I love contemporary fiction. Although “new” books are definitely not easy, they do require something different of me than older texts do. Because of this, in my own reading habits, I try to take C.S. Lewis’ advice to heart:

 

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in-between.

 

For that reason (and because it’s the 200th anniversary of its publishing), I’m reading Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley. It’s a slow and thoughtful tale of a young man coming of age amid the drama and intrigue of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The early chapters detail Edward Waverley’s childhood and education, sparing no scorn for his weaknesses of character and the indulgences which will come back to haunt him as fledging adult. On the subject of his education Scott writes:

 

It may, in the meantime, be subject of serious consideration, whether those who are accustomed only to acquire instruction through the medium of amusement, may not be brought to reject that which approaches under the aspect of study; whether those who learn history by the cards, may not be led to prefer the means to the end; and whether, were we to teach religion in the way of sport, our pupils may not thereby be gradually induced to make sport of their religion.

 

My first thought was: “My. That is a long sentence,” and the language teacher in me had to be restrained from diagramming it. This is one aspect of older fiction that requires me to work hard; the use of language is less familiar, forcing me to slow down and consider the form of what is being said, in addition to the content. And this slowness allows me to consider more deeply the surprisingly insightful suggestion Scott makes.

Is Scott correct that in seeking the engagement of students’ interest we might jeopardize their knowledge? Is amusement incompatible with education’s serious goals?

Eight years of classroom time with junior high and high school students tells me that “the way of sport” might have its place; but, nonetheless, Scott’s words continue to unsettle me.

What do you think?

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