by Gabriel Haley, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English | Concordia University, Nebraska
One of the reasons I, as an English professor, support classical education is the simple fact that classical education emphasizes the reading of great stories. The modern re-branding of literature classes as “language arts” suggests that education can rid itself of the discipline’s traditional allegiance to storytelling as long as certain language “skills” are practiced. Most recently, the Common Core has colonized the place of traditional storytelling with a new attention to nonfiction writings in science and social sciences.
The modern focus on skills thus tends to mean a focus on contemporary texts, often with little concern for their literary merit. As students raised in this manner of education arrive in my classroom and face classic works of literature, they will be ill-prepared to follow a conceit in Shakespeare or one of Jane Austen’s dependent clauses. Ironically, then, the focus on “skills” actually provides a very narrow set of language skills, considering all the possibilities historically available. This is worrying to me, but it is not my greatest concern.
You may know of the psychologist B. F. Skinner. He’s remembered in part for his experiments where he demonstrated that you can train a rat through a sequence of rewards and punishments. Give a rat a treat for pushing a button, and it will continue to push the button. Zap that same rat with a current of electricity whenever it presses on a lever, and the rat will avoid the lever. Skinner was pretty sure that his experiments in behaviorism would work on humans as well, although he graciously didn’t attempt to zap kids.
His work was groundbreaking in the 1930s and ‘40s, and to those at the time who believed traditional education methods were defunct, Skinner’s behaviorist theories appeared to offer a new way to think about education. Today a lot of education continues to use Skinner’s behaviorism as a foundation for its methods, applying his “schedules of reinforcement” and attaching the learning process to tangible rewards. The problem with this is: Our children work a bit differently than rats.
For instance, one crucial difference between the rats in Skinner’s boxes and our children is that rats don’t care much for stories. Our children do. Classical education has always known this, which is why it considers the reading of great literature to be more foundational than language skills. Even as contemporary psychological research is finally realizing the importance of narrative in human development, modern education has yet to catch up to classical education’s deep investment in storytelling.
Stories help to shape a child’s sense of right and wrong. A child responds to stories in a way that a rat never could. The idea is captured well in a line that Neil Gaiman includes in his contemporary fairy tale, Coraline: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” (Readers of G. K. Chesterton will note that Gaiman adapts a line from that wellspring of aphorisms.) As our children hear and read stories, they learn truths about the world that can be obtained in no comparable way. Stories can affect how children behave because stories influence a very human quality, a quality not found in Skinner’s rats: the moral imagination. After reading Coraline, a child can come away with a laudable virtue like bravery when she takes to heart the main character’s words, “When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.”
Stories that dramatize bravery hearten children; they will want to be brave. The lesson is far more complex than any food-pellet approach because it teaches children that the good in any given situation might not feel good. “When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” It is possible, in fact, that a tangible reward will never appear after a brave action. Nevertheless, as Coraline suggests, bravery is still a noble thing.
Without this understanding of storytelling, the stuff we traditionally call “literature” loses its distinction in a school’s curriculum (hence nonfiction works of science and social science start to replace it). Traditional literature might be included for entertainment or out of some lingering notion that stories are worthwhile, and thank God for that. Still, the so-called "real business of education" will always take precedence.
I think the movement from “Literature” to “Language Arts” should give us pause, as “skill sets” are given priority, divorced from the traditional emphasis on stories. Mere skills are mechanical, nothing near the training in the virtues that comes from the content of the stories themselves. Under a classical education a student will gain plenty of language skills from sheer exposure to language—and some of the best use of language at that. More importantly, however, a classical education prizes the literature itself, thereby offering children an opportunity to cultivate a set of virtues detached from any immediate reward.
And because of this, one of the reasons I, as a parent, support classical education is the simple fact that classical education emphasizes the reading of great stories.
Notes: There is much more to say about the choice of stories, but that topic requires another discussion. The phrase “moral imagination” comes from Vigen Guroian, and his book Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination elaborates the idea with parents in mind. Other books on the subject worth looking into are Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Sarah Clarkson’s Caught Up in a Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children. C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man is a foundational work.