Sometimes I find a great curriculum that teaches my children. This time I found something that challenged me to learn more so that I could more effectively discuss literature with my children. The Eternal Argument from Analytical Grammar builds a framework upon which all western literature can be explained. Understanding this framework allows students (and their teachers) to discuss history, literature, and culture in a meaningful way.
Robin Finley, the author of The Eternal Argument, says that the material is intended for all ages, but it would be most appreciated by teenagers and adults. With that description, I thought it would be an easy read, especially since I enjoy literature studies.
It wasn't nearly as easy to read as I had expected. Finley does an excellent job of explaining difficult concepts in an understandable way, and I followed along fairly easily as she defined a literary theistic viewpoint and contrasted it with a literary humanistic view. Understanding the definitions, however, is a lot different than trying to think through them and apply them to various famous pieces of literature.
Much of the book was spent discussing the historical, philosophical, and cultural forces at play during different periods of time and how those factors influence the prevailing worldview. The author walks the reader through an overview of history starting from the Biblical account of creation and hits the highlights up through the twentieth century. For instance, Romanticism grew out of the Industrial Revolution which began in the 1700s. As people moved into the cities, they sensed a lesser dependence on God and became more humanistic in their view of life. In other words, they believed that man is in control of his own destiny and that mankind in general is perfectible.
Several famous literary works are referred to in The Eternal Argument. I was familiar with only a few of the pieces and relied on the author's summary for the others. Since these works were used to illustrate and further explain the literary viewpoint of a particular period in history, it was difficult for me to fully understand the worldview concepts as it related to that story and that period of time. I found it hard to come to meaningful conclusions when I only had a short synopsis to go by.
I came to realize that my struggle to come to conclusions was beneficial in a way. Finley doesn't put forth many answers to the questions she asks in the book. Her intent seems to be to ask questions and make the reader think through the concepts. By thinking through the material, I gained a better understanding and started to see how I could participate in a literary discussion to determine the worldview of a particular piece of literature. The whole point is that literary analysis doesn't often have right versus wrong answers; literary analysis is more concerned with the thinking process of coming to conclusions and then supporting them.
Addison, my literature-loving high schooler, says that the most useful chapter she read was the one about the western literature platform. It was especially helpful to see that most literary allusions come either from the King James version of the Bible or classical mythology. In fact, she added several books to her reading list so that she can brush up on her classical knowledge and be better able to recognize allusions when reading modern works.
Addison is still working her way through the book, but I can tell that it is already changing the way that we can discuss literature. Since both of us are fairly well read and like arguing about abstract concepts, it was no surprise that we spent our commute across town this morning discussing which worldview was predominant in Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables.
The Eternal Argument is available from Analytical Grammar for $24.95. I think it would be most helpful for high school students interested in literature and parents who would be discussing classic works with them.