Stop Cleaning the Kitchen and Read a Book

As homeschoolers, we rely too much on experts; this is true not just for homeschoolers, but for the American culture at large. We rely on experts to teach us what to do, how to do it, and sometimes even how to think. In many cases, there is a good reason to rely on expert advice. In part, we tend to listen to experts because in the twenty-first century there is so much information available. We really do need someone to winnow it down for us; otherwise we’d never be able to get through all of the data with which we are confronted. But there is a deeper reason, which has to do with the almost pathological need we have for reassurance, for confirmation, and for validation. In the homeschool community, I find this to be particularly acute.

I think many of us, in large part, don’t trust our own ability to think through difficult issues, to understand hard ideas, and to make up our own minds. There are (at least) two reasons for this. The first is that a large proportion of American adults feel under-educated. They didn’t graduate from high school with a good grasp of logic, a sense of the flow of history, and a basic understanding of the great ideas. In fact, most of us don’t graduate from college with that. We graduate feeling like we got bits and pieces that were never really linked together into a coherent whole.

But there is a deeper reason for our reliance on experts. We are a “classroom” society. Our culture tells us that in order to know something, in order to be an expert, in order to learn something, we have to be taught. Our model for modern education is simple: if we want to learn something, we take a class, or go to a seminar, or listen to a lecture.
When I teach college freshmen, the hardest thing I have to do is convince them to talk back to me. They sit nicely and write down what I say, but they’re afraid they might say the wrong thing if they talk back to me. They are not accustomed to conversing with any sort of give and take. And why should they be? They’ve spent most of the previous twelve years sitting and being lectured to. They have become passive learners. Most of us were taught to accept this as a primary method of learning.

In order to embark on the project of classical education— not just for our children, but also for ourselves—we have to rediscover a much older way of thinking. For us to really enter into the project of classical education, we have to change our perspective from “I could be educated if I could go through school again” or “I could be educated if I had time to enroll in a graduate program” to “I can educate myself.” We have to think about how we will enter into classical education along with our children.

In order to get educated, we do not have to go to graduate school. We have to read, take notes on what we read, and discuss ideas with our friends.

The first step in classical self-education is to turn away from the classroom and turn towards reading. Our reliance on classroom teachers is a fairly recent cultural development; the tradition of selfeducation through reading is much older. In 1836, etiquette author Eliza Farrar advised her young female readers not only on manners and dress, but also on intellectual cultivation: “Self-education begins where school education ends,” she wrote sternly. But remember this, as you resolve to embark on a program of self-education: Reading is very difficult. Many of us become frustrated in our first attempts to read the classics. We resolve to read; we open the first “great book” and dive in. After twenty pages, we stop. That internal voice says, “You have no idea what this book means. You’ll probably never understand it.” And we put the book down, frustrated.

Often, this is the point at which the battle for self-education is lost. We decide: Ah, I just don’t have enough education to understand this. And we give up.
“Acquaint yourself with your own ignorance,” Isaac Watts advised his readers in his self-education treatise Improvement of the Mind (originally published in 1741). “Impress your mind with a deep and painful sense of the low and imperfect degrees of your present knowledge.” This cheerful admonition was intended as a reassurance, not a condemnation. A well-trained mind is the result of application, not inborn genius. Smart readers aren’t born; they’re just willing to tackle difficult reading and to stick with it.

Today, as in Watts’ time, many intelligent, ambitious adults feel very unprepared to tackle any course of serious reading because they feel almost immediately like they’re in over their heads. That’s nothing new. Sustained and serious reading has always been a difficult project, even before TV.

A lot has been written recently about the decline of reading: we’re moving away from texts and moving towards an image-based visual culture. “Schools no longer teach reading and writing properly,” we are told; “The written word is dying”; “We’re moving into a post-literate age”; “Print culture is doomed.” But the truth is that more people are literate now than ever before. The problem is that what they have been taught to read is fairly shallow. Most people graduate from high school reading on what we would call the tenth grade literacy level, which means they can read Stephen King, they can read the newspaper, they can read a magazine, and they can cope perfectly well. Pretty much everybody begins his or her adult life on the
tenth grade reading level.

And most people who graduate reading on the tenth grade reading level seem to think that they should be able to go straight into reading difficult books without any further training. When they start having trouble, they tend to give up. Don’t give up. Remember that reading for enlightenment requires different skills than reading for pleasure.

