Petrarch, the fourteenth century Italian monk, sometimes referred to as the “father of humanism”, famously wrote a series of letters to classical writers such as Cicero, Seneca, Homer, and Socrates. These writers having been dead for more than a thousand years at the time, Petrarch didn’t expect a response. But he wrote nevertheless because he thought of himself as engaging in a conversation–with thinkers who had come long before, but about ideas as current as ever.
I begin with this curious fact to give some context for a curious habit we practice in classical schools: annotations, or writing in, books. Students in Hillsdale’s affiliated schools are often shocked to learn that not only are their literature books theirs to keep, but they are not just free but required to write all over the pages. Though Petrarch did not put pen to paper directly on those priceless classical manuscripts, his intent exactly what we aim to imitate when we scribble questions in the margins, underline important passages, and dog-ear the pages of classical novels.
Beginning in the fourth grade at Treasure Valley Classical Academy, students are required to annotate their books. Of course they wonder why at first. In one of my more fanciful responses to this question I told a student that we write in books because “it allows us to speak with the dead.” This sounds shocking at first, but it wasn’t just a way to get a reaction. There’s real truth there. Petrarch discovered a trove of lost classical writings and, upon reading them, was moved to respond to them with his own written words. This act is significant and deeply humane.
As human beings, we encounter things in life which call out to us for a response. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Monet’s Houses of Parliament, or the final lines of Cyrano de Bergerac all present themselves to us and demand a response. C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, goes so far as to say these kinds of things merit a response from us.
If this is true, we have an obligation, a humane responsibility, to respond to the words of the dead. Whether we respond appropriately to these things is, in some way, the measure of who we are as human beings.
In our schools, we teach our students that the past has things to teach us, that we are indebted to preceding generations, and that we have a responsibility to learn from those who came before us and acknowledge the debt we owe them in our lives. When we sit in class reading the words of people long dead, the least we can do as students, teachers, and human beings is respond to the words they left for us. We respond communally, in class, through discussion where we study the words closely, ask questions, and debate the meaning of a passage as a group. But as individuals, we have a responsibility too. In the solace of their own minds, I encourage my students to read and, when a passage strikes them, sit with it and ponder; allow a thought, a response, to form in their minds and then write it alongside the words that plucked at their hearts. When they take the time to read and respond in this way they are fulfilling a small part of their human obligation to the past as they engage in a timeless conversation with the dead, who are alive with us in their words.
In history class, my students and I began the year talking and thinking about this notion of responding when we read the introduction to Elie Wiesel’s famous memoir Night. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz as a young boy, admonished his readers to consider what their response to the past ought to be. He concludes that “in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.” The preservation of the past through memory is paramount for Wiesel. When our students read books, respond to them in annotations, and discuss the ideas they present to us, they are engaging in an act of preservation; a perpetuation of the past in the present.
If they choose to be, each of our students can be a vessel for transmission of memory from one generation to the next. This profound responsibility must be borne willingly by each generation as the inheritors of human knowledge and memory. In Hillsdale’s classical schools, our students are being prepared to shoulder this burden every day. They are being taught how to respond with gratitude, humility, and a readiness to claim responsibility for their obligations to the past and those who rest in it. Every time they write in their books a small piece of their debt is discharged, as another piece of the past is preserved in themselves.