My father Moses Hadas (1900–1966) taught classics at Columbia University and was one of the originators of Colloquium, the predecessor of Columbia’s core curriculum. An unpublished and undated talk he wrote, titled “On Teaching Classics in Translation,” is really about teaching great books.
I was 17 when my father died. But now that I have myself been teaching literature for 35 years, a couple of points in that talk speak to me urgently now. After all, as I often tell my students, reading enables us to converse with people who are no longer around.
First, Moses’s observation that “there are cram books from which your students can get all the knowledge you purvey with their bare feet on a table” not only anticipates Google and Wikipedia by more than half a century, it reminds us that such sources of information already existed. What then is the function of the teacher?
Moses’s second point is harder to apply but no less salient: he advises teachers to “teach the book, not about the book.” It is easy, he points out, “to lecture about the time and place of a book, the culture that produced it,” and so on, but “if you dodge the book and conceal your fecklessness by loud noises in the outworks, the whole enterprise becomes fraudulent.” The teacher’s job is to help students understand why the book is a masterpiece.
Easy to say; hard to do. Was Moses advocating fastidious focus solely on the text in the style of the New Criticism? I don’t think so. What would he say about our current culture of trigger alerts? I can only imagine. But my father’s candid admissions of the challenges of teaching console, enlighten, and inspire me each time I step into a classroom.
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