MacDonald on Effect of Science on an Adolescent

In “A Sketch of Individual Development” (1880), George MacDonald, best known for his works of fantasy such as A Princess and Curdie and Lilith, describes an imaginary boy coming to full consciousness, from infancy into adulthood. In this excerpt, he reflects on the impact that a serious encounter with science in late high school or college might have on the development of mind and heart.

The changelessness amid change, the law amid seeming disorder, the unity amid units, draws him again. He begins to descry the indwelling poetry of science. The untiring forces at work in measurable yet inconceivable spaces of time and room, fill his soul with an awe that threatens to uncreate him with a sense of littleness; while, on the other side, the grandeur of their operations fills him with such an informing glory, the mere presence of the mighty facts, that he no more thinks of himself, but in humility is great, and knows it not. Rapt spectator, seer entranced under the magic wand of Science, he beholds the billions of billions of miles of incandescent vapour begin a slow, scarce perceptible revolution, gradually grow swift, and gather an awful speed. He sees the vapour, as it whirls, condensing through slow eternities to a plastic fluidity. He notes ring after ring part from the circumference of the mass, break, rush together into a globe, and the glowing ball keep on through space with the speed of its parent bulk. It cools and still cools and condenses, but still fiercely glows. Presently--after tens of thousands of years is the creative presently--arises fierce contention betwixt the glowing heart and its accompanying atmosphere. The latter invades the former with antagonistic element. He listens in his soul, and hears the rush of ever descending torrent rains, with the continuous roaring shock of their evanishment in vapour--to turn again to water in the higher regions, and again rush to the attack upon the citadel of fire. He beholds the slow victory of the water at last, and the great globe, now glooming in a cloak of darkness, covered with a wildly boiling sea--not boiling by figure of speech, under contending forces of wind and tide, but boiling high as the hills to come, with veritable heat. He sees the rise of the wrinkles we call hills and mountains, and from their sides the avalanches of water to the lower levels. He sees race after race of living things appear, as the earth becomes, for each new and higher kind, a passing home; and he watches the succession of terrible convulsions dividing kind from kind, until at length the kind he calls his own arrives. Endless are the visions of material grandeur unfathomable, awaked in his soul by the bare facts of external existence.

But soon comes a change. So far as he can see or learn, all the motion, all the seeming dance, is but a rush for death, a panic flight into the moveless silence. The summer wind, the tropic tornado, the softest tide, the fiercest storm, are alike the tumultuous conflict of forces, rushing, and fighting as they rush, into the arms of eternal negation. On and on they hurry--down and down, to a cold stirless solidity, where wind blows not, water flows not, where the seas are not merely tideless and beat no shores, but frozen cleave with frozen roots to their gulfy basin. All things are on the steep-sloping path to final evanishment, uncreation, non-existence. He is filled with horror--not so much of the dreary end, as at the weary hopelessness of the path thitherward. Then a dim light breaks upon him, and with it a faint hope revives, for he seems to see in all the forms of life, innumerably varied, a spirit rushing upward from death--a something in escape from the terror of the downward cataract, of the rest that knows not peace. "Is it not," he asks, "the soaring of the silver dove of life from its potsherd-bed--the heavenward flight of some higher and incorruptible thing? Is not vitality, revealed in growth, itself an unending resurrection?"

The vision also of the oneness of the universe, ever reappearing through the vapours of question, helps to keep hope alive in him. To find, for instance, the law of the relation of the arrangements of the leaves on differing plants, correspond to the law of the relative distances of the planets in approach to their central sun, wakes in him that hope of a central Will, which alone can justify one ecstatic throb at any seeming loveliness of the universe. For without the hope of such a centre, delight is unreason--a mockery not such as the skeleton at the Egyptian feast, but such rather as a crowned corpse at a feast of skeletons. Life without the higher glory of the unspeakable, the atmosphere of a God, is not life, is not worth living. He would rather cease to be, than walk the dull level of the commonplace--than live the unideal of men in whose company he can take no pleasure--men who are as of a lower race, whom he fain would lift, who will not rise, but for whom as for himself he would cherish the hope they do their best to kill. Those who seem to him great, recognize the unseen--believe the roots of science to be therein hid--regard the bringing forth into sight of the things that are invisible as the end of all Art and every art--judge the true leader of men to be him who leads them closer to the essential facts of their being. Alas for his love and his hope, alas for himself, if the visible should exist for its own sake only!--if the face of a flower means nothing--appeals to no region beyond the scope of the science that would unveil its growth. He cannot believe that its structure exists for the sake of its laws; that would be to build for the sake of its joints a scaffold where no house was to stand. Those who put their faith in Science are trying to live in the scaffold of the house invisible.

