Volume > Issue > What “Old Books” Have to Teach Us About Being Human in the 21st Century

What “Old Books” Have to Teach Us About Being Human in the 21st Century


By Michael S. Rose | September 2021
Michael S. Rose is Associate Editor of the NOR.

For the past 15 years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching English literature at three Catholic high schools, exploring with teenagers some of life’s big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Where are we going, and how do we get there? During my early years of teaching, I discovered that I needed to do more than lay down the curriculum. I had to inspire and motivate; I had to challenge the minds and fire the imaginations of the students entrusted to me. I felt called to broaden their spiritual lives and to increase their capacity for mutual and self-respect. I have been doing all this through the study of great works of literature that explore themes of universal importance and provide an introduction to the breadth of human concerns and human wisdom. Reading these great works not only promotes the understanding of ideas but offers sustenance for the spirit as well as the mind. In the words of Mortimer Adler, a reader “may be transported, enriched, beguiled, delighted, amused, consoled, ennobled; taken to new and wonderful places, some of which are pure invention; introduced to characters who may become lifelong companions; allowed to overhear conversations that say what no one has ever said before; invited to share feelings that deepen their own.”

Adler believed, as I do, that the pleasures of reading are enhanced by discussing what one has read. He, along with likeminded educators, developed what he called the Paideia Program. We can think of this as the Socratic method applied to carefully directed classroom discussions. I adapted this Socratic seminar style to my classes as the primary method to discuss the “great ideas” of literature: ideas about good and evil, pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, democracy and despotism, war and peace; ideas about happiness, justice, and wisdom. I did not saddle students with textbook assignments that belabor historical context, the author’s politics, and interpretations of a work’s literary significance. (Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always provided students with the appropriate background and context.) We simply read, annotated, analyzed, and discussed the works themselves, all in the context of the great ideas.

Those seminar discussions did not stagnate in the realm of emotionally driven reader response, as if we were partaking in a book-club Kaffeeklatsch. Rather, they were purposefully analytical in nature and focused directly on the narrative at hand. That may sound obvious to many, but I knew that the seminar discussions would only be as good as the students’ reading of the text itself. And here’s the most important point: My students had to read the works we studied — in full, not in summaries from SparkNotes or Wikipedia. They were asked to read, annotate, and prepare to actively participate in each seminar by responding to a set of well-organized prompts in addition to crafting their own analytical and interpretive questions pertaining to the “great ideas” we identified. In other words, my class was not centered on my lectures to them on the great works; I did not expect them to parrot my thoughts and interpretations back to me. In my view, that’s a low-level educational endeavor that reduces the study of literature to box-checking and regurgitation. It doesn’t even require actually reading the assigned books. It is a misguided approach that is more about indoctrination than true education and intellectual (and emotional, spiritual, and cultural) formation. In my experience, few students are inspired by that approach.

The richest of these Socratic seminar discussions took place in an AP English Literature and Composition class I taught at an all-boys Catholic high school in Cincinnati. As you can imagine, literature is a hard sell to 16-year-old boys in the best of times. Asking them to read, discuss, and write about significant works of fiction may sometimes seem a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, most of these young men took away enduring life lessons, not from listening to me lecture to them — yes, I did that at times — but from engaging in frank discussion with their peers, under my guidance and tutelage, about “great ideas” that often relate to a central question that all great literature explores in one way or another: What does it mean to be human?

Although I’ve taught a variety of different novels, plays, poems, and short stories over the years — from Homer to Shakespeare to Tolkien — I found the most fruitful seminar discussions consistently centered on three British novels that have each been the subject of previous Literature Matters columns: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Jul.-Aug. 2019), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (June 2019), and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (May 2021). I taught each in succession and linked them with Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama’s prescient critical survey of the 21st-century biotechnology revolution. I typically introduced Fukuyama’s book (and related nonfiction material) between our readings of Frankenstein and Brave New World.

Through the seminar discussions of these three novels, many students — for the first time — began to see the study of literature as relatable and relevant to their lives, not just because we routinely discussed how the literary themes of these novels manifest themselves in the real-world culture of the 21st century but because they relate directly to who these students are, what they care about, and how they ultimately want to (and should) interact with the world around them. From my perspective, this is what the study of literature should — ideally — always do. Year after year, these students moved beyond an academic exercise to an intellectual adventure that engaged their minds and hearts, and it is instructive to note that they did this by studying “old books” rather than teen flicks from the 1980s or rap songs from the 2010s. “Relatability” is by no means synonymous with contemporary or base elements of pop culture. These literary discussions centered on “old books” appealed to students’ intellect, emotions, and imagination. They raised questions about life and death — and the afterlife too. They encouraged analytical thinking and reasoning about morality. They tapped into the wisdom of the ages. And because I was teaching in the context of a Catholic school, these discussions routinely probed the role of religion, faith, and God in daily life. In our seminars on Brave New World, for example, we discussed the underlying philosophies (consumerism, hedonism, communism, authoritarianism, etc.) that in any century will dehumanize us and lead us away from God and all that is truly good and beautiful, that will push men to question the value of human existence.

As my students generated so many questions for further exploration of the great ideas based on these three masterworks of the 19th and 20th centuries, I designed a senior-year literature elective to enable them to continue our conversations on human nature, human rights, and human dignity that we began in their junior-year AP course. I called this new course Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination. For students already familiar with the seminal works of Shelley, Huxley, and Orwell, I provided an opportunity to drill down on some of the pressing moral and cultural issues facing us in the 21st century — not by dissecting narratives of space exploration and alien invasions, which is what we often think of when we hear the term science fiction, but by focusing on works by authors who explore both our wildest dreams and our greatest fears about where technological advancement (and the attitudes associated with it) might lead us. This oft-dismissed literary genre presents many opportunities to exercise the moral imagination through attempts to anticipate future technological developments and to explore both the benefits and the dangers of these developments. More importantly, this vein of science fiction — perhaps speculative fiction is a better term — provides fertile ground for exploring universal themes related to human nature.