So what are those skills?

Start here: Reading is a three-level process.

“Some books are to be tasted,” wrote the sixteenth century philosopher Francis Bacon, “others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” In other words, there are three stages to understanding any book. First, you read the book at what I call the “grammar stage” level; just get through the book and try to understand the basic principles, the basic story, the basic argument. Don’t try to understand all of the book. Just create a mental overview of the ideas. The second stage of reading is the logic stage: after you’ve read the whole book, stop and think about what the book is saying, how it’s saying it, and try to decide whether or not you agree with it. And then, finally, you enter the third stage of reading: the rhetoric stage, in which you form an opinion about the book. Unfortunately, we have been trained from our earliest days to pick up a piece of writing and go straight to the rhetoric stage. Our first question, after we read twenty pages, is “What do I think about this book?” This habit of thought is epidemic, something that we’re taught to do from very early on.

And that’s our problem. When we come to a difficult book—perhaps something by Plato, or maybe Moby Dick—we immediately start to think, “What does this mean? Do I understand it? Do I agree?” We are continually trying to evaluate books before we’ve done the necessary groundwork. Instead, we’ve got to slow down and commit ourselves to that three-stage process of understanding.

How? First: go all the way through the book one time. Just turn all the pages. Mark anything that’s difficult, and keep going. Second: once you’ve gotten all the way through to the end of the book, go back to the marked sections. Rethink those parts that you didn’t understand. Reread the pages that seemed confusing to you. Eighty percent of the time, if you’ve gotten all the way to the end of the book, those initially puzzling paragraphs won’t puzzle you any more. You’ll see how they fit into the whole. Third: form an opinion. Talk to a friend about the book. Get a reading buddy. Promise each other that you are going to read the same book all the way through, reexamine the difficult parts, and then tell each other what you think about the book’s ideas. Explaining your opinions to someone else is the very best way to figure out what you really think. (And remember: to refuse to have an opinion until you come back to a book a second and then a third time is a very revolutionary thing to do.)

Two more suggestions. Keep a reading journal as a way of helping you to remember what your opinions are on each book. And consider reading chronologically in a single genre: fiction, poetry, drama, history, autobiography. Every writer builds on the work of those who came before. When you read chronologically, you begin to see the same techniques and strategies re-used, or re-imagined. The first epic poem you read is horribly difficult. The second is easier, because you recognize some of the elements you encountered in the first. The third is easier yet. But if you read first a poem, and then a play, and then a novel, you begin from ground zero of understanding each time.

So now you’ve resolved to educate yourself through reading. But when? You have kids, you have a job, you have this home education thing which takes up some of your time. How do you find the time to do a project like this? We all juggle jobs, housework, bill-paying, family, kids, and late night television; but I think for women, and for homeschooling moms in particular, finding the time to read is vital. As Lydia Sigourney warned us over a century ago: The contemplation of little things puts us in danger of losing our intellectual appetite.

The biggest difference between electronic media and books is the way in which television and the internet can insinuate themselves into every spare minute. I have never once sat down to read Plato, lost myself in it, and looked up and found that two hours have passed. But there have been a lot of times when I’ve just sat down to look at email … and have suddenly discovered that a huge amount of valuable time has slipped away from me. So here are some principles that I would offer to help you get some of that time back again.

First: morning is better than evening. It is a lot better to spend twenty minutes before breakfast reading three pages of whatever you’re working on than to try to schedule an hour or two in the evening, after you’ve spent all day with your small children. Your brain will just be tired. A short time of morning concentration is better than a long period of evening reading during which you’re fighting off weariness.

Second: Recognize that you may be reluctant to read because, on some deep level, it doesn’t seem worthwhile. Activities that produce an immediate result are always more satisfying than activities that don’t. We need to acknowledge to ourselves that we enjoy seeing visible results for what we do. In many ways, it’s more rewarding to get up in the morning and clean the kitchen than to get up and read. After all, if your husband or your mother walks in, you can say, “I am a useful human being. I am a useful member of society. Look at my kitchen.” But if your house is filthy, the baby is screaming, and you have a book in your hand, you won’t feel at all rewarded.

