Each afternoon I join the Regents juniors and seniors in Omnibus class and read great literature with them. It would be hard work if it weren’t so much fun.
The last few weeks we have been reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. One of the most read and well-loved books in the American canon, Walden is Thoreau’s meditations on his two-year experiment in living alone at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, where he endeavored to find a simpler life so that he might better know himself and his environment. The book reads sometimes like a diary, sometimes like a naturalist’s journal, sometimes like a collection of essays, and sometimes like a prophet’s screed. Some of Thoreau’s most trenchant comments concern the reading of books. The classically trained Thoreau was a devoted bibliophile who kept a copy of Homer’s Iliad open on his table in his cabin at Walden Pond.
In his chapter titled “Reading,” he makes many comments worth considering:
- “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?”
- “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art.”
- “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
- “[Books’] authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.”
- “Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.”
- “We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.”
- “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”
Thoreau states it far more eloquently than I can: it is through reading great books, the books “we have to stand on tip-toe to read,” that we come into contact with the great and transforming truths that have shaped our culture for generations. This is the guiding principle behind the Omnibus curriculum.
When students behold what is true and good and beautiful in the printed word, they find their souls being nourished and their minds being challenged. They find wisdom and eloquence being formed in them. They often find “a new era in their lives” being birthed.
The hard truth is that we are naturally shallow, lazy, and self-centered. Only God’s grace can shake us from our superficiality, lethargy, and egotism. One way God does so is through teachers who expose our minds to the beauty and power of the printed word, especially in the books of the Great Tradition, and the ideas they contain.
At Regents Academy we teach great literature, “the noblest recorded thoughts of man.” We do so unashamedly, and we aspire to do so with excellence. We hope to do nothing less than change students lives. With God’s help and with inspiration from thinkers like Thoreau, we will do so for years to come.