Reminder: A Hermeneutics of Suspicion is Bad for Children

From C.S. Lewis’ underrated and under-read book 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.”

“If you already distrust the man you are going to meet, everything he says or does will seem to confirm your suspicions. 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.”

A few thoughts occurred to me as I ran across these passages.

1) Imitation is not a “skill” or “learning objective.” You can’t measure it. It’s a natural response that stems from a place of deep admiration, a desire to participate in something good/beautiful, and an impulse to see a good/beautiful thing reproduced in a new way.

2) Teaching a young student to love literature is very different from using literature to teach critical thinking skills. Critical thinking attempts to decode and to deconstruct for the purpose of finding the “true” (i.e., subversive!) meaning of a text. I can’t think of anything more contrary to the way a child approaches the world. Critical thinking doesn’t produce wonder, it crushes it.

3) Let me clarify: not all critical thinking is bad. Obviously, as a teacher, I don’t want to encourage students to simply accept philosophical, theological, scientific, or literary ideas at face value. But I also don’t want them to become disposed to suspicion–as if cynicism is the only virtue that’ll keep us safe from a mindless devotion to the deluge of media information. If critical thinking will have a proper place in education, it’s to instill a greater admiration for the form and context of a work of art. Unfortunately, it’s too often an act of analysis that is too quick to say things like, “Shakespeare was gay!” and “Chaucer was a proto-feminist!” and then revel in the idea that these authors were merely subversive thinkers during their time according to contemporary western cultural values.

4) If we’re going to teach young students how to read well, we should aid them in their natural capacity for wonder. My one year old son’s ability to wonder at his fingers and dead leaves in the same breath can be disarming to someone, like me, whose mode of operation is primarily task-oriented. Wonder can also be undermined by a constant concern that everyone is trying to sell you something or convince you of an unorthodox opinion. I’m more and more convinced that sometimes we can relax. If you enjoy a movie, painting, or piece of music, don’t worry about whether there’s an underlying agenda. Just enjoy it. And then ask yourself why you enjoy it. It turns out that you may learn something more wonderful about yourself and the thing you enjoy.

 

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