Joining the Great Conversation – Reading Classic Literature

The Great Conversation refers to the body of learning that we as humans have accumulated through our writing. It includes all the great works that have come to be known as “classics”.  During the first eight years or so of a child’s formal education they spend their time absorbing facts and growing a frame of reference of general knowledge of the world so that when they are in high school they are ready to join in the great conversation.  They are ready to read and learn from classic literature.


Through the centuries learned people have read and studied what their predecessors believed and thought and then they expanded on or revised those thoughts and passed them on to the next generation. To be fully engaged in human society we need to know where the things we believe and the things that are condensed in text books came from. If we do not, we are very easy to fool and lead astray.

Help your kids by encouraging and assigning them to read great literature from the past and present. Everyone has different lists of great literature and no list is definitive. You should choose a few great works from each major time period: ancient, medieval, renaissance/colonial, and modern. You do not have to understand or even have read it previously yourself in order to guide your child through the great works. There are many guide books to help you, like Cliff’s Notes and others.

Read the literature at the same time as your student then use the guide books to help you discuss the meanings. If you’ve never read the classics before you might want to start with something short and simple. For example, though the Iliad is really a great adventure story, it gets a bit bogged down in details and plus it’s written in verse rather than prose, which can be difficult. An easier beginning might be Plutarch’s Lives of the Greeks and Romans. Choose a couple of chapters like Solon and Lycurgus and compare and contrast the two. It sounds tough, but modern translations are very readable and with a guide book it shouldn’t be overwhelming. Another good option for ancient literature are plays. They are by necessity short and therefore not as difficult as an epic.

Part of joining the great conversation means leaving your mark on the body of literature as well, so each thing you read should be accompanied by a writing assignment. The guide book you choose will have discussion and essay questions that are appropriate. Be very critical of the essays your student presents. Demand they use good grammar and defend their positions adequately.

Your goal is not to produce a person who can manage in today’s competitive job market, but someone who controls their own destiny in whatever they pursue because they have the knowledge, skills, and discipline necessary. You want to produce a person who thinks and analyzes rather than merely accepts.  We live in a technology-based society where much value is placed on efficiency; we forget that often the most valuable things we do will happen in the process of a very long time.  Take time.  Read.  Absorb.  Discuss.  Think.  Analyze.

You don’t need to exhaustively read all the classics, a few during each year of high school would be adequate. There is no rule that says once a person is through with formal education they must stop learning. There will time for more later.  Learning is a lifelong endeavor made richer by joining the great conversation.

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