Only the Lover Sings: The Secret to Teaching Literature

I have spent my twenty-five years as a teacher further and further refining my purpose, to its present obsessive focus. My animating ambition, the one I live, sleep, and breathe, is to help people learn to love – to love – great literature.

In the span of that time, the task has become only tougher, primarily because of the omnipresence of technology. The quick and ready entertainment, meme and soundbite style content, and constant din of calls for our attention that come with a smartphone in every hand mean it has become increasingly difficult to get anyone to read.

Nevertheless, when my students are in the classroom, held as a captive audience, their devices all turned off and set aside, and we have in our hands one of the beloved books of my carefully chosen curriculum, I still feel an almost infallible power to turn them into thoughtful, eager, and passionate lovers of books.

While I myself am always learning more about what it takes to teach literature well – whether that means conceptualizing techniques that come to me as instinct, or gaining new insights from the world’s great teachers, present and past – I am confident I can name the fundamental principle behind my (perhaps immodest) boast of infallibility.

To be an effective guide and mentor, you must be in love with literature yourself. 

I say “be in love with” rather than “love” to give emphasis to the personal and passionate form the attachment has to take. If familiarity with great books feels to you like some duty of cultural literacy, if the experience of reading is more cerebral than it is of the soul, if the books you teach do not reverberate in the very core of your being, then you are not “in love with” literature.

Most of my memories of studying books in school involve, at best, dry discussions of literary devices, and, at worst, no discussion at all, but only multiple-choice tests to prove I’d done the reading. Almost never do I recall a teacher modeling an earnest emotional investment in the work, and rarely did I myself come to feel that kind of intense and personal connection.

By contrast, someone recently described to me how, as a boy, reading Lord of the Rings had made him desire to be good. He found himself unable to abide the thought of doing anything that, in his mind, would make him a disappointment to heroes like Frodo and Gandalf. That is what it means to be in love with a book. He saw the novel’s theme, he felt its import, and he made it a part of himself.

One of the problems endemic to education is that this love of literature has been lost. We cannot teach that which we are not capable of ourselves. So, if our capacity for that love has atrophied, or was never properly developed, what are we to do?

It is important for me to note here that I myself did not learn to love books until I was in my mid-twenties, and already working as a teacher. I have a vivid memory from my youth of watching a performance of The Miracle Worker and finding it painfully dull. Today, it is painful for me to confess that, because this play has come to stand in my mind for what it means to awaken a child’s soul to “a consciousness of her immortal nature” – to be a teacher, in the truest sense of the word. And after teaching this play every year for two decades, I still cannot read the climactic scene without crying.

My own eyes were first opened when I read Victor Hugo’s novel Ninety-Three aloud to my little group of homeschooled students so many years ago. We were wholly absorbed and focused. We were riveted by the plot. We gasped in chorus at the sudden twists and sighed over sentimental passages. We discussed our reactions as we read, and we worked to decipher Hugo’s message. The experience was as much a life-altering one for me as it was for them.

The point is, even if a passionate approach to literature does not now come naturally to you, it is a skill that can be revived or learned afresh.

  • Connect again with that classic that really made you feel – in love with the aloof Mr. Darcy, awed by the integrity of Atticus, pitying of poor Jane Eyre.
  • Find a mentor. When I discovered a great literature teacher, I consumed every word of his I could, and, afterward, strove to emulate his process. I am now trying to offer mentorship myself through a program called Read With Me, whose mission is “to help people connect emotionally with the classics.”
  • Take a close look at Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? or Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste. Hear the former tell you in impassioned tones why “real reading is reincarnation,” and let the latter explain how literature helps us raise the plane of our existence “to the top level of the peaks.”
  • Recall that reading great books is meant to be a pleasure – not an idle one, but the profoundest kind we can know. Don’t consider a book part of your personal repertoire or eligible for your curriculum until you are able to consume it as a life-enhancing pleasure yourself.

Now, in one sense, a love of literature is only the precondition of effective teaching; it doesn’t give you a process. But it another sense, it is necessary and sufficient.

If you yourself have mastered a book’s meaning, felt its import, and made it a part of yourself, then you will know that all your efforts must be integrated around helping your students do the same. You won’t allow yourself to be distracted by too much talk of literary devices, you won’t be content for your students to prove only a rudimentary grasp of the content, and your discussions won’t be soulless and cerebral. You will be better able to trust your instincts, because you will know, deeply, the purpose you hope to achieve.

With my own faithful repertoire of books I dearly love, I can now be sure that every year a student will, for example, beg to keep her copy of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House so she can share it with a sister, or create a year-long calligraphic log of favorite literary quotes, or declare indignantly that I have ruined her for romance because no man will ever be a Cyrano de Bergerac, or weep with me more than once over scenes in Les Misèrables, or ask for keepsake versions of the books we read for Christmas.

I am in love with these books, and they learn to love them too.