When I prescribe How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler to my seminary students, the responses are almost always those of incredulous amusement. You can almost read their thoughts on their bemused faces: “Really? How to Read a Book? Haven’t we graduated beyond that level if we’re at seminary?” Those responses change once they have read the book. Most return with the sentiment that it has completely changed how they read.
Adler himself was a unique educator. He wrote against specialisation in schools, including electives. He felt that textbooks were worthless and advocated that students tackle the original sources themselves. He called for the elimination of written exams, to be replaced with oral exams. In his scheme, most instruction would follow the Socratic method, with occasional lectures. We don’t have to accept everything he suggested, particularly in his book The Paideia Proposal, but we should take How to Read a Book as a model for Christian education.
Adler’s title is probably a deliberate tease. After all, you couldn’t read his book if you couldn’t read a book. But it’s that very title that is meant to draw you in and invite you to read as you haven’t read before. For what Adler tackles is not the act of deciphering letters and words on the successive pages of a whole book. Adler means to chasten us in the art of careful, analytical reading: the kind that flows out of the approach to meaning in language that we considered in the last post.
If we are in pursuit of truth, then we must read books like those who are searching for truth where it may be found, and discarding that which is not true. Reading, in the sense that Adler means, is not passive absorption of ideas, nor the unthinking passing of our eyes over many words. Reading seeks to understand. Adler wants to teach us how to understand an author, with nothing but the author’s book in front of us.
How to Read a Book distinguishes four kinds of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical and synoptical. Inspectional reading does a kind of systematic skimming of a book. It also determines if the book is worth the closer kind of reading that is analytical reading, which is where Adler focuses.
Analytical reading first understands the kind of book one is reading. It then seeks to understand the unity of the book and its organisation, while trying to ascertain what the author’s problems are, and what he or she is trying to solve. Very importantly, Adler teaches the importance of terms and definitions: how an author uses important words, how these make up the book’s most important sentences, which make up its arguments. Adler then teaches us how to agree or disagree with an author. If we disagree, our options are four: to believe the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete in his analysis. Only at this point, have we done a true analysis of a book.
Synoptical reading is the synthesis of reading many books, comparing, contrasting and harmonising the various opinions of multiple authors.
Christian education is not merely the reading of books. To think Christianly is to learn to read with understanding, looking for the use of language, definitions, reason and arguments. To put it another way, it is expounding a book’s grammar, logic and rhetoric: its parts, their relation to one another, and the resulting argument. To fail to read in this way is to be at the mercy of any and every persuasive communicator. Witness the fact that masses are convinced by conspiracy theories because the wingnut behind the conspiracy theory “really knows his stuff” or “quotes a lot of sources” or “wasn’t screaming”. People are persuaded by the last Youtube video they watched, by an article espousing rank heresy, or by the most implausible ideas, simply because it “seemed persuasive”. Our Christian forefathers would have slapped their foreheads in a sigh of desperation to hear their descendants persuaded for these reasons.
Christian education is doing its job when it unyieldingly requires careful definition, arguments that follow the laws of logic, and an overall argument that coheres with a Christian worldview and the Christian tradition. It is failing miserably when the children it graduates cannot spot the key terms in an argument, find logical fallacies, or tell the differences between sound reason and sophistry. Adult Christians who cannot distinguish between the possible, the plausible and the probable did not have the benefit of a Christian education.
For that reason, Christian education is more interested in teaching these skills of pursuing understanding than in marching children through a list of books. The books are important for their content, but they are more important as gymnasia for the mental muscles of young Christians to dissect language, logic and argumentation. Christian education requires careful reading, plenty of comprehension, and plenty of essays to practice argumentation. In the latter years, children should engage in a formal study of logic, even while dissecting arguments throughout their education. A formal study of rhetoric teaches children how ideas are shaped to be persuasive.
Adler had the wisdom to recognise that educating children is a kind of lost cause worth doing: they need it most but desire it least when immature. He wrote that “youth itself–immaturity of mind, character, and experience–is the insuperable obstacle to becoming educated. We cannot educate the young; the best we can do for them is to school them in such a way that they have a good chance to become educated in the course of their adult life.” Christians who think that education is only succeeding when their children “love to learn” probably have Pelagian tendencies: imagining that the innate goodness of children will manifest in a noble love of education, given the right classroom and right curriculum. Adler sounds a lot more Christian. Children are sinners, and their sinfulness and immaturity will likely obstruct any true pursuit of wisdom. What a Christian education does is equip them to find the grammar, logic and rhetoric of anything they read or hear for the rest of their lives. As they become adults, they will never forget the tools of learning they obtained through twelve years of rigorous training, and will likely apply their mature minds to worthy books, and to arguments worth hearing.