Teaching, Schooling and Reading

Bethel College

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I have said a number of times that all I try to teach in my seminar courses is how to read well. And I think that is all any of us in the humanities should be doing. Perhaps now a word of explanation and apology for this stance is in order.

Reading is the process by which, through the means of written language, we come to understand another person's ideas. This is probably the most efficient way to increase what we know about reality and about how to live better. One could try to start from scratch and thus learn without anyone's insight what the world is like and what one ought to do, but that would not be very efficient. Or one could try to learn only by talking to living wise men. But that too would limit one's knowledge and be inefficient. Therefore almost everybody agrees that learning to read is important so that the wisdom of the wisest thinkers of all ages can be accessible through written language.

Don't be a Second-Hander

The person who has learned to read well is never dependent on living teachers to educate him. The growth of his mind and the betterment of his wisdom and his behavior is not connected with his being in or out of school. Because almost all the greatest thinkers of history have shared their wisdom in writing and because these great books are almost all available to be bought in stores or borrowed from libraries, the person who has trained himself in good, active reading and who cares about growing wiser, does not need live teachers or college classes, or daily assignments, or threatening exams. Instead, as a good reader and as one who is not enslaved to the television and radio, he has a lifetime of growth ahead of him.

It is of the utmost importance that college students stop trying to fill their head with facts and start trying to form the habit of fruitful, active reading. Almost all the facts will be forgotten. But the skill and discipline and love of good reading will go on bearing fruit 30, 60, 100 fold. It is a tragedy that on graduation day so many students look back with a pang of longing that they are leaving the place of so much discovery and stimulating growth, instead of feeling themselves at the end of a training period which has now fit them for an adventurous lifetime of stimulating reading and discovery. It is a dreadful deception that learning and mental growing are strictly associated with school. Good reading should be the vocation of a lifetime. Schooling—at least my classes—is a concentrated training process to help prepare you for that vocation.