“Great” science fiction is fueled by the concerns of the day as much as by the fantastic imaginings of the future. The golden age of science fiction that produced seminal works like Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (about which I wrote in March 2021) has now become the age of science fact: The technologies and attitudes envisioned by some of those authors have become realities or promise to become so in the coming years.

I taught Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination as an interdisciplinary reading-and-writing course that drew on imaginative literature, science, art, architecture, philosophy, and theology to explore timeless issues and themes pertaining to emerging digital technology and biotechnology — all relating to the implications these have for both the human person and human society. I introduced three relatively contemporary novels I’ve also written about in this column — The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy (Jul.-Aug. 2020), The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (Sept. 2020), and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Jan.-Feb. 2021) — along with a selection of short stories, novel excerpts, and essays from the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jonathan Swift, Ray Bradbury, and C.S. Lewis. This reading syllabus set the stage for our discussions of the advancement of science and technology. We routinely asked four important questions about the speculative technologies dramatized in the stories: What are their purported benefits? What are their acknowledged drawbacks? What are possible unintended consequences? And what are the ethical and moral considerations involved in the application of these technologies? All these questions, of course, tie into technology’s effects on the human person. At the same time, we did not lose sight of the value of a pleasurable and edifying narrative. After all, it is through literature that we see these speculative technologies — whether it’s the elixir of life in Hawthorne’s “The Birth-mark” (about which I wrote in Jan.-Feb. 2019) or designer babies in Brave New World­ — brought to life in human society and where we “experience” their benefits, drawbacks, and consequences.

Here’s the primary reason this course was popular with my students: We didn’t sit around discussing symbols and metaphors (which, admittedly, have their place in the study of literature); we analyzed and discussed the fiction we read in terms of emerging real-world concerns, particularly the posthumanist and transhumanist movements, human genetic engineering, designer babies, human cloning, neuropharmacology, digital technologies, medical advancements, surveillance systems, and artificial intelligence. The following provided the guiding questions for the course:

  •  What is human nature? What does it mean to be human?
  •  Do we have a right to manipulate human nature?
  •  When does one begin to be and cease to be human? When does a person go beyond being human? Is that even possible?
  •  What is human dignity? What are human rights?
  •  What are the consequences of today’s biotechnology revolution and the advancement of emerging digital technologies, including artificial intelligence?
  •  What do contemporary and classic literature have to say about today’s biotechnology revolution and other scientific experiments involving the human person?
  •  What can we learn from science-fiction literature to help us live in the 21st century?
  •  How can our understanding help us innovate in response to an ever-changing world?

As Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury make clear in their prescient classics, great literature is essential to the transmission of important aspects of culture from one generation to the next. What Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Fahrenheit 451 all have in common is that books are absent from their imagined dystopian societies. The citizens of Brave New World are too busy amusing themselves to have any interest in reading books, great or otherwise; Huxley’s One World government ingeniously controls the masses by providing instant gratification of sensory desires through mindless recreation, meaningless sexual encounters, and drug-induced “happiness.” The intended consequences include a suppression of citizens’ innate curiosity about the world around them, so much so that even the idea of reading a book is an outdated absurdity. The government in Nineteen Eighty-Four takes a brutal, authoritarian approach: Propaganda and disinformation are the order of the day, and anything other than official government statements are forbidden to be read or written; no one dares even look at a book for fear of being thrown into a windowless room and tortured. The world of Fahrenheit 451 is peopled by firefighters who, rather than putting out fires, burn any and every book. The irony is, however, that the vast majority of its citizens, as in Huxley’s dystopia, have no use for the written word; pervasive screentime has come to dominate all aspects of society, including formal education.

Notably, in each of these stories, the heroes rebel by way of the book: Huxley’s John the Savage discovers William Shakespeare, Orwell’s Winston Smith keeps a forbidden diary, and Bradbury’s Guy Montag turns from burning books to reading them, including the Holy Bible. All three rebellions point to an enduring truth: literature matters; great books are essential to civilization. A sad fact of our own day is that, although we have more books available to us than at any time in history, fewer and fewer of us read great literature of universal appeal, distracted as we are by social media, news feeds, political sloganeering, podcasts, commercial television, Netflix, livestreamed sports at all hours, and constant text messaging. Even many educators, those charged with the literary formation of the younger generation, appear to have convinced themselves and their charges that we no longer have time or use for “old books.” Newfangled educational theories often perceive little value in literature that communicates perennial truths. Instead, they opt for emotion-driven explorations of race, ethnicity, and sexual identity, short and trendy books that are often made into Hollywood movies that ironically supplant the books they purport to represent.

One can be forgiven, then, for believing that great books from the past and present are on their way out, that they may soon remain but a fringe element of society, entertainment for antiquarians. Instead, we ought to try to understand the tremendous impact and influence these great works can have on us as individuals and as a society. Consider this: “Old books” allow us to learn about ourselves, to benefit from the insight of others, to explore other beliefs and cultures, to expand our grasp of the machinations of history; they encourage us to question accepted knowledge, to consider ethical complexities, to learn better ways to live, to refine our judgment, to develop empathy for others (especially those who are unlike us); and, of course, they entertain us.


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