Excessive Reading Is the Opposite of Acquiring Wisdom

Something I’ve noticed for some years as a classical teacher: there’s a widespread assumption that reading lots and lots of pages at a pretty rapid pace equals a rigorous, and as the name implies, “classical” education. But in various venues from grades 7-12 and even into college, I have seen over and over again that this assumption is not true.

Assuming that number of pages read in the name of “exposure” is going to lead to a good education is experimentally false. All it leads to for most students is superficiality – a sense that one has mastered in a very short time the Great Books that have kept superb intellects going night and day – often without a lasting “payoff” – for 2,500 years.

We would do well as classical educators to take seriously the example of medieval monks, who would often check out only one book at a time, say, Augustine’s Confessions, and spend an entire year on it, reading, rereading, contemplating the text, praying about it, writing about it, and then reading it again.

The hue and cry these days will, of course, be, “But modern students don’t have that kind of attention span! They get bored very easily, so we need to keep them moving. Otherwise we’ll lose them!” I repeatedly hear, even from those whom I think should know better, that activities in a class session should be kept to 5 to 7 minute chunks, and then the activity changed, all so the modern student does not get “bored” and cease paying attention.

Sed contra. this sort of mentality, along with the “number of pages read equals significant engagement with wisdom” one, are not only experimentally false but actually anti-classical. If you closely watch students reared on this mentality, you will begin to see that their natural immaturity, expressed in laziness, combined with what feels to them like intense and crushing pressure from teachers demanding they read 200 pages of dense, scarcely comprehensible prose or poetry per week, results merely in skimming and other modes of intellectual cheating that bypass the whole point of reading such books in the first place. And yes, even the straight-A students do this. Constantly.

Truly, classical texts, whether Christian or pagan, should be thought of as fruits on a vine, and the student as someone who is being shown by the teacher how to carefully go through the vineyard inspecting them, looking closely at them, taking a great deal of time to slowly cultivate the art of discerning what the fruit is and how best to make use of it.

Away with “number of pages read”. I can think of few scarcely more useless, and again, anti-classical, standards of intellectual development than that. Away with creating classes on the basis of what supposedly is and isn’t in-sync with the modern student’s psychological and emotional states. Classical education is a set of rigorous disciplines, not a generic “method” or a set of accreditation benchmarks keyed to passing tests and raising GPAs and increasing college entrance success rates.

It’s time we ask ourselves seriously: how precisely are we giving our students classical education? Do we really understand what classical education is ourselves? Is what we are doing when we do the sorts of things I mentioned above (and many others in the same vein) actually classical, or have we simply slapped that word on top of a superficial, and merely instrumental, modern pedagogy?