When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t much like lecture classes.
Listening to a lecture seemed to me an awfully inefficient way of
getting the information I wanted. Just give me a book! I’ll
learn a lot more in an hour’s reading than I ever will listening
to a lecturer. Besides, even if the speaker is excellent (and
most aren’t), it’s hard to listen to anyone talk more than
30 minutes or so without getting bored.
Now following the principle of “do unto others,” I probably
shouldn’t base my classes so much on lectures. The odd
thing is that most of my students have exactly the reverse
opinion. They like the lecture format! Many of them would
prefer that everything was lecture-based and that they didn’t
have to do any reading at all. I am amazed at the number of
students who never even look at the relevant pages in the Chodorow
text—pages that I would have found more helpful than any lecture.
Much less surprising to me is the difficulty students often have with
primary sources. Even students who like to read sometimes find
primary sources tough going.
A few years ago, my daughter Miranda took my Western Civilization II
class. Miranda is a bright student, and she reads
everything. In junior high, she was reading Dostoyevsky and
Tolstoy for fun. Certainly a student like this would love things
Descartes’ Discourse on Method, right? Wrong. She was
furious with me for making her read the Discourse.
Her quiz was a diatribe against Descartes, basically telling me the guy
made no sense at all. And for months, if I so much as mentioned
Descartes, I’d get from her a rant on how absolutely awful the
Now, over the years, I’ve discarded readings that students found
too difficult to manage on their own. But despite the fact that the
Discourse on Method is frustrating even for very good students, I still
assign Descartes and probably always will.
I do this because Discourse on Method really is a great welcome to
college, and a great way to welcome you to something that really is
enjoyable, interesting and important. And if you didn’t
find it interesting and enjoyable, well maybe that’s because you
don’t yet know how to read.
“Of course I know how to read! I learned in
Kindergarten.” Well, yes. But reading at the college
level often means learning to read all over again. You see, up to
this point, unless you were in accelerated classes, many, if not all,
of your high school reading assignments were deliberately dumbed
down. Textbook companies are under pressure to produce texts that
require no more than an 8th grade reading level, and so very rarely did
you end up reading anything really challenging.
But, from here on out, you won’t get much that’s dumbed
down, and, for some of you, it’s time for a quantum leap in
reading ability, and you’ll have to adopt different strategies
than you usually used in high school.
If you are struggling at this point, a good recipe for success is to
adopt the PSQ5R strategy for approaching your readings. PSQ5R is
an eight-step method that works well for most college-level
books. Here’s how to use PSQ5R techniques in
approaching Discourse on Method:
Why are you reading this?
At the specific level ask: What is your professor expecting you to do
with what you get from the reading? With Descartes, you’ll
be asked for a quiz on Descartes to show you’ve done the reading
and, eventually, you might be asked an essay question on Descartes,
Pascