Miss Hedrick began reading Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to us on the first day of class. Every day, right after she took roll, she read a little more. I began to look forward to it and to this day, I can recite the beginning of that great novel from one of our greatest writers. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I deliberately identified Charles Dickens as one of “our” writers. For you see, our nation began when the colonists came from England to occupy our east coast. The language and the literature they brought with them was the English language and the British writers of that and of an earlier time: Shakespeare, Marlow, Jonson. It is from this period we have the most literarily satisfying translation, The King James Authorized Version that was published about the same time as the Common Book of Prayer. Yes, I’m aware that there are translation flaws in the KJV, but for sheer poetic beauty, it stands out above all others. I do not recommend it as a Bible for close study, but I do recommend it for public reading, that is if you know how to read poetry aloud. Most of the Old Testament is poetry beginning with Genesis 1:1, and besides that I like to say that is the way God sounds when he reads the Bible.
I am partial to the 19th century British novels. I love reading Thackeray, Arnold, Eliot, the Bronte sisters and more, but most of all I love to read Charles Dickens. I don’t know how old I was when I first read The Tale of Two Cities or David Copperfield or A Christmas Carol.
I must have been about nine or ten years old when I heard someone for the first time say, “Bah. Humbug.” The 1951 British black and white movie “A Christmas Carol” starring Alastair Sims as Scrooge became the prototype against which all future versions of this timeless story in film will be held. We learn through this story what it means to be greedy to the point of stinginess. We learn family devotion when we see Tiny Tim riding on his daddy’s shoulders around the house and through the snow covered streets of London. We learn that our peccadilloes will haunt us if we don’t mend our ways, and at the end of the story we learn that redemption can occur in even the hardest of hearts.
Dickens along with countless other British and American writers, yes, and writers from even more ancient times and from other places — Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Cervantes — have guided our paths as human beings bound together as a society. Ancient and primitive story tellers have held prominent positions in great and lesser cultures. Even today, the great Native American nation of the Cherokee has a story teller whose task it is to know and be able to recite the stories of that great people and to train the next generation of story tellers. Story tellers help us to understand who we are. Stories help us understand what noble characteristics we should strive for: bravery, compassion, generosity, loyalty and more. And they tell us what characteristics we should shun: cowardice, greed, back-stabbing, lying, following the crowd, and more.
And now we learn that Common Core study of literature has been watered down. There is no Dickens and little Mark Twain. In fact, literature has been partially misplaced by “Informational Reading.” I remember in my last years of teaching actively being absolutely stunned by students who had no notion of what I was saying if I said, “You can be a David to the world’s Goliaths.” No biblical reference at all. I began testing them to see just what biblical allusions they didn’t understand. There were many. But still, I knew I could sneak some in through the literature of the British and American writers of from Shakespeare to the present. Now, I don’t hold out much hope for their understanding of our heritage through story telling or by any other method. And that’s too bad!
Read a December 16th article entitled “‘Bah! Humbug!’: a Dickens-less Christmas from the Scrooges of Common Core by Terrence Moore in Townhall.com for a priceless and deeper examination of this topic.