By Dr. John Scholl, Academic Dean and Rhetoric School Director
A few weeks ago, one of my favorite classroom liturgies was enacted for the first time this year. My students marched out of class, turned into a dead-end of the hallway, in front of the fire escape, and sat down in a small circle. Oddly, they make bad circles; despite their knowledge of geometry, they tend to make battered-looking, squashed circles, more like polygons than shapes with radii. In fact, when we were first forming this ritual, three years ago, they tended naturally to devolve into a line, despite my clear direction to “sit in a circle.” Maybe geometrical heresy is part of the liturgy. At any rate, they recreated the now-customary, malformed circle, and I took my place in the middle of one side. After the usual chit-chat, the group fell silent and awaited my standard question: “On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate this book?”
I stumble on good things in the same way everyone else does. The first time I sent them out into the hall in 8th grade I had little vision for the trajectory of this practice; it seemed a nice change of pace, a good way to celebrate the completion of a book. We were reading some hefty books that year—highlighted by Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the mysterious Kim, and the philosophically challenging Time Machine—and my students were working hard. A celebratory change of pace, signified by an informal discussion, was in order. Also, my classroom was a windowless cave, while the hallway was lined with windows. Its brighter, though less comfortable, environs made the hallway a strangely relaxing spot. Somewhere along the way, we established the 1-10 rating system as the centerpiece of our discussion, and I realized that I had something good.
What makes this a good liturgy? In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith reminds us that liturgies, by training us to worship, train our loves. In the hallway, my students cultivate a love of reading. In our most recent discussion, the focus was Augustine’s Confessions. Before we rated it, two very important things happened. First, one student asked, since we had a new student among us, if we could go around the group and name our favorite books, the ones that earn a 10. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen were bandied about. Second, a question was raised about the basis, or rule, for rating a book. Was it just the simple pleasure and love of reading it? Or was there something more? We determined that our rating is based on how likely we are to choose the book voluntarily, as pleasure reading. I think we were all in agreement that there had to be something more as well, something that smacked of greatness. An easy page-turner would not rate a 10 merely because it whiled away a few hours at the airport; it would have to do something more. But we left that “something more” undefined, hanging in the air above us. It is precisely these terms, the frame for our rating system, that make the liturgy good.
One of the things I aim for is that my students connect what they read in school to the things that they read outside of school, to link The Iliad to Harry Potter, to see that the great texts speak to their lives and not just to their transcripts. If there had been a Barnes and Noble in ancient Athens, The Iliad would have been flying off the shelves. Homer was not composing torture devices for schoolchildren but bestsellers. Unfortunately, in our era, it is all too easy to leave Homer and his cohorts at school. My students’ hallway liturgy breaks this barrier, by setting the books we read at school in our mental libraries right next to the books we read, by choice, on a rainy day, a vacation, or a long summer night.
Admittedly, the schoolbooks can fare poorly in our rating. Kim, above all, had a rough day, when we carried it out there, averaging a 4 or 5, and we beat on Eusebius rather roughly when he stepped into the ring.
Yet it is surprising how many of the books do well. I was shocked the day The Iliad graded out as more than a 9. In fact, one or two students even considered giving it a 10 and suggested that it might be their favorite or second favorite book of all time. The other day, one student mentioned Dickens as a possible 10, partly because she encountered him in 8th grade—an exciting reminiscence of my own education, since I also came to love Dickens at school, when in 10th grade I read David Copperfield, still one of my favorites. Corrie Ten Boom, C.S. Lewis, and H.G. Wells have also been hailed by the judges. This is exciting confirmation that our students are growing to love the kind of great writing and thinking that we want them to love.
So how did Augustine’s Confessions do? Not quite as well as I had hoped: 7 out of 10. To be sure, I only rated the book a 7 or 7.5 myself, so as much as I hoped for more, it was unrealistic to expect that they would get that from me. However, the ensuing discussion reminded me not to read too much into the number. They did really enjoy the book. Several of them were compelled and profoundly engaged by Augustine’s discussions of sin and time; it may just be a little early for them to rate a work of philosophy as high as a favorite work of fiction. Still, I marvel at Augustine’s success with them: sixteen hundred years old, yet he broke out of the Roman world, met them in the digital world and walked a few steps with them in their Christian faith.