It’s great to read Great Books

The Great Books really are great— and relevant for today’s kids — writes teacher Jessica Lahey on Core Knowledge Blog.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

. . . great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of others’ ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

That the classics are difficult to read is a bug, not a feature, Lahey argues. Is this realistic?

About Joanne


  1. Mark Roulo says:

    “Is this realistic?”

    Is what realistic? That being difficult to read is a bug, not a feature?

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I don’t actually believe in “The Great Books” — though I do believe in “Great Books.” There are an awful lot of great books out there, not just the ones on the latest reading lists.

    But with that caveat, I’m pretty much in agreement with Lahey: there’s a lot to be offered in great books, a lot that is timeless and universal. So yes, “great books” are “relevant” to today’s students.

    On the other hand, the difficulty of the text is a real characteristic — and whether it is a bug or a feature depends on context. It’s pedagogical negligence to hand King Lear to a student who is reading at a 4th grade level. Nothing good will come of that.

    Which is, of course, why we have comic-book adaptations. Wonderful things, those.

    • I totally agree re: the fourth grade reading level. That would be an exercise in frustration for everyone involved. But I would make sure those fourth graders hear the story about the girl whose dad was so egotistical that he asked his three daughters to tell him how much they love him…

      I would be tempted to leave out the eye-gouging, but sixth graders DO love the disemboweling in The Iliad. Oh, and Shakespeare is big on fart jokes. Those go over big.

      • And to reaffirm my point that Jessica is utterly clueless, she thinks that Michael Lopez is talking about actual fourth graders when he mentions students with 4th grade reading levels.

        Um. No.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I think part of the problem is a lot of English TEACHERS haven’t engaged with the great books, and don’t see how they’re relevant.

    For instance, Telemachus has an absent father who abandoned his mother and who is wandering around the Mediterranean sleeping with anything that moves. All his male role models are feckless, lazy layabout suitors. He has to figure out for himself what it means to be the man of the house.

    The Illiad is essentially a gang war. Over a girl.

    And the human condition– what makes a man a hero, what we owe to our friends, why we try to get home—- that doesn’t change.

    When we only have kids read ‘relevant’ books, we create the illusion that they’re special snowflakes who share nothing with the rest of humanity. The classics teach them that men of ancient times were still men, just like they are…..

    • Not just *a* girl.

      Girls. Specifically, Chyseis and Briseis, who are spoils of war. Property that get handed around. Capture a city and kill the ruling family? Get their daughter as a concubine. We remember Helen but forget that the Achilles/Agamemnon spat started because of these two war prizes.

      But isn’t that part of the teaching, too? A book such as The Iliad (we read an adaption, read parts of the original/listen to parts of the original in sixth grade) can’t be read without discussion of Greek civilization, the concepts of “kleos” and “pietas” and “time.” Of course we don’t live in the Bronze Age (see below), but my students sure as heck are going to learn about it.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    I loved Classic Comics.
    Thing is, when the vocab and some of the background are unfamiliar, the reader forgets the plot line.
    The late Sydney Harris once said that you could learn all you need to know about psychology by reading Shakespeare. Might have been an exaggeration, and he probably meant reading and rereading as an adult.
    The Iliad is a gang fight over a girl. Or you could try to haul it into history and claim it’s a dressed-up version of a raid by a “boatload of Rhodian pirates”, or a fight over shipping fees.
    You could go with the foundation of Irish lit, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”.
    Anything but Catcher, and its zillion wannabes.
    IMO, books are “great” because the teacher says they are. The actual greatness has not been obvious.
    Give the kids library time. Let them figure it out.

  5. There are two sides to this:

    * The Great Books are indeed great. I read Antigone last year for the first time and really enjoyed it. Lots of “classics” seem like they’re going to be a tough slog until you get in and actually read them and you find that there’s a good reason they were considered classics.

    * The reason that Great Books often seem unappealing until you actually get into them is that you’ve been, during your school years, forced to read “classics” that weren’t so fun. An example of this is The Tempest. An absolutely great play, but not so accessible to a 10th grader – you just need more life experience to really appreciate it.

    I think Great Books should be put off until high school and then should be eased in with some that are more appealing to young folks.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Rob. Agree with your second bullet.
    The greats were written to be read by adults of that time and place. Helloooo? Anybody here from that time and place? Anybody?
    At least consider that books written for adults might be tough for kids, especially, say, kids not going to school in Bronze Age Greece.
    Difficult concept, I know.
    Meantime, resurrect Classic Comics.

