Teaching difficult literature to middle schoolers should be seen in the larger context of treating students as apprentice adults. As David Hicks explains in Norms and Nobility, classical teachers are not in the business of developing happy, well-adjusted children, but rather of forming adults. He points out that the idealized ancient schoolmaster’s method for forming adults was “to teach the knowledge of a mature mind, not to offer relevant Learning Experiences at the level of the student’s stage of psychological development.
Middle schoolers’ minds are ready for the intellectual challenge of literature that deals with serious themes and central questions. They love to discuss ideas; they love to have their ideas taken seriously. They won’t usually admit it, but most prefer challenging work to an “easy read.” When they are presented with a work such as The Odyssey or a Shakespeare play and told, “This will be hard, but you can do it,” they sit taller and work harder than when given a “young adult” book.
Even when this is not the case, giving middle schoolers difficult tasks is the right way to prepare them to be thinking adults. The value of sticking at and mastering a difficult task that the student sees as worth his time is better preparation for adult life than easy successes to boost self-esteem, which may only serve to convince students that they are smarter than adults. “What a student can do should not become the sole judge of what the student is asked to do,” says Hicks (italics mine).
The challenge for the teacher is to find this place beyond the student’s current reach without going too far beyond it. The skilled teacher translates complex themes into language students can under- stand, explaining difficult ideas through images and analogies that enable them to see what they have never seen before.
C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet often becomes my 7th grade students’ favorite book because it forces them to use their minds in new ways. They have the experience, maybe for the first time, of thinking a new thought and inserting it into the discussion.
This happens when they make a connection between the meaning of Lewis’s images and the truth of their own experiences. Wonderful discussions erupt around such things as Ransom’s choice of the word “bent” when trying to describe a sinful act to the un- fallen Malacandrians.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, Eustace is made to see that there’s a difference be- tween what a star is made of and what a star is. Ransom’s experience in outer space, or Deep Heaven as he comes to call it, fleshes out this distinction and expands on it. Students see this, and I get the chance to introduce them to the sophisticated idea that there are other kinds of truth outside of scientific truth.
I know that something significant has happened when the classroom discussion spills out into the hallway, even continues in the lunchroom. Excitement about ideas stimulates concurrent movement toward mental maturity. It all happens when students have been given something worth thinking about and have risen to the challenge.