05 September 2010

Kidnapped & Classical Education

Well, dear readers, I’m afraid I must apologise for the rather long hiatus since my last post. I have of course been busy with beginning full-time teaching, [1] but I must admit I was also a bit discouraged by some comments I received last time, as a result of which I have now set Logismoi comments to be moderated. [2] I truly hope that particular reader has moved on, as he is certainly no longer welcome to comment here. I also hope that I may be inclined and have sufficient time to begin posting at least semi-regularly again, though likely not every day. To mark my return, I would like to post a little piece I have written for my school newsletter, which deals with the first book I have assigned my sixth-grade literature class: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

The 6th-grade literature class is beginning a wonderful new year with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure story, Kidnapped. In some ways, an exciting tale like Kidnapped may seem to fit ill into a classical Christian reading list, and Stevenson himself may contribute to this perception in his dedication of the first edition when he writes:

‘This is no furniture for the scholar’s library, but a book for the winter evening schoolroom when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near; and honest Alan, who was a grim old fire-eater in his day, has in this new avatar no more desperate purpose than to steal some young gentleman’s attention from his Ovid, carry him awhile into the Highlands and the last century [the 18th], and pack him to bed with some engaging images to mingle with his dreams.’ [3]
At first glance, this statement of purpose confirms our suspicions that Kidnapped is exactly opposite to the sort of book we want in a classical Christian school. Stealing attention from Ovid! We can’t have that, can we?

Or can we? We might recall that C.S. Lewis has called Ovid ‘that cheery old reprobate’ (in The Four Loves), and sure enough, in his preface to the Modern Library edition, Barry Menikoff has noted the irony of Stevenson’s testimony. He observes that Ovid—a prolific writer of erotic poetry, whose Ars amatoria is a satirical treatise on the art of seduction—‘represents a racy and even titillating writing, . . . and the thought of drawing the boy’s attention away from libidinous delights and directing it toward a realistic exploration of Scottish history can hardly be viewed as a treat, and certainly not as a favor.’ [4] Menikoff concludes:

‘In brief, Stevenson is doing precisely the opposite of what he claims: rather than turning his reader away from study and enticing him into the world of pleasure, he is closing the classical pages of pleasure and opening a book with a potentially powerful instructional value.’ [5]
We will discover the specific virtues of Kidnapped over the next few weeks, but this should serve as a reminder that an ancient publication date may usually, but doesn’t always ensure a work of greater morality or educational potential!

[1] I am teaching 3rd- and 4th-grade Latin, and 6th-grade Bible, history, grammar, and literature at a Christian classical school.

[2] I must also apologise to those whose comments have been awaiting moderation for some time. I didn't realise I had to log into Blogger to see the comments, and I hadn't bothered logging in since I changed the setting!

[3] Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped, ed. Barry Menikoff (NY: Modern Library, 2001), pp. 5-6.

[4] Barry Menikoff, ‘Editor’s Preface’, Stevenson, p. xxxiii.

[5] Ibid., p. xxxiii.


elizabeth said...

Lovely post. Sorry to hear you had a rough commenter experience.

I don't have my comments moderated but I figured out a while ago (do not know if it is the same for you when comments are moderated) that I can enable blogger to email me whenever I have a new comment. I find it really helpful as at times I have a new comment that is on an older post and I would have missed it, etc. Just in case you didn't know, forgive me if I am merely sharing old info!

Wishing you all the best with you new teaching position! Sounds incredibly lovely and important as well.

aaronandbrighid said...

Elizabeth> Thank you for your kind words. Unfortunately, as a result of this post my commenter, who apparently has been waiting for me to post again, has started e-mailing me directly with highly personal and juvenile insults (including the taunt that because I was 'discouraged', I must lack testosterone). I'm really at my wit's end!

I was receiving e-mail notifications about my blog comments before I switched on comments moderation. Perhaps there's some way to receive notifications of comments awaiting moderation too, but I don't feel like looking just now. Of course, if one really has nothing better to do than insult me, one can always bypass the blog and just e-mail me! ;-) I just prefer not having to log into the blog as well in order to delete such idiocy.

Brigit said...

Aaron, It's good to see you posting again. It is sad that one individual has taken it upon himself to harass you, maintaining a blog is hard enough work without this sort of added pressure. It is indeed disheartening. May Saint Brigid's mantle be between you and the commenter!

papayianni said...

"Consider it all joy, my brethre, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-4)

"Be of good courage ...) Glad to see you writing again. What you have and do offer is excellent. As God allows keep at it.

