Reading the classics

Classic education is not (or at least should not be) out fashioned, as its name might suggest. The classics, a famous subset of them being the Great Books , are a collection of book that arguably have shaped Western Civilisation.  A wonderful book discussing the issue is The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer. I’m interested in the classics and like this book already, even though I just have read the first chapter. 

For starters, it is the biography of the author that I find intriguing. Although being a mother of 4 kids, she returned to graduate school at the age of 30. She had to struggle hard and sacrifice in order to find time for her studies while having to take care of her kids and managing the rest of her life. This gives her a lot of credibility when she talks about how to fit in time to read the classics in her busy life.

Furthermore, she highlights the method that many have and still can use in order to educate themselves without the need to attend school for that. She talks about the a way of learning that encompasses reading, taking notes, discussing books and ideas with friends. I agree with this way of learning, especially the part of discussing books and ideas with others. In my experience, this is one of best ways to understand a topic.

Bauer also talks about the challenges we face toady when we try to read. Modern connectivity devices are very good at ‘stealing’ our attention, and it is indeed difficult for a book to compete with a mobile device, not to mention when the book is in an electronic format loaded on a mobile device. Nevertheless Bauer asks us not to despair and ignore the apocalyptic reflections, as she calls them, of those who believe that in our age the act of reading books is dead and that other types of media have take up the role of books to educate. She argues that books remain playing their important roles in education, now and in the future.   

Interestingly she quotes Thomas Jefferson complaining about the youth in his time and their unwillingness to read books. So it seems that the older generations have always complained about the younger ones for not reading. This applies especially to our age of distraction, which interestingly shows a not very large decline in the average number of books read every year, at least for the US.

Then, Bauer talks about the trivium. Its the classical division of learning into three stages. The first stage is called the grammar stage, where grammar doesn’t necessarily mean language rules but the main building block and principles of any given discipline. The second stage is called the logic stage, where the learner exercises his or her analytical skills,  subjecting the material learned to scrutiny, thinking about whether it is correct or not, and trying to find connections between cause and effect. In the third stage, the rhetoric stage, the student learns how to express his or her conclusions in a presentable and elegant way.            

As a side note, it is interestingly the same method followed by students of the Hawza, the Muslim Shia seminary, their centres being Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Students in the Hawza listen and read, take notes, learn how to express their opinions, and discuss with each other and publically what they have learned.

Bauer has also some suggestions on how to start. Here are some tips.

  • It is better to read in the morning than in the evening.
  • Start short, like 30 minute for each session.
  • Don’t create a heavy weekly schedule. 4 times a week is great.
  • Get away from distraction, like checking your emails before reading some classic text. It puts your mind and concentration away.
  • The time to educate yourself should be guarded. You are productive when you are reading, thinking, and writing.
  • Take the first step as soon as you have read this article (or the first chapter of her book). As the say, the best time to start is now.

I think Bauer’s book is a very precious guide to the classics, and in my opinion more useful than the by itself classic book How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler. Furthermore, I think that the classics not only have shaped Western Civilisation, but also the world. It remains that the ‘West’ looks at the classics from other civilisations, as much as other civilisations need to look at those of the ‘West’. The Great Conversation  ought to be more diverse.


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