October 14, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
What does it mean to be “literate”? Does literate imply any act of understanding or, even more, of critical thinking, or does it simply mean that one can read physical text?
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler differentiates between elementary, intermediate and advanced levels of reading. Adler explains that good readers read with concentration. Yet those of us (many of us “good readers”) know the experience of daydreams and a wandering mind or the desire for an “easy” read. Adler explains that comprehension comes only from attention and analytical reading. So, while we may be automatically reading text on a page when daydreaming, we certainly aren’t gaining any ideas. In a light work (however you define the term “light”), the mind may wander and return, wander and return, and little is lost from the experience. However, this is not possible in dense works. For example, Adler points to the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. He explains: “[I]ndividual words in the famous second paragraph – words like ‘inalienable,’ ‘rights,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘happiness,’ ‘consent,’ ‘just powers’ – are worth puzzling over, puzzling about, considering at length. Properly read, for full comprehension, those first two paragraphs of the Declaration might require days, or weeks, or even years.”
The truth is that reading for comprehension is incredibly complex, and even changes as we age. For me, many of those words, rights and happiness, etc, mean something different now than they did when I was fifteen or twenty. Developing self-awareness is critical for comprehension. It is important to understand how our ideas evolve because, even if we are not aware of it, they undoubtedly are changing. Even answers to Adler’s four basic questions evolve as we age. His four basic questions are: 1] What is the book about?; 2] What is being said in detail, and how?; 3] Is the book true in whole or in part?; 4] What of it? Or what is the significance of it?
These four questions address distinctions between various types of questions that we use to analyze a text.
First, we have literal questions. These relate to the facts of the work. They ask who, what, when and where. The answers to literal questions should be straightforward and agreed upon.
Second, interpretive questions allow us to better understand ambiguity. Many instances of a text might have more than one answer. If this is true, then interpretive questions will help you to identify a variety of possible meanings. Not all answers are correct, however, because the answers depend upon the text. For example, one can ask why a character acts in a specific way. The answer requires textual evidence, but may be any number of possibilities.
Next, we can evaluate a text. Evaluative questions ask us to fix a value or meaning to the work. Do we agree or disagree with the author’s statement, for example. Can we apply the author’s ideas to our contemporary or historical world? These questions help us to compare and judge the meaning of a work, which enables us to understand the author’s lens, biases, and argument, especially as it juxtaposes our own. Since they depend upon opinion, the answers can vary with each individual. Furthermore, evaluative questions are best asked after interpretive questions which explore the text in meaningful ways. Interpretive questions give the text depth and meaning, the evaluative questions then help to place those ideas into our world.
Finally, universal questions attempt to comprehend complex ideas in terms of various arguments or works or cultures. These questions look for keys to human nature, identity, or structure. The universal questions ask what might follow from a particular argument. How might this argument affect the world, etc.
Asking questions of our world, our texts and ourselves means that we actively participate in the world. If we seek to be virtuous and valuable, then active curiosity may be our best assistant.
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