Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

On occasion, someone will email me or ask me at a conference, “if there is one article or essay on the problems and solutions to modern education, that everyone should read, what is it”? Questions like this are wonderful on at least two levels–it gives me the exhilaration of mentally scanning the articles that might fit, and the opportunity to then to ask a few questions to narrow down the search.

Of course, there are hundreds that might fit, but the one that I most often place at the very top of the list is Russell Kirk’s Teaching Humane Literature in High School. This intellectual treat was reissued back in 2007 in The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, with a number of other pieces well worth reading in this fine collection.

Of the many qualities found in Kirk’s writings one can admire and certainly emulate, the way Dr. Kirk provides precise analysis of the crisis, and while never moving toward despair, offers a sound prognosis with much helpful advice for a possible cure.

In the article entitled Teaching Humane Literature in High Schools, originally published in 1977, Kirk provides much that we could gain from listening to as we strive in Classical Christian schools and home-school circles to offer the best education possible grounded in our great intellectual heritage.

Writing in 1977, Kirk offers some reasons as to why humane letters were in decline at the time.”One reason for this decay is the unsatisfactory quality of many programs of reading; another is the limited knowledge of humane letters possessed by some well-intentioned teachers, uncertain of what books they ought to select for their students to digest well.” The truth is, at what what true in 1977 is even more true today.

Russell Kirk, gives two specific reasons why literature studies are in trouble. “The first of these is a misplaced eagerness for ‘relevance.’ The second of these is the kind of sullen purposelessness–the notion that literature, if it has any end at all, is meant either to start up discontents, or else merely to amuse.”

Certainly many have bowed a knee to the idol of relevancy and lost out on truths that transcend a particular moment. In the pursuit to be constantly relevant, they often discover that relevancy is fickle and often difficult to track. He speaks about this relevancy in the most poignant terms, “Such shallow relevance to the trivial and the ephemeral must leave young people prisoners of what Eliot called the provinciality of time.” In other words, while some people aspire to be relevant, what really occurs is they become irrelevant because the notion of relevance passes to quickly.

As in his other writings, Kirk reminds us that instead of being taken captive to the momentary wind of relevancy, we should aspire to embrace “the permanent things.” We should recognize those works of literature that address the depth and the breath of the human condition, those that examine moral issues, those that address the span of human history, and those that also explore ways of what it means to be human living in community with other humans.

One of the more terrifying and yet historically accurate assertions made by Russell Kirk is that,”In every civilized land, literary studies were taken very seriously indeed until recent decades.”Kirk as well as others, who are committed to humane letters, is willing to make the case, and does so persuasively, that humane letters should be ranked as peer to theology and philosophy.

Kirk offers insight into how humane letters actually work, “Humane letters rouse us to the beautiful and the just through symbol, parable, image, simile, allegory, fantasy, and lively example. The purpose of literature is to develop the moral imagination. If human beings do not feel the touch of the moral imagination, they are as the beasts that perish.”

For the critic out there unnecessarily, but ignorantly set to condemn Russell Kirk’s view as being romantic, he is very clear as to the limits of literature. “Literature can corrupt; and it is possible, too, to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all maybe forever adrift in life…”

Among the many hopeful, or positive suggestions provided within this essay, Kirk also gives what Adler does in a number of places, and that is Kirk provides a reading list or suggested beginning reading list for the 9th through 12th grade level. It is worth noting that these works are rich with a sense of the true, the good, and the beautiful. As a matter of fact Kirk says this, “all things begin and end in mystery. Out of tales of wonder comes awe–and the beginnings of philosophy.”

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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