In this third and final post about why the Human Event is the cornerstone of your Honors education, I will follow-up our previous post on why books, especially material books with printed letters in them, are the key technology, the preferred medium, in which to confront the “key social and intellectual currents” of human history. In this post I will explain the practical reasons books and printed texts help fulfill the course emphasis on “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing.” But first, a warning by way of the irrepressible Calvin:
Our friend Calvin has walked unawares into one of the great dangers of reading books. There is nothing more dangerous than a book and a library. Within them are the seeds for the overthrow of the world…and your own convictions. Revolutions are spawned in the library. Stroll through Hayden one day and observe shelf after silent shelf of sheathed swords. Some of them seem to have been asleep for centuries. But they aren’t. Like Calvin’s Hobbes, there are many among them that are tigers crouching behind the door, waiting to spring upon you.
Many Human Event students will report on their course evaluations things like Calvin says in the second panel: “this course presented me with perspectives and ideas I had never before considered…it was awesome.” You might appreciate that such experiences as you’ve read have been important to some humans in history and even today. But if you are actually doing close reading, like Calvin has, some of these texts might provoke some unlooked for self-examination to occur. Recall my earlier post, “Who Are You?” If you are asked to read a poem, a Greek tragedy, an Eastern religious work, an historical report of colonial practices, a philosophical examination of virtue, or any number of other works, and your answer is like Calvin’s in the last panel, then the Human Event is not for you. It indicates that your mind is made up and that developing new habits of mind, to explore “key social and intellectual currents” that challenge the established patterns and conclusions of your thinking, or even which you find offensive, is not an education that you value. Mind, to unsettle and complicate your life is not the point of the Human Event, but if you perform the necessary close reading of the texts, it is a possible, even likely, byproduct. Here be dragons, so prepare yourself accordingly.
Now, what is the connection between reading books, dangers notwithstanding, and the Human Event course aims of developing your abilities in “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing?” Let’s connect the dots from books to these abilities.
A. G. Sertillanges wrote, “We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading.” However, to develop the intellectual powers needed to “read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience [“the horizon” Sertillanges speaks of] analytically and disinterestedly,” you need the right content and the right method of reading that content.
The “right” content of the primary sources you will read is not the specific ideas advanced by the author of the work, though these are crucial to perceive and understand and you will need to note and think about them carefully. No text should be approached as if it were an unquestioned repository of wisdom, though the intellectual virtue of charitable reading should be your default posture toward them. No, many of the works you will read in the Human Event have been selected because their authors exemplify the very habits of mind that Barrett seeks to teach you. This is why books that can be read and understood desultorily are unsatisfactory, and why secondary sources like Wikipedia and Sparknotes will be of no help whatsoever in thinking critically about what you read.
Sertillanges goes on to describe why desultory reading is of no avail:
What we are proscribing is (…) the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.
The problem with only reading works that themselves don’t exemplify the ability to examine core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly is that they dull rather than sharpen your mind. Wikipedia, Sparknotes (not to mention almost all content written for the web) and other sources written with the express intent of being read desultorily (because they reduce the original material for you to what you “need” to know and therefore have already done your thinking for you) atrophy your intellectual powers, making you less capable of reflection and concentration, and of resisting the ebb and flow of ideas and images that have your momentary attention.
The “right” method of reading the texts is close, or studious, reading. Here’s the logic. You are assigned books of lasting value to read, so you ought to study what you read. And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to take notes. And if you take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. The point of close reading is ultimately to evaluate critically what you read. Ingest the good, reject the bad, but not on subjective bases, like whether you “like” what you read or not. Rather, critical evaluation of what you read must be done on careful analysis of the material and the disinterested weighing of its merits and demerits. This requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible. Remember, forming intellectually powerful habits of mind is the name of the game. This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned ideological sovereignty, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow critical thinker. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it.
You will need the right tools to do close reading well. A comfortable chair and desk. Accessories such as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks. Water, tea, a cup of coffee. Atmospherics and location that will encourage your focus on studious reading, be it a particular playlist or silence, indoors or outdoors, in a library, a study room, a park, your dorm room.
Use a good dictionary to look up any words that are unfamiliar. Look up characters, places, or events that are unfamiliar in an encyclopedia (here Wikipedia may be a helpful resource, but use it cautiously). Find a system of annotations that works for you. Marginal notes are essential. Transpose and arrange your marginalia into more developed thought and commentary. Although your learning style might lend itself to nonlinear notetaking, I recommend that you not leave your notes in such forms (maps, trees, etc.). Ultimately, you will be required to write a reading response or an argumentative essay that draws from the text. You will save yourself a lot of trouble if you take the time at the time you read the work to impose a linear, sequential arrangement to your ideas. So apply some systematic method, such as SQ3R or the Cornell system, to organize and structure your notes. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.
I will discuss more tips and suggestions for reading and annotating in future posts, but I conclude this “Why the Human Event?” subseries with the connection between reading books and the writing you will do in the Human Event. Reading books that must be studied to be understood is essential to becoming a good writer. “We learn to write by reading,” as Leo Strauss puts it. Here’s more from Strauss’ excellent insight:
It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written.
In my next post we’ll turn to that decision that worries so many incoming Barrett freshmen: selecting your Human Event instructor.