Bread they set before him
Ale they set before him.
How to eat the bread Enkidu knew not,
How to drink ale he had never been shown.
~The Epic of Gilgamesh
Eager faces, ready to speak, sit around the ring of desks. Books in front of them, open. "Ok, what do you think?"
That's the dream anyway, before it morphs slowly into the nightmare of silent waiting. The class stares at me, I stare back, and my more cynical self wonders, "don't they have any thoughts about what they read?" But I've forgotten, How to read the book, they know not.
I've spent the last two summers evaluating a fantastic liberal arts summer program at Carthage College called the Humanities Citizenship Initiative, a seminar that introduces students from the Kenosha area to college life through a course of great books. This fast-paced survey of texts like Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Richard III, and The Souls of Black Folk invites students to engage in deep discussions of concepts like citizenship, community, tyranny, and freedom in a supportive, encouraging learning environment. But they also spend copious class time on basic reading skills: how to use the table of contents, footnotes and endnotes. The instructors are insistent in this respect: the book is a tool, make it help you. I've witnessed students suddenly discover the Plantagenet family tree and announce to the classroom that Richard III was in fact a real person, or use an index of Greek names to explain that Phoibos is another name for Apollo. This is a skill that I take for granted, though it is crucial to be able to navigate, contextualize, and understand difficult texts. It is something that needs to be explicitly taught.
But what I am consistently surprised by is how foundational the technique of reading is to the very principle of a liberal arts education, which are also subtly communicated in the classroom. In an upcoming article I've written about the program, I discuss how the instructors subtly inculcate the value of "inquiry." They offer the texts as puzzles, difficult, deep, and complicated. And then they insist that they were once beginners, too, who had no idea how to read a book, describing with delight the feeling of ignorance that began their journey of discovery. (In this they reprise without realizing the arguments of Rancière and Varenne who argue that ignorance, if accompanied by the will to learn, is productive.) The technique of reading, then, is poised as the solution to the aporia of the text. The book is both problem and solution. Inquiry is the act of opening the book, flipping between the contents, body and endnotes, exploring, asking questions, drawing connections. And this, too, needs to be taught.
At the end of the three-week seminar, though, these high school seniors have not uncritically accepted all that the professors have taught them. Only a few are convinced they will go to college, and no one wants to study classics (or anthropology). On our last day, one of the brightest students insisted, "I'm going to be an architect, so I don't need any of this." But moments later she added, "But, I mean, one day if I want to, I can." And that's enough.
These skills are the bread and ale that sustain academic life. If I can teach them as well as my colleagues in the HCI program, maybe then my own students will have a bit more to say.