just ask whether a character should have done something. If the character is the protagonist and the action is his decisive action, you've probably asked "the core question," but it doesn't matter all that much.

Moralizing is what Adventures in Odyssey does when they tell a perfectly good story and then have Connie come on at the end and say, "now you are too stupid to get the point, so we are going to tell it to you."

Moralizing assumes that children become moral through analytical rational thought. They don't, typically. They become moral when morality is appealing, and that takes place when it is embodied in real people, works of art, and stories.

It's not the work of literature you should study but the virtues it contains: "If there be any virtue... think on these things."