Fr. Mark said...

So good to see you back! Glory to God!

Your post reminded me of Chesterton's defense of boys' adventure stories, recounted by Alan Jacobs a few years ago upon the completion of the Harry Potter series:


God bless you in your teaching!

Fr Mark

Extollager said...

What a delightful book Kidnapped is.

The sequence at the beginning, with David approaching, then entering, the old house, has an almost archetypal quality and and a delectable atmosphere. Oh to write like that!

David Daiches wrote a little book on RLS and refers to the "topographic romance," as I recall, the story of adventure set in a specific real locale. Adams's Watership Down would be another. You can read Alan Garner's first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, with an Ordnance Survey map for Macclesfield and trace very closely where Nicholas and Susan are. (NB: I've never given this book to my children to read. When I read it, I skip over the black magic spell, printed in Latin.) I wonder if Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male might be a topographic romance too. My old colleague Patrick Maguire said that sometimes, out driving, he would imagine what it might be like to be out there in the terrain trying to avoid pursuers, a la John Buchan (Thirty-Nine Steps). I recognized that trick of the imagination at once. So praise to authors who've taken the challenge and managed it well.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for all the encouragement, my friends! It is most refreshing.

Garrett said...

Lewis is right: Ovid was gangsta, like Sirs Walter Raleigh or Thomas Malory. His inclusion in the Iferno did not surprise me, unlike those of Virgil or Brunetto or even Ulysses did. I've never read Kidnapped, but I suppose most of our greatest writers did not differentiate between "high" or "low" art, like Shakespeare, so who knows maybe it is worthy of acceptance into the Classical syllabus.

Xeneteia said...

Hi Aaron,

It's lovely to read your postings once more! As I recall, 6th grade was a good year for devouring books - I wish you joy of your teaching. Speaking of which - how are you planning to approach teaching Bible?

Welcome back!

aaronandbrighid said...

Extollager> Yes, we just finished it last Friday, and I loved it. I am not well acquainted at first hand with the genre, but I can recognise in retrospect its influence on, for instance, Tolkien, whose setting is imaginary but no less vivid.

Garrett> I'll have to remember your characterisation of Ovid and pass that on to some of our students. On the subject of Kidnapped and the 'high'/'low art' distinction, the Menikoff preface to the Modern Library edition that I quote here has some pertinent things to say.

Rebecca> Thank you very much.

For Bible, our school uses the Veritas Press curriculum, which for the grammar level involves memory cards covering the important information from various books or passages of the Bible, but beyond that I've been given a good deal of latitude. In my class, we begin every day by first reading part of the relevant Scripture (from the ESV), then we read over the card and complete a series of questions based on the info on the card. Along the way, I usually make a few interjections explaining Greek terms, I read patristic commentaries, I show them pertinent icons, etc. We drill over all of this info several times throughout the week, and then test over that week's card every Friday. Veritas occasionally teaches things that Orthodox would take issue with, in which case I may comment on the differences, or I may just make it clear that this is what the card says and they're supposed to know it for that reason (so it doesn't sound like this is necessarily my belief).

Extollager said...

N. C. Wyeth's pictures for Kidnapped are some of my favorite examples of his work as an illustrator.

Taylor said...

Good to hear about your educational adventures, Aaron. I remember loving Kidnapped when I was in my early teens. If you have students looking for books along similar lines, you could recommend anything by Sir Walter Scott. The Waverly novels are excellent, and Rob Roy (one of my favorite adventure novels) is a similar story of intrigue in the Scottish highlands.

aaronandbrighid said...

Taylor> Good idea. The only novel of Scott's I've read is Ivanhoe, but I remember that Fr Georges Florovsky apparently loved them!

Extollager said...

My rule of thumb about Scott is: skip everything before the second chapter & begin there. (I don't suppose that would always apply!) Many folks looking to try Scott for the first time might do well to choose either The Heart of Midlothian or The Bride of Lammermoor, in editions with good glossaries for the "dialect." I think Heart is widely considered one of his best and it inspired C. S. Lewis's memorable remark about critics who disparage its heroine: that they seem to be jackals reviewing a book by a lion. Bride of Lammermoor has some comic material that I, at least, still find funny -- the shifts of Caleb Balderstone to uphold the dignity of a decayed noble family -- and a good main story. Is it Bride that includes Scott's gives-me-goosebumps poem "Proud Maisie"? Brrr!