Last month on CBC Ideas they did a documentary on Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize winning author. (étranger-1.4439630 ). He was an interesting character. I learned things I never knew about him. His opposition to capitol punishment. His connection to Algeria. How he died in 1960 almost exactly one year before I was born. I knew none of this, and that is the most disturbing part.

You see in high school we read The Stranger. I hated it. It was dark and confusing and just unpleasant in every way. I slogged my way through it, took the test and went on to other things. The core issue I now realize wasn’t the book. The problem was how it was presented. It was just another book by some french guy that we had to read. In class we discussed novels, the theory, the form, other writers, the history. We had no context, no history, no explanation of The Stranger. It was just a book we had to slog through outside of class and take a test. Can you think of any better way to get people to hate a book or a subject than to dump it on them with no explanation? If I had known who Camus was, that would have made all the difference. Heck, it was 1977 and I was 15. Maybe tell me where Algeria was and why it was so important to France. Then I might have gotten a lot more out of The Stranger. But they didn’t so it was just another hard, unpleasant thing we had to do to graduate.

It was not the material that was at fault. It was how the material was being presented. When you are dealing with young readers you can’t just tell them it’s a classic and assume they will love it. You have to hold their hand, answer their questions, keep the book in context. Explain where the writer is coming from. It’s very easy to forget what it’s like not to know the background, the context of what you’re teaching. The history of an author and a book is intrinsic to the work. For each student it is your one and only opportunity as the teacher to have them get it, to understand, to appreciate what you’re teaching. You’ve got to make sure that they get the context, the history, the beauty of the subject.

Did you know that JRR Tolkien was a foot soldier in World War One? Much of what he wrote for the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings, especially in The Two Towers, came from what he saw in the trenches and on no-mans-land in France. Hand to hand, knife and bayonet, slipping in the mud, and killing to save your own life. The Battle of Helms Deep, The siege of Minus Tirith, and carnage in the alleyways of Osgiliath were shaped by his experiences. Tolkien just replaced knife and bayonet and pistol with sward, and spear, and bow. When Frodo says “It’s a pity that Bilbo didn’t stab him (Gollum) when he had the chance” and Gandalf replies “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?” you know this was a conversation he had, with himself and with others, during those terrible days on the planes of France. It puts the whole book in a different light.

When I was in high school I had a chance to see this from both sides. First I took a Shakespeare class. It was awful. We read the plays aloud, got stuck on the words, got lost in the characters, and muddled our way through. I hated Shakespeare. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Then a year later the Public Broadcasting Service in America started running good quality performances of Shakespeare plays, one a month if I remember correctly. Suddenly, Midsummer Nights Dream, A Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, Henry the Fifth, Macbeth, all came ALIVE. They made sense. The odd words I struggled with just disappeared. I somehow just knew what they meant when said in context. They also introduced each play with a brief explanation of the history, and covering the more difficult parts. The beauty and grace were there to be seen. The meaning was clear. The play was not dead words on a page it was ALIVE. I learned more watching the plays on TV than I ever did in a whole term sitting in my Shakespeare class.

And I guess that’s the point. If you are teaching a subject, literature, mathematics, chemistry, history, whatever, you have to make sure it comes ALIVE. You have to make sure the students see the beauty of it. The excitement of it. You studied the subject for a reason. Transmit that passion to your students. The subject is not numbers, and formula, and words, and data. It is the beauty, the grandeur. That is what you are teaching. The details are just the scaffolding to display that.

Teach the passion and the details will follow.