Speed or Substance?
An Invitation to Learning
By Rachel Greb
Quality is typically preferable to quantity.
It’s March, which means many schools are down to single-digit numbers of weeks of instruction left in the year. A lot of teachers are looking at their syllabi and looking at the calendar and wondering, “How am I going to fit it all in?”
When the pressures mount towards the end of the year, our natural instinct is to squeeze as much content as possible into what time is left, to make sure that we cover everything on the syllabus. But at what price? The risk is not only of moving through the content at such a mind-numbing pace as to leave students glassy-eyed, but also of giving the impression that the material can be summarized and compacted without losing anything important. SparkNotes becomes not an aid to the curriculum, but a substitute for it. This leaves most students wondering why they should bother learning anything more.
To illustrate what I mean, try watching this video. It’s a humorous take on Homer’s Odyssey as part of a series called “Ten Classics in Ten Minutes.” What did you learn about Odysseus? What did you learn about his companions?
Now try a different approach. Get a stopwatch and time yourself reading the first ten lines of Homer’s Odyssey and the italicized paragraph that follows it. (Read aloud, at a normal pace.)
“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
Far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
Many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
Struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
He strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
Fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
And he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
Here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.”
What do we learn here about Odysseus in these opening ten lines? He was involved in the Trojan War, and that afterwards, he was driven on many travels and visited many cities. He suffered in his journey, to the point of struggling for his life and the lives of his companions. The key phrase in those first five lines is, “whose minds he learned of.” That will become an important aspect of his quest to get home—his ability to observe others carefully and use what he learns to aid him in his journey. His companions were reckless and offended the gods, and this cost them their ability to get home. Here is where our story begins.
If you timed yourself, you probably came up with a time fairly similar to the video, somewhere between 1:30 and 1:40. Hopefully, though, your experience of the video compared to the reading was completely different. The video gives a short background, some information on Odysseus’ adventures, his homecoming, and the fact that he took revenge against the suitors. Seems like a nice summary, right? However, you only get the bare facts of the major events, and you miss the essence of Odysseus’ character, the complexity and strength of Penelope, and the coming of age of Telemachus. You miss Odysseus recounting his adventures to the sea-loving shipwrights whom he must convince to help him get home; you miss being swept up in his story too until you wonder suddenly if you believe him when none of his companions are left to corroborate it.
Perhaps most of all, you miss the question of what it means to be human, which is the central question of nearly every great book. The barbarians are depicted as those who live as a law unto themselves, do not live in community, and pay no attention to the gods. They appear in the form of the Cyclopes who live on an island far away from Odysseus’ home of Ithaca, but also in the form of the suitors who live right under Odysseus’ own roof.
Obviously, in reading just the first ten lines of the poem, we didn’t get to all that detail either. But while the video gives you the impression that a book can be distilled down to snippets, the reading gives you the sense that there is far more to learn and discover, and invites you to do just that. Where the video makes you feel as though you’ve finished the book without opening it, the opening lines invite you into the story.
So what should teachers do? Perhaps the focus should be on creating an invitation to deep learning for our students. There was a point in my early years of teaching literature that I realized I could not possibly teach all the books I wanted to—but what I could do is teach my students to read a few books deeply and well, something they could then apply to more books of their own accord. Inviting them to depth instead of breadth conveys intrinsic value of the material, and allows for their native curiosity, which is the permanent engine of learning, to work upon it.
As you watch the weeks evaporate from the calendar, pause, take a deep breath, and think carefully about how to provide deep instruction for your students in the long term. They will be grateful, and hopefully you will be too.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our others here at the Journal, like this author profile of Mary McLeod Bethune, this one of Franz Kafka, this piece on Constitution Day, or this student essay on C. S. Lewis’ outlook on education. And don’t forget to take a listen to our weekly podcast, Anchored.
Rachel Greb is the Director of Secondary Partnerships with CLT. She earned a B.A. from the Hillsdale College Honors Program and an M.A. in Christian and Classical Studies from Knox Theological Seminary. She is currently a doctoral student at Harrison Middleton University, specializing in the history of the philosophy of education. Rachel has served as a co-founder and head of school, academic dean, and teacher at Oakdale Academy.