Junior Johnnie Seminars
Homecoming at Annapolis was this past weekend, and I hope everyone who attended had as much fun as I did! It’s always wonderful to see old friends and introduce them to new friends, to participate in seminars on familiar books and unfamiliar books, and to enjoy a late summer weekend on our beautiful campus.
For quite a few years now, our Saturday lineup of seminars has included special seminars for young people. This year, we offered discussions on Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach for youngsters ages eight through eleven, and on Lois Lowry’s The Giver for ages 12-15.
I believe that these seminars began as a good way to keep children occupied while their parents were attending their own discussions. But be that as it may, they have grown into something much more important: a way of giving young people a head start on our way of reading and conversation.
Little children, of course, love to have a familiar book read to them at bedtime. There is an obvious psychological payoff for this—the comfort that comes from a familiar object that settles the chaotic flux of daily life.
But children do not delight in bedtime stories just because they give comfort. They also delight in them as opportunities to show proficiency. Here is something that they know, something over which they have mastery. And anyone who has ever tried to skip a few words to speed the process along knows just how much children love to exercise this mastery. They won’t let you pull a fast one like that without making it clear that you’re not telling the story right.
One of the best ways to lead children toward continuing love for books is to keep increasing the texture, the depth, and the complexity of their stories so that they have to keep stretching themselves to reach the next level of mastery. This also develops an intellectual muscle that will lift heavy weights for them in their lives: the sense of enjoyment that comes from thinking through difficult things.
Great children’s books, however, go beyond this. They also introduce young people to the very same issues that fill the Great Books. Questions of life and death, love and hatred, duty and pleasure, selfishness and compassion, friendship and betrayal—all these and more can appear in good books for even the youngest among us.
James and the Giant Peach, for instance, is about the abandonment of an orphaned boy to his two cruel aunts, who in turn are killed by a giant peach that whisks the boy off on a long and hazardous journey toward, ultimately, a new, renewed life. In a way, it’s a warmup for Homer’s Odyssey, with all the same issues of loss, struggle, heartache, and regeneration.
The Giver, on the other hand, centers on the importance of memory in human affairs. In the book’s pseudo-utopia, conformity is maintained by eliminating records of the past. By expunging all traces of a time in which individuals made their own choices—for good or ill—the guardians of society easily keep people convinced that individual desires and personal aspirations are a universal threat. It takes a treasure trove of memory in the form of books to restore the power of inspirational ideals. In a certain way, it’s a warmup for issues that run through Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
There was another discussion held this past weekend on a book that is generally considered a children’s book, though it was offered to adults—Eva Brann’s seminar on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. This delightful story cuts across the usual boundaries between children’s literature and adult literature. It warns us that there is, perhaps, an unexpected danger in continuing to pursue the path of mastery that was so rewarding when we were young. As we become more sophisticated, more cerebral, and more serious, we may leave behind the very quality that drew us to books in the first place—that is, the childlike wonder and delight in the imagination that inspires all great stories. One might see this little book as a warmup for Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
So if the original impetus for the children’s seminars really was to keep the youngsters busy, we can be grateful that they have become a way for young people to increase reading mastery, to become acquainted with the deep issues that infuse the Great Books, and to invigorate the breath of imagination, which fills the sails of all our hopes and aspirations. Through these seminars, St. John’s plays a small role in training up the coming generations to see, as the motto of the Little Prince has it, that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Share in the comments: Do you have any special memories about reading a book as a child or a particular book being read to you?