We tend to grasp those visible results and say to ourselves, “Clean house, clean baby. That proves I’m doing my job and I’m a good mother.” But that baby will eventually grow up. He’ll be 17, studying modern history, and he’ll come to you one day and say, “Mom, why did Hitler hate the Jewish people so much? I don’t understand what lay behind that horrible, horrible hatred. What do you think?” The truth is that if you have spent the last 14 years every morning getting up and doing what is immediately visible and immediately rewarding, you may not be able to answer that question. But if you have spent some of that time reading, thinking, and preparing yourself by educating your own mind, you will be able to have that conversation with your child.

The problem? That conversation with your teenager is a long ways away. But remember that the ability to put off immediate satisfaction (clean kitchen) for the sake of future gain (meaningful conversation with growing child) demonstrates self-discipline and maturity. The project of self-education requires you to take a very long view. It requires you to sometimes ignore immediate rewards in favor of a much greater reward down the road.

If you can’t have that conversation with your child, then who is going to have it? You are going to have to outsource it to somebody else. Is that really what you want to do? As you try to carve out a small amount of time to educate yourself, think about your priorities—both now, and for the future.
And don’t read simply for the sake of your children, either. It is true that we have a great responsibility toward our children, but it’s also true that as parents we are made in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to develop our own minds.

Third, guard your reading time. We do those things that are rewarding to us; this is one of the great principles of human behavior that you must always apply to yourself. You will never stick with the project of self-education unless you are thoroughly convinced that it is going to be rewarding to you. Whatever is interfering with your reading time is, on some level, more rewarding to you than your reading time. Stop and think about it. What is it that’s pulling you away from reading? Why is it rewarding you? Guard your reading time, and look for that reward down the road.

Finally, forget about speed. We live in a society which has been greatly influenced by computer technology; the faster a computer can process information, the more valuable it is as a tool, and we tend to apply that same criteria to our lives. Faster is better. (Think about how you refer to the computers in your house. The fast computer is the good one; the old slow one is the “bad” one that no one wants to use.)

But speed is not a moral imperative. You can be informed quickly, and you can collect facts quickly, but to be enlightened is to
understand an idea (like justice or charity or freedom) and use it to make sense of the facts that you’ve gathered. That is a slow process. No matter how quickly you read, enlightenment takes time, and you have to make peace with this idea.

In fact, embarking on a speed reading course can absolutely short-circuit your attempts to educate yourself classically. Speed reading is really only useful if you’re gathering facts; it is a technique developed for busy executives who had to review multiple reports before morning meetings. But if you take this technique out of the business world, where it was useful for the collection of information, and transplant it to the process of reading, it merely frustrates us. Books become collections of facts to be rushed through, rather than repositories of ideas which must be mulled over, considered, and evaluated.

It doesn’t matter how fast you read. The process of understanding—of enlightenment—cannot be rushed.

In large part, the project of classical education is an act of resistance against mainstream culture. It sends a message: “I don’t care how fast I do this. I don’t care how much of it I do. I don’t care how many books I get through. I am not in search of immediate gratification and visible results.” This pushes back against our society, which tells us that the faster we work, the more we do, the more we produce and accumulate and experience, the better we are.

Our economy is structured this way; the faster and more productive you are, the more money you’ll make. But classical self-education helps us to reorient ourselves away from that which is a market ethic. Speed and productivity are not moral goods. It is not ethically superior to do more and to be faster. Reading to yourself in the mornings, instead of doing something else (something “productive”) pushes back against the speed ethic, the ‘more is better’ ethic. It resists the message that says to us: In order to be worthwhile, you must produce something tangible. When you choose to read instead of clean the kitchen you are refusing to accept that your worth as a person is measured by the visible results that you produce in the world. You are asserting, instead, that your worth as a person is based on who you are and who you were created to be; and that part of your responsibility as a created human being is to learn how to handle words properly, because you are created in the image of God, and the word is part of who you are.

So resist. Push back against a society that says doing is more important than thinking, bigger is better, faster is better.

I do realize that to read for 20-30 minutes every morning is a very small revolution. But it is a meaningful one. And remember that you are modelling your priorities for your children. If they see you resisting the pressure of society to produce, thinking instead of doing, your self-education will affect them too. You’re not just educating yourself; you are creating a sort of mini-world within American culture where a different ethic and a different system of values is at work.

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