My real obsession with literature didn’t begin until I made a second go at college. After a subpar performance in high school, followed by a disastrous first year of college (I was academically dismissed with a 0.00 GPA from a bottom-barrel state college), I was a bit more mature and much more motivated. I would show up for night classes covered with dirt and sweat from work, eating sandwiches my wife had made the day before, and soaking up everything I could.
I distinctly remember the first time I read Hamlet: it was fall of 1989 and after working all day, I came home to our big, drafty Victorian Gothic house, went up to my little study room, and read the play start to finish. The closing lines left me flabbergasted. I sat still, asking, “How could one human being come up with something so powerful, so astonishingly brilliant?” Everything I read, everything I learned, made me want to know more.
I was fortunate to have some wonderful teachers both in college and—after getting talked into becoming a literature professor—graduate school. These teachers didn’t dump information; they asked questions. I was enraptured by this kind of learning—not yet recognizing that I was in fact experiencing the ancient classical dialectical method. I could not get enough. But I was not quite sure what to do with all this learning as a Christian.
TRANSFORMED BY A POEM
Eventually, I encountered the greatest of them all: John Milton. I first read Paradise Lost start to finish in one long day at the UNC Chapel Hill research library, sitting among musty books and brass lamps, surrounded by tall, green marble columns rising to a gold encrusted rotunda far above the red tiled floor. It was sublime in the truest sense of that word. I had been transported. I rode the bus home, my skull burning with strange heat. I could not sleep that night.
I had been transformed by a poem.
Which is not surprising, considering what Milton said about the true end of all learning in Of Education (1644). He said, “I will point ye out the right path of a vertuous and noble Education.”
This path of education, managed rightly, would invigorate bored students—it would “lead and draw them in willing obedience, enflam’d with the study of Learning, and the admiration of Vertue; stirr’d up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy Patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages.”
Here was Milton, describing back in 1644 exactly what was happening to me now!
SETTING THE CLASSROOM ALIGHT
In grad school I read deeply in Erasmus, Ascham, Mulcaster, and others with very strong ideas about learning. At the same time, I began to read about Logos School and the renewal of classical education, and this only enflamed me more. I became driven to become the kind of teacher teachers should be, setting the classroom alight, bringing in the most beautiful works of human culture and holding them up not only for scrutiny but appreciation, respect, and even awe.
This was the opposite of what generally happened in politicized hyper critical college classrooms. The great works of human history, taught in the right way, made school just as exciting as exploring new worlds was to the sailors of the sixteenth century. I wasn’t just learning literature—I was learning to think, to critique, to question, to understand, to discern, to really enjoy learning.
But the purpose of education for Milton is not just to learn appreciation for fine things. He does not wish to create affected snobs. The real goal is to build virtue—not just to love the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, but to imitate these qualities in our lives.
Milton—who ran a small academy in his house—describes his curriculum in terms of results, not just content and methods:
By this time, years and good general precepts will have furnisht them more distinctly with that act of reason which in [Aristotle’s] Ethics is call’d Proairesis: that they may with some judgement contemplate … the knowledge of Vertue and the hatred of Vice … but still to be reduc’t in their nightward studies wherewith they close the dayes work, under the determinate sentence of David or Salomon, or the Evangels and Apostolic Scriptures.
Milton knows that a time comes right around the entry to adolescence—Aristotle calls it “proaeresis”—where the moral sense develops the ability to make sound judgments. This can only be learned by wide experience, and experience can be achieved efficiently by wide reading. But since much of what humans produce is morally questionable, and all of it is tainted by sin, the teacher must judiciously expose students to these texts, guiding them and teaching them the process of discerning wisdom.
The constant rubric will always be the Scriptures. So each day’s learning was to be “reduc’t”—boiled down to its most basic elements—in comparative analysis with what God says. This is how one learns to hate vice, and love virtue. This is the ultimate purpose of reading: to set the soul aflame for God and for Good.
GRANT HORNER, PhD, is a senior professor of Renaissance and Reformation studies at the Master’s University in Los Angeles. He is the founder and director of the Master’s University in Italy, and also the BA program in classical liberal arts, the first undergraduate program designed specifically to train teachers for careers in classical Christian education. He is the author of books and essays on John Milton and John Calvin, film and theology, Dracula, and Emily Dickinson.