Miss Mason, Mortimer Adler: Read hard books

adler quote on good booksIn 1999 I read through Miss Mason’s whole series for the first time, and I was impressed by how very well read she is, (Plato, Socrates, Gothe, Ruskin, Arnold, the Greek and Roman plays we have surviving, the books that make up what we call the Western Canon).  Much of what I read reminded me of what I had been reading by Mortimer Adler about The Great Conversation. Both Mason and Adler insist that we all should be as well read, and on the same books.

Mortimer Adler “is devoted to the idea that there are great ideas, that they are communicable, and they are learnable”

They aren’t duplicates of each other, of course. They part ways here and there. But there are distinct similarities.

In reading volume 6 (my personal favourite) of Miss Mason’s six volume series, I realized that it is this tradition of ‘great books’ that she is at least including, if not referring to, when she talks about ‘feeding children on great ideas,’ and giving them ‘a wide and generous curriculum.’

Here’s Adler on challenging the reader (this is from the video above): “You cannot teach a person to read well unless you make him struggle with texts that are very difficult and over his head…. the person who is reading however widely it is has dealt with readily intelligible stuff, stuff he doesn’t have to struggle to master, to understand, is a person whose mind will not be pulled up to its full capacity.
The Great Books are a sharpening stone.”

Here’s Miss Mason:

“I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this is for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated.”

“Children must Labour.––This, of getting ideas out of them, is by no means all we must do with books. ‘In all labour there is profit,’ at any rate in some labour; and the labour of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher. (volume 3)

Perhaps it is not wholesome or quite honest for a teacher to pose as a source of all knowledge and to give ‘lovely’ lessons. Such lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labour, and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. We find, on the other hand, that in working through a considerable book, which may take two or three years to master, the interest of boys and girls is well sustained to the end; they develop an intelligent curiosity as to causes and consequences, and are in fact educating themselves. (also volume 3)

But boys get knowledge only as they dig for it. Labour prepares the way for assimilation, that mental process which converts information into knowledge; and the effort of taking in the sequence of thought of his author is worth to the boy a great deal of oral teaching. (volume 3)

Reading the same books won’t make us all ideological twins, anymore thaneating the same foods will make us physically clones. But just as weall use calcium to build bones in our bodies, it seems to me thatcertain books foster intellectual growth in similar areas

In the same way, not reading challenging books surely will result in a stultified mind.

further reading:

See more here

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