method of lizzy

preservations… for posterity

Taste, Swallow, Digest

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. – Francis Bacon

I’ve been mourning a loss of classical literature for some time. Not since my early undergrad days have I experienced the brilliance of the classics. Eight years later and I still have my syllabus and notes from my last such experience, a World Literature course “which explore[d] human experience by examining diverse aesthetic and cultural perspectives from ancient to modern times.” The texts that we read that semester ranged from The Epic of Gilgamesh and King Oedipus to When Nietzsche Wept.

While the reading of these texts was enjoyable, that alone does not make for my memorable experience. What I recall so fondly is the biweekly analysis led by the insightful professor. The class was especially enriching because students were required to post to a listserv twice a week as a continuation of discussions from class. The posts were to be substantial and meaningful, and 9 times out of 10 they were. It was great fun to analyse and debate a number of topics with my classmates. Where else but a university can you find an experience such as this? I’ve looked high and low and I haven’t found anything that even begins to compare.

My search has led me to The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer. To my surprise, classical education is not what I expected. I was envisioning children of royalty learning Latin with their live-in tutors. That’s the classical education that I always wanted to have. So I’m delighted to find that it’s not too late for a complete classical education, and that in fact classical education is in large part self-education.

The basis of classical education is the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Students must first learn the facts, then they learn to analyze, and lastly they learn to instruct and persuade.  The grammar stage is the building blocks of the foundation of knowledge. The logic stage begins once the student has such a foundation and can begin to analyze their knowledge. In the rhetoric stage, students learn to express their opinion. Susan Wise Bauer charges that “classrooms too often skip the first steps and proceed directly to the third”. She continues…

…which is why so many elementary texts insist on asking six-year-olds how they feel about what they’re learning, long before they’ve properly had a chance to learn it. This mental short cut has become a habit for many adults, who are ready to give their opinions long before they’ve had a change to understand the topic under study. (Listen to any call-in radio show.) And the habit of leaping directly to the rhetoric stage can prevent even mature minds from learning how to read properly.

I don’t know how prevalant this problem is among my peers, but I can affirm that I have been prone to such mental short cuts. In large part, I think that this is why I have been unable to pursue a serious study of literature on my own. I have bad habits that prevent me from tackling books such as War and Peace, a classic that has long eluded me. In her book, Bauer offers practical advice on how to get through difficult texts. She also provides reading lists that any classically-educated person should read. Furthermore, she provides a brief analysis as the jumping-off point for the reader’s own grammar and logic stage.

I didn’t need much convincing. I ordered my own copy of Bauer’s book as well as the first book on her chronological list of novels. Next week I will begin reading Don Quixote.


April 15, 2007 - Posted by | books, classics, education, literature, logic, rhetoric, self-education, trivium

1 Comment

  1. I just love the classics!

    Comment by retro | November 1, 2007

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