  7. Jessica Lahey is a Latin teacher, as I recall, which means she teaches at an elite school, probably private, and the saddest thing about her post is the fact that she thinks she has a clue about educational policy.

    The other bizarre thing, of course, is that high school curriculums across the country do contain great books, so what the heck is she talking about? Since we’re already doing it, what’s the point of making it an issue?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      My son’s public high school offers 3 years of Latin with an optional AP Latin. It’s not elite. I’m just saying.

      • I think about 1% of the schools in the US offer Latin. So you can pick “elite” or just “way out there being weird for no particularly good reason”. Your choice.

        Or, you can just accept that you’re one of those tedious people who doesn’t understand what “outlier” means, or doesn’t even really care, because really, the point of your post was It’s All About You.

        • Lightly Seasoned says:

          Latin is growing in popularity here in the midwest. It isn’t uncommon in public schools.

          I’m not sure all “Great Books” work with struggling readers, but some do. I’ve had good luck teaching Pinsky’s Inferno to my students who are reading at around 5th – 6th grade level. Takes a LOT of prep work. So, like anything else, you pick and choose. I tend to stay away from YA because I don’t see why I should teach what they’re capable of reading on their own, but some people do think struggling readers should read that sort of thing.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          From The New York Times..

          “Marty Abbott, education director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said it was possible that Latin would edge out German as the third most popular language taught in schools, behind Spanish and French, when the preliminary results of an enrollment survey are released next year. In the last survey, covering enrollment in 2000, Latin placed fourth. “In people’s minds, it’s coming back,” she said. “But it’s always been there. It’s just that we continue to see interest in it.””

          • Cranberry says:

            To look at SAT test data, Latin is the third most popular language taught in schools. 6% of students taking the SAT studied Latin.

            70% studied Spanish.
            17% studied French.
            6% studied Latin.
            4% studied German.
            3% studied Chinese.
            2% studied Italian.
            2% studied Japanese.


            It’s interesting to look at the SAT mean score for each segment of students. The highest Mean Critical Reading score belongs to the students who took Latin. The highest Math score belongs to the students who took Chinese. (Correlation is not causation.) Some students must have taken more than one language.

          • See? Was that so hard? This must be new; the 1% quote is from a decade ago. I’m still skeptical, but that’s better evidence.

          • This is actually in response to Cranberry’s list of languages taken and the correlation with SAT scores. Back in the dinosaur era of the 50s and 60s, my observation was that only the top of the academic pile took Latin, usually in addition to a modern language, which could explain the correlation to top verbal scores. The next group commonly took only a modern language. In my area of New England, many small schools offered only one (often French) but the weakest students who took a foreign language (many colleges expected 2 years) tended to take Spanish, if it was available.

      • Thanks, Stacy.

        @Cal, I read your comments at the Core Knowledge blog, as well as here, and I was surprised; I didn’t know intellectual benefit to children was “trivial.”:

        “Why is this even a question? All high school English classes cover at least a few of the classics, even though in many high schools the kids can’t understand the books.

        So I’m not sure what your point is, since the question of benefit is directly tied up in whether or not the kids are capable of understanding the material at all. Instead, you focus on the largely trivial matter of whether kids who are capable of comprehending the material will benefit intellectually. In the scheme of our educational policy today, in which we are force feeding Shakespeare and Dickens to high school students who read at a 4th grade level, this is so laughably irrelevant that I wondered why on earth you would even bother–and then I saw you teach Latin at a selective school.

        Ah. Totally clueless. Got it.”

        And thanks for the “clueless” moniker. Although my teenager got there first.

        I have taught in both public and private schools, and in my experience, it is not common for schools to teach “great books” and when they are taught, it is without a sense of enthusiasm and excitement, but with a sense of duty and boredom.

        That was my point.

    • Cal,

      If everything offends you so much, why don’t you go write something original and give the rest of the world an opportunity to comment on your work. Or is originality not part of your tiny repertoire.

      Sorry for the digression, Jessica. Didn’t mean to take the focus off of your work, which I greatly admire.

      • Mark,

        I do.


        Not once in your post do you mention what you now say is “your point”.

        So no, the fact that teachers teach Great Books badly was *not* your point. Your point was very simplistic: Great Books are Good. As I said.

