Leading Students Up The Mountain

Leading Students Up The Mountain

By: Beanie Geoghegan 

The Classical Education Symposium: A Recap

Recently, I had the privilege of attending The Classical Education Symposium in Phoenix, AZ, hosted by Great Hearts Institute. From the first keynote speaker on Wednesday evening until the final scholarly talk on Friday afternoon, it was an amazing experience. I don’t know if it was because it was the last talk of such a remarkable conference or if the topic resonated with me as a teacher and lover of literature but Dr. Edward Mulholland captured my attention as he discussed “The Myth of Relevance and the Relevance of Myth”. Days later, I am still ruminating on his beautiful words.

I hesitate to summarize or reflect on Dr. Mulholland’s talk because I know I cannot begin to do it justice. From the moment he began his talk by quoting characters (with the proper accents) from the great books, he mesmerized me. In fact, I was so mesmerized I forgot to take notes on which books he was quoting from. He went on to state that the purpose of the chosen books taught in English classes is, first and foremost, “to develop one’s knowledge and command of the English language”. This directly contrasts the current opinion among so many educators that books must be “culturally relevant”. He pushed back on the idea of focusing on “current events” in English classes, quoting T.S. Elliott, who wrote, “People to whom nothing has ever happened cannot understand the unimportance of events.”

Most middle and high school students have not yet experienced a transformative event or events that will significantly impact their lives or society. As a result, they will either have an inflated sense of how “current events” will affect them or a skewed idea of their impact. Dr. Mulholland argued that “students need to be lifted up and out of the present” to truly make sense of the world around them. 

The original meaning of the word “current” means ‘running’ or ‘moving’. How do we know which events will have lasting effects? Is English class the place where students should spend time discussing events that may be forgotten or completely insignificant in a year or less; or should it be the place where students are immersed in timeless literary classics with universal themes about the human condition and experience? Dr. Mulholland believes that it should be the latter.

Leading Students Up The Mountain

At the conclusion of his talk, Dr. Mulholland compared teaching the great books to guiding students up a mountain. As teachers, we should be passionate about wanting our students to “see the view from the top”. While we can’t carry them up the mountain, we can “act as their sherpa” along the way. They will encounter parts of the book differently and may see things you missed along the way, but if they get frustrated, confused, or tempted to quit, you are there to encourage, explain, and push them to complete their journey. Dr. Mulholland pointed out that, in every great book, “the most important journey is always the internal one.” The same is true for students who “journey” up the mountain of a challenging literary work.

My students are younger and not quite ready for Hemingway or Shakespeare, but I still carefully curate the books we read in class. I never thought of it as guiding them up a mountain; it makes sense now. Hearing them reflect on Charlotte’s Web, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Farmer Boy, The Secret Garden, and so many others mirrors someone describing the journey up and view from the top of a mountain. They brood over the complex, challenging, or tedious parts and become animated when discussing their favorite characters and the victories or breakthroughs experienced along the way. Though we all often lament when the book is over, none of us will forget the journey or the view from the top. And hopefully, someday, my students will act as “guides up the mountain” for the next generation.

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