Reading Boy by Eastman Johnson (1824-1906)

Good Will Reading

Some of my earliest and favorite childhood memories involve reading and listening to stories: everything from my dad reading The Chronicles of Narnia out-loud before bedtime, to road trips where my family would listen to tape recordings of Hank the Cow Dog. I also remember feeling sad when a story was over. I wanted the world of the story to continue indefinitely, and never wanted to say goodbye to the characters. (I can still remember feeling the tears filling my eyes when Frodo said farewell to Sam at the Grey Havens). To cope with the loss of having finished a story, I did what every child does: with my toys and friends, I would re-enact my favorite scenes or imagine new scenarios for my favorite characters.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my desire to imitate the stories I read was a form of dialectical inquiry. Without the influence of prejudice or fear of encountering a “bad idea,” I wanted to know everything I could about the characters and the world they inhabited. I wanted to hear the melody of Aslan’s song as he created Narnia, or to ask Hank what he meant when he gave mysterious advice such as “Don’t take anything for granite. That’s what tombstones are made of.”

My early love of stories eventually influenced me to pursue an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature. I had hoped to join a community of people, like me, who loved stories for the effect they produced in the reader—of inhabiting perspectives and experiences not my own. Unfortunately, I encountered an approach to literature that I intuitively disliked but had a hard time explaining why. A series of recent discussions on Plato’s Apology with my seventh-grade students, however, has helped clarify both the nature of the problem and a potential solution.

At the beginning of his defense, Socrates has been brought to court by three young men: Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon. He also stands before a jury of young men, accused of atheism and of corrupting the city’s youth. Ironically, Socrates says that he’s less concerned with the accusations that will ultimately lead to his execution, and more concerned with the influence of the jurymen’s parents and teachers. “These,” Socrates explains, “I fear much more than Anytus and his friends” (Plato 18B).

This previous generation of parents and teachers are notably not present at the trial, presumably because they’re all dead. Nevertheless, Socrates observes that they are the ones who exercised the greatest influence on the jurors since childhood, having persuaded them and accused Socrates “quite falsely, saying that there is a man called Socrates, a wise man…who makes the worse argument the stronger” (18B). The effect of such an influence is twofold:

First, the jurymen are disposed to close their ears to anything Socrates might say. If Socrates sounds right, then he’s probably wrong!

Second, having been persuaded that Socrates makes the weak argument strong and the strong weak, he’s afraid the jurors have acquired a condition of “misology.” In a later dialogue, Socrates will define misology as the hatred of argument, a fundamental distrust in the process of the dialectic to lead a person to an understanding of Truth. Misology often arises in response to the way arguments can appear to be circular, protracted, unproductive, and tiresome. Worst of all, long periods of argumentation can suddenly result in making “bad ideas” seem better or even true.

Armed with a personal prejudice and a general distrust of dialectical argumentation, the men of the jury stand ready to pronounce a guilty verdict.

In the opening paragraphs of his defense, Socrates recognizes he’s in a nearly impossible situation. The accretion of the many years of education his jurors and accusers have received likely will not be overturned because of a single speech. They are not disposed to know the truth even if it appeared to them pure and unadulterated, much less in the speech of a seventy-year-old man known for wandering barefoot and in tattered clothing through the city center.

As a middle school and high school English teacher, I’ve learned that a bad education in literature happens in a similar way. Instead of producing lovers of literature, most literary education wants to produce “critics” of literature. The activity of criticism takes various forms: sometimes critics will interpret a text for what it says about gender, culture, race, society, or psychology (among others). Literary scholars will often talk about their “critical lenses” which they use whenever they read a story. In other words, criticism applies a preconceived philosophical idea to a text and assesses what the text says about that idea.

In graduate school, I learned to become a critic, and I’ve experienced firsthand the value of criticism as a method of reading and understanding literature. But I don’t think criticism is appropriate for middle school and most high school students because it doesn’t teach them to engage dialectically with a text. Instead it arms them with prejudiced opinions about what an author thinks before they earnestly question and consider the meaning and truth an author attempts to convey. C. S. Lewis makes a similar observation in An Experiment in Criticism:

For this reason I am very doubtful whether criticism is a proper exercise for boys and girls. A clever schoolboy’s reaction to his reading is most naturally expressed by parody or imitation. The necessary condition of all good reading is ‘to get ourselves out of the way’; we do not help the young to do this by forcing them to keep on expressing opinions” (Lewis 93).

The ability to imitate is the sign that a student has read a book well. Imitation requires the humility to set aside prejudice and preferences to inhabit a new world of subjective experiences. Nothing could be more natural to a child than imitation, a skill easily lost in the throes of adult responsibilities, disappointment, and desire for control.

Lewis argues that adults (and I would add English teachers especially!) should learn from this child-like imitation of literature. Reading well means dialectically engaging with a story: asking good questions, trying on new ideas, and stepping into new experiences. Lewis argues that:

We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader” (116).

I often struggle with the last part of Lewis’ claim. The “preliminary act of good will” can be difficult to muster if, like me, a person is disposed to criticism. How many good books have I misunderstood or neglected because I already had a preformed opinion about the author or the genre? How many times have I cast a vote to condemn Socrates because of prejudice and an unwillingness to test ideas? These questions are haunting, but they’re motivating.

The goal of a literary education should encourage young students to maintain a posture of good will toward stories and, ultimately, to the world. The alternative will only produce a form of anti-intellectualism characterized by distrust, willful ignorance, and cynicism. After all, as Lewis observes, “If you already distrust the man you are going to meet, everything he says or does will seem to confirm your suspicions.”

Thankfully, even if you’ve had a poor education in literature, there’s still hope. When the jurors return with Socrates’ verdict, he’s surprised to learn that the vote was much closer than expected. Some of the jurors changed their minds! Socrates calls these men his “friends” and the ones he “would rightly call jurymen” (Plato 40A). These are the men who showed a preliminary act of good will and, as a result, have heard and seen the truth of Socrates’ claims despite their prejudices and misological influences.

For me, teaching has been an exercise in recovering my childhood love of literature. I’ve had to work to silence my inner critic and to acquire the humility to learn from my students. When I’m successful, I can recognize the child-like desire to hear Socrates speak, to have him say to me, “…stay with me awhile, for nothing prevents us from talking to each other” (40A).

Lewis, C. S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Plato, Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Translated by G. M. A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Co., 2002.