      • If everything offends you so much, why don’t you go write something original and give the rest of the world an opportunity to comment on your work. Or is originality not part of your tiny repertoire.

        It’s very, very simple. If you disagree with Cal, she’ll insult and berate you because your disagreement violates the core of her narcissistic worldview: “Cal is always right”. It’s the defense mechanism of a feeble mind.

        The scary part is, this feeble little narcissist is actually in a classroom where some hapless student might have the temerity to disagree with her holiness. Personally, I feel sorry for the poor kid.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Seriously? You’re going to call out Cal for insulting people by calling her a “feeble little narcissist” and insulting her teaching, which you’ve never seen?

          We have no basis for thinking that her behavior on a (semi-) anonymous blog comment thread is in any way indicative of her behavior with students.

          Look, she’s a crankypants on the internet. She calls people moronic for saying things that are perfectly reasonable, and she doesn’t seem to have a drop of rhetorical charity anywhere in her online persona.

          But that’s it, and it doesn’t make her a bad person or a bad teacher or a Nazi-crypto-Communist saboteur. It just makes her someone that you have to deal with if you’re going to hang out on this particular portion of the internet.

          Imagine nice, imagine reasonable. It’s easy if you try….

          • Michael,

            I’ve been watching this “crankypants” act of hers for years. It’s more than that. It’s a clear, consistent pattern of insulting and demeaning people for the mere offense of disagreeing with her. You’ll pardon me if I my language is rather pointed in registering my disgust, but it’s gotten more than old.

            Frankly, I hope, for her students sake that she’s different in the classroom. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that people behave differently, often more aggressively, online than in person. I know I do. But given how she reacts to anything that offends her sensibilities online, I’d bet that disagreeing with her in the classroom is probably an adventure, to say the least.

            And yes, I’m fully aware that I am using insults to criticize insults.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Quincy – To keep your blood pressure under control, just remind yourself that she needs to adjust her meds or that menopause is wreaking havoc. Enjoy her for what she is and don’t mind the rest. Life’s too short. 😉

          • J. D. Salinger says:

            Lopez, Your willingness to do pro-bono defense of Cal is heartwarming.

        • In all fairness, Cal could be the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ type: in front of students and the public, very nice and diplomatic, and then she vents on message boards like this one. I know several teachers exactly like that!

          • Oh, for heaven’s sake. Don’t you people have anything better to discuss?

            But yes, Michael is right. Anyone who thinks he know what someone is like based on their Internet postings is a moron.

          • But yes, Michael is right. Anyone who thinks he know what someone is like based on their Internet postings is a moron.

            If that’s your way of saying you’re only this nasty and intolerant on the internet, fair enough. I’m a big enough person to take you at your word on that.

            That does nothing to render your behavior here any less reprehensible, though.

  8. George Larson says:

    Years ago I think the Discovery or Learning Channel produced a series on the Great Books. They had a show on each which provided an explanation on what they were, why they were important and how they could be enjoyed. It covered the usual fiction as well as non fiction like The Prince and Sun Tsu’s Art of War.

  9. Bill Leonard says:

    I actually enjoyed a lot of the so-called “Great Books” stories and plays. Quite a bit was expected of us by today’s standards, but then again, I started public high school in 1957.

    I recall that while we were reading Oedipus the King, a buddy and I came up with what we thought was a terrific line: Oedipus shoulda had a dance band; he could have promoted it as “Fling and flex with Oedipus Rex”. The class loved it, and the teacher actually laughed out loud. ‘Course, you have to be old enough to remember the big band era and Sammy Kaye…

    But the point is, anything can be interesting with the right teacher, and with a sense of humor.

  10. John Webster says:

    I’m the person who emailed the question about Great Books/classical curriculum to Jess. Please go to the Core Knowledge Blog where I provide the context for my question (comment #4).

    Jess’ essay was answering a question from a father of public school students (me). Cal’s personal criticisms are completely unjustified.

  11. This may be sad, but true: I got into reading Shakespeare, Twain, etc. because of Star Trek. I wanted to sound like Khan and General Chang when I was talking! Everything they said sounded so important when they said it in that classical way…

    • Etrigan,

      If you haven’t yet, listen to the Nick Meyer’s DVD commentaries on Star Trek II and Star Trek VI. Really interesting to hear his thought process behind his realization of the two characters, including their mutual habit of quoting Shakespeare.