May 17, 2023

Rector’s eNews – 17 May 2023

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Over the next months, from time to time in the eNews, I will draw on the thoughts of one of the world’s foremost philosophers and teachers, A.C.Grayling.

A.C.Grayling is the founder and first Master of the New College of the Humanities in London and is one of the most articulate, persuasive and altogether outstanding contributors to the realm of “thought leadership”. He writes and speaks on simple and complex topics in a comprehensible fashion and it was a great delight to be able to invite him to my previous school to speak to our pupils. In short, what he says resonates with young and old and one of the topics which he has addressed in one of his works called The Heart of Things considers the value of reading.

Most research shows that boys generally do not read as much as they should and that most of them fall short of the 80 minutes a day which is suggested as the optimum time over which teenage boys should engage in reading. To this end, at Michaelhouse, the Monday tutor period is given over to reading and, though boys only read in this time-slot for some 25 minutes, it does help to get them out of the “starting blocks”. All D and E Block English lessons begin with reading such is the importance that we attach to developing this aspect of our boys intellectual and social orientation. A key factor in encouraging reading amongst teenage boys lies in the role models they have and this is why the example of parents and teachers who read impacts very favourably on helping teenage boys to do likewise. Here is what A.C.Grayling has to say about reading and I have quoted from a short essay he has written on the topic:

“Reading is one of the essentials of the good life. For it is not just the familiar pleasures that come from responsive reading that matter, but the effects of these on how we live our lives, and what kinds of communities we accordingly create. This point is not always fully appreciated, so one must take Wittgenstein’s advice to “assemble reminders” and tell everyone who will listen that reading is more than they think it is.

The point at issue can be made in connection with other narrative forms too. But novels are the paradigm because reading is an especially focused experience, unfolding in private time, and one that makes a fundamental difference. A play cannot be stopped and reprised in the way that pages can be re-read, whether to relish something good or understand something better. A novel is all present at once, and can be gone over and back, re-entered, skimmed, sampled or devoured, just as required. This adds to the value of its contents. But it is the contents, of course, that matter most.

Obviously enough, many novels do not aspire to do more than amuse, please, offer escape and refreshment. But even with this modest ambition they provide several significant opportunities to anyone who will read attentively. One is the opportunity to consider one’s own experience, seeing in the mirror of the story reflections of one’s world, and the universal aspects of oneself, at the revealing angles that result from seeing them refracted into other guises.

Another is the opportunity to peer into experiences one has not had, and might well never have, in other lives and ways of life. This opportunity is immeasurable. Being restricted to personal experience and the observation only of people in one’s immediate circle is no bar to becoming perceptive and wise. But being a fly on the wall in a far wider array of times and places, observing very different lives and thereby having the chance to spectate, and perhaps even sympathise with, choices and desires that have never occurred to one, or are not part of one’s own repertoire – that is the gift that comes from thoughtful reading even of averagely good novels. The better the novel, the richer the possibilities it offers in this as in all its other dimensions (of pleasure-giving and the like). Perhaps ‘great literature’ is literature which, among its other qualities, best discloses to us different worlds, or deeper aspects of our own world, and teaches us how to feel more generously, discriminate more finely, and understand more comprehensively as a result.

These things matter for a special reason: they promise an enlargement of our sympathies. That, to repeat, is by far not the only thing novels do for us, and it is not the only way our sympathies can be educated and expanded; but it is an exceedingly powerful way, and throughout human history storytelling has been a central means of informing people about possibilities beyond their personal sphere, and inviting them to understand those possibilities better.
And the enlargement of our sympathies matters crucially, because sympathy is the basis of moral community. To sympathise with others is to understand their interests, needs and choices, and to see these as relevant to decisions about one’s own choices. It is also, and more, to see others as having a claim on one’s concern, just as one expects to be taken into account by others in turn. When these mutualities are in place, society functions far better than just adequately. Because reading promotes insight into oneself and others, it thereby helps promote the good life in the good society.” (A.C.Grayling, The Heart of Things, Phoenix, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)

Read the full Rector’s e-news here

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