Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Right Questions

From Robert Hutchins, The Ways (and Whys) of Reading:

"Deluged as we are with a welter of printed words, we tend to devaluate all writing, to look at every book on the shelf as the counterpart of every other, and to weigh volumes instead of words."

and a bit on the questions to ask of a reading:

"The art of reading a book or piece of writing consists in asking the right questions in the right order. They are as follows:

  1. What is this piece of writing about? What is its leading theme or main point? What is it trying to say?
  2. How does it say what it is trying to say? How does the writer get his central point across? How does he tell his story or argue for his conlcusion to produce the effect in us that he is aiming at?
  3. Is it true -- factually or poetically -- in whole or part? HAs he won our assent or sympathy? And if not, what reasons do we have for disagreeing with or rejecting his view of things?
  4. What of it? What meaning does it have for us in the shape of opinions or attitudes that we are led to form for ourselves as the result of reading this piece?
Now, I typed these out because I thought they were good questions. These are the sort of questions that a serious reader goes into a work trying to find answers to. It is helpful for me to keep them in mind as I prepare for teaching my 5th 12 year old next year.

HOWEVER -- and I am not sure how to say this, so it will be interesting to see how it turns out on the screen ;-) -- judging purely by myself, since I don't have access to anyone else's head -- they are not the kind of questions that you fire at the author. You don't go into the book demanding answers; rather, you put yourself into a receptive though not credulous mode; you listen and attend. Hutchins talks about the respect owed to an author, elsewhere. Nor are they the sort of questions you scribble answers to, quickly and simply, on a worksheet. If you do it that way, if you are like me, you will get the feeling of bored horror I get when I look at many literature study guides. Or worse, you may think you understand the book, but that would be like giving a personality questionnaire to a visitor to your house and imagining that now you know everything about him.

They are good questions to keep in mind, but they are not as good to bring to the forefront, like a scripted dialogue rather than a real conversation.

Talking to myself here, and there's a bigger application than just literary analysis. I have been thinking recently about how much "philosophy begins in wonder" as Socrates said. My daughter commented recently how much she dislikes having answers given to her before she has formulated the questions (just to make the context clear, we were talking about Plato's Republic which we are reading together, and how Socrates often seems to raise issues that he doesn't really settle). David Hicks said that much the same thing is the problem with modern teaching methods, often... the answers are given before the questions are asked -- a multitude of answers. I feel like last homeschool year, though it went pretty well in many respects, was a little bit too much about giving the answers before the questions were really thought through. Anyway, I thought I would write that out to remind myself!

1 comment:

Beate said...

I like this Willa. I think at this point, these are questions I ask before deciding what to read, as my time is limited ;-)

Sofia Cavaletti discusses CGS as an Education to Wonder - very beautiful. Suzanne Lewis summarizes some of that at her blog here:

I remember as a teacher thoroughly disliking the teaching model we were required to use which told the dc exactly what they would learn as an introduction to our lesson - do you see my eye-roll here? *G*