Words of Wisdom

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from Flannery O'Connor in Book by Book
Michael Dirda

The high-shcool English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted, it is being formed.

This is where a great many of us have been let down by the educational system--more in generations after my own, but my own to some degree--at least I can say that this is where the landslide started. Today, if you ask at random any three graduates of our High School system, you're likely to find that none of them have heard of, much less read anything by, Jane Austen, or Ralph Emerson, or anyone who isn't on the very restricted list of the politically correct and culturally sensitive. But lest this turn into a rant--homeschoolers, do your child a favor and teach the classics--poetry as well as prose, whether or not it is to your taste--it is never too late to begin development.

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Great post, Steven, and great quote, too!

I managed to get a bachelor's degree in English from a reputable university - in 1977 - without having read anything by Jane Austen or John Milton. (I was required to take a full semester of Shakespeare, and I got a semester of Chaucer, too, thank Heaven.) If things were that loose in the 70's, I can't even imagine what English majors aren't reading now.

And that was college. High school . . . ? EEEK!

My wife is writing a book about all this. It will be called The Politically Correct Guide to English and American Literature and will be published by Regnery in the winter.

I think I've foolishly written, Politically CORRECT. (I can't check, because the comment is being held.) Of course, it should be Politically INCORRECT.

I am appalled at what passes for a survey course in high school literature. Compared to what I was exposed to in the 1970's, which, by the way, my parents found to be lacking in comparison to their formative years.

You are also so correct in mentioning that a homeschooling parent should fight his or her inclination to go with that which is most pleasing. I guess we all have our favorites but we shouldn't tailor our curricula to the exclusion of that which we just don't like. A nice re-visiting of material that one didn't like in high school or college can yield a surprise...now it may be to your taste. Or maybe you still can't stand it...but your child finds it interesting.

Hi Everyone,

Thank you all for your lovely and substantial comments.


Please keep me informed as to the progress of this book. I shall have to go out and buy and read it because my local library is certain not to carry it (look for a mini-rant in the near future).


One of the hardest things in the world is to deal with what we do not like and to have to try to teach it to others. Likely our own distaste for it is conveyed in the teaching. However, I've discovered that most things I did not care for eariler in life, upon rereading yield rewards I was either too young for or not otherwise intellectually or emotional prepared to receive. But still, if one develops a distaste for Milton or Chaucer (is that even possible?) or Dickens or Keats, it will be hard to get past that and allow one's children to enjoy it. Nevertheless, that is one of the many sacrifices made as a home-schooling parent. And it may be one of the most rewarding, for once we've put ourselves aside, the authors can begin to speak to us in ways that previously were impossible.


I graduated college only a little later than you did, and the only reason I had any acquaintance at all with certain major figures is that I was an obsessive/compulsive reader. I read everything I could get my hands on. I still do. People are constantly astounded by the fact that I like Georgette Heyer as much, or oftentimes more than I do John Updike or Mrs. Gaskell. I now work in an office with a lot of very young people, fresh out of college and if one were to mention Cranford or even say Bleak House all one would receive would be completely blank stares. It's really shocking.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 18, 2006 12:32 PM.

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