Are students learning the best way?
By Ilan Stavans (Amherst)
I didn’t set out to be a teacher. My dreams were elsewhere. Yet teaching is what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years. Other than the time I’ve spent in my home, I haven’t been anywhere as frequently as in the classroom, with people increasingly younger than me. I often ask myself: Is it possible to discuss a book I know by heart, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, without sounding trite?
A little more than a decade ago, I was feeling suffocated by the academic tendency to imprison ourselves in modes of thought, disciplines, and departments. I was known as a Latino-studies scholar. Was that all I was? I envied my students for not being trapped in a single identity. Yet I was tired of the way colleges asked them to look for an objective in their education, an investment in the future. I wanted a fresh alternative. More than anything, I wanted to live up to the ideal of a generalist: to look at the humanities whole, capable of expanding instead of narrowing the concept of who we are.
Serendipitously, while casting about for ways to apply my children’s energy during the summer, I stumbled onto what would become my alternative self. I became not a teacher of Hispanic culture, but a teacher, plain and simple.
Along with a couple of friends, I began a camp for teenagers dedicated to reading the classics. Athletic camps were a dime a dozen. There were camps devoted to math and science. Yet it was hard to find suitable programs devoted to literature.
Or let me put it somewhat differently: It was challenging to find a setting where kids could read broadly and for pleasure across cultures, not for the sake of making them more literate, but for the sake of making books speak to them. One of my friends, Peter Temes, had been connected to the Great Books Foundation, started in the 1940s in Chicago to promote liberal learning. We called our program the Great Books Summer Program and worked with the foundation in our early days. We were inspired by the principle that the classics of a culture hold the code (moral, political, philosophical) to its civilization, that the literary canon is never set, and that what makes a classic is its rediscovery—or better, reinvention—by new readers.
That summer, Peter and I designed a curriculum. Our dream was to make campers ponder the essential questions: Who am I? What connects me to the past and future? What do I do with my imagination? How do I know my neighbors?
Our first summer, barely a dozen kids enrolled, mostly our own. The session, held in facilities we rented at the college where I teach, lasted three days. While it was a success, I had doubts we could sign enough campers for the following summer.
What I found, not only about myself but about the next generation, surpassed my wildest expectations. To this day, more than 2,500 campers have gone through our program. A number come from places as far away as Russia, South Korea, and Argentina. Kids might spend up to three weeks at the camp, which offers one-, two-, and three-week sessions. We have groups for high school and middle school. Now the program is primarily owned by Early Advantage, an independent publishing company for children, and pays for itself through tuition, although we seek outside support for scholarships.
Students re-enact Homer, discuss heroism in Don Quixote, analyze an ode by Catullus or a poem by Anna Akhmatova, adapt Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the present, peruse manuscripts at the library’s special collection, design an edgy book cover for Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and discuss all sorts of accounts of war.
It is untrue that literature has lost its groove, at least not among this bunch. The attention span might be short and interruptible. Yet the life of the mind has as much gravitas as ever. Following Socrates, we teach by asking questions—a format not only well suited to our age group, but one that has helped me rediscover the joy of seeing students make their way through ideas.
A week’s time isn’t very long to delve deeply into a work. And campers get distracted with Facebook and iPhones. Still, the opportunity is there to show that information isn’t knowledge, that knowledge is a process whereby information becomes individualized.
Any given week, we might discuss Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Gimpel the Fool,” analyzing what foolishness is. Or we might talk about one of my all-time favorite poems, Pablo Neruda’s “I Explain a Few Things,” at the center of which is a house bombarded during the Spanish Civil War. The challenge is to personalize the poem. Is a powerful poem capable of ending a war? What kind of person sits down to write verses about his house in ruins instead of joining a militia? A few years ago, a camper came back the following summer with the poem flawlessly memorized. His delivery was impeccable: It was as if his house, not Neruda’s, had gone up in flames. And the poem—it felt really his.
During our morning meeting, kids regularly recite poems of their choosing (in English or any other language) in front of an audience of about a hundred people. By doing so, they build a collective—and, because memorized, portable—anthology, one reflecting their passions.
Great Books Summer Program is no longer housed exclusively at Amherst. There is a branch at Stanford University, and soon another will open at a Midwestern campus. We have invitations to branch out into China, India, and perhaps Chile. Seeing that the pedagogical method of critical inquiry as a signature of American education is applicable to precollege students, other countries want to import it.
A couple of years ago at Amherst, we also started a unit on Great Films in the camp. It uses movies, not books, as primary texts. Reading and discussion remain the currency, but a third component has been added: viewing. The young generation is astonishingly fluent in graphic narratives. How is thinking in words and images different?
And for me? I feel reinvigorated. To teach outside one’s discipline, to different students, is to find out how vast the world is. The humanities are, by definition, allergic to constriction. They thrive through connections. Serendipity is the rhythm that defines them.
Teenagers have helped me reconnect with the element of surprise. Reading is really rereading, yet it needs to be fresh, to feel new, in order to make an impact. Teenagers might be self-obsessed. Have they ever been otherwise? But the beauty of teaching them is that they don’t yet know that they know. Books are a mirror in which they find out who they are. Would they act as Raskolnikov does in Crime and Punishment under the same circumstances?
Last summer, just as the Great Books Summer Program was about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I experienced a moment of exquisite joy. A camper approached me. “Professor Stavans, I loved the poem by Elizabeth Bishop we talked about yesterday,” she said. “But I realized her last stanza needed work. Is it fine for me to rewrite the ending?”
Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest books are Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and a new translation, with Harold Augenbraum, of Juan Rulfo’s The Plain in Flames (forthcoming from the University of Texas Press).
This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2012 .