Dylan, literature, Moby-Dick, and homeschooling

Bob Dylan finally got around to delivering his Nobel Lecture. No surprise, it focused on literature. Why the wait? It took him some time, he said, to reflect on how his songs relate to literature. He ended by cautioning that songs are fundamentally different than literature, “meant to be sung, not read,” like the words in Shakespeare’s plays, which are “meant to be acted on the stage.” That sentiment perhaps gives a clue to why he seemed reticent about receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. It reminded me a little of my youngest daughter’s love for Shakespeare, which is fundamentally connected to a desire to stage the plays, not just read them.

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Abby reading

Dylan talks about his connection to and study of folk music, but says that alone wasn’t what shaped his art. “…I had something else as well. I had principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. ”

Is that typical today? How many kids do you know reading those kinds of books in grammar school? Homeschooling, on the other hand, can make room for the kind of serious investigation of literature that Dylan talks about. Literature was a focus of our homeschooling, not because it was part of any pre-packaged curriculum, but because it was important to us, and we wanted to share that with our kids.

As a result our kids, along with many other homeschoolers we know, regularly read great literature. Dylan cites Moby-Dick as one of three books that had the greatest influence on him. It was my third child’s favorite book in the world, and she had read it thrice by the time she was sixteen. I find it sad that people are shocked by that.

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Reading Shakespeare together

When a homeschooling friend brought her homeschooling book club to the New Bedford Whaling Museum after having read Melville’s novel, someone asked them, “What version did you read?” The kids looked blankly at the questioner. They had no idea what the person was talking about, no clue that when most school kids read the novel it’s in a watered down, abridged, or otherwise altered form.

Such a form could never capture the complexity of themes and expression in Melville’s novel. That’s certainly what New York City public school teacher John Taylor Gatto found when he rebelliously decided to teach the book to his eighth graders. In his book The Underground History of American Education he says, “I realized the school edition wasn’t a real book but a kind of disguised indoctrination providing all the questions, a scientific addition to the original text designed to make the book teacher-proof and student-proof. If you even read those questions…there would be no chance ever again for a private exchange between you and Melville…The school text of Moby Dick had been subtly denatured; worse than useless, it was actually dangerous.”

So what did the courageous and brilliant Gatto do? He tossed those useless tomes and bought, out of pocket, a set of “undoctored” texts. He talks about the result in an Education Week interview: “Essentially, I treated kids at 13 like fully grown human beings…I discovered that 12- and 13-year-olds could handle complex abstractions to the same extent my mind could. It got to the point where I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I was dying to get into school so that I could find out what the goddamn kids were going to teach me next.”

As a homeschooling/unschooling parent, I know exactly what he means. There were definitely those who questioned our decision to share the literature we did with our kids. Kids, they reasoned, aren’t able to understand a text as difficult as Moby-Dick, or Hamlet, or The Odyssey, or authors like Edith Wharton or the Brontes. I wish they could see what I and countless other homeschooling parents have seen, what Gatto and other teachers who’ve had the courage and open-mindedness to look at their students as capable people have seen.

Those visions of enlightenment, however, shouldn’t be expected. As Gatto points out, reading is a private exchange between the reader and the text. Whether the reader wants to share what they feel or experience is up to them. To those who say, but then how do you know if they understand what they’re reading, I say, what does it matter? Is there an age at which people are suddenly able to understand every word? Don’t you learn something new every time you re-read a work? Do you have to understand it in a particular way to learn from it, and do you really think there’s one answer to what a book or a poem or a play means? Have you ever had the experience of revelation years after reading a book, when in one electric moment a story hidden in the back of your brain comes to the fore with miraculous clarity?

One of the wonderful things about homeschooling is that it can free us from the kind of didactic thinking that is, frankly, harmful to intellectual and creative development. Our kids’ reading had no requirements attached to it–they didn’t have to write a book report, take a test, or demonstrate mastery of any sort. They were free to interpret, ponder, and experience the book or play or poem on their own terms.

In his talk Dylan encourages this attitude about his own songs, and I think, by extension, literature: “So what does it all mean?…If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”

I couldn’t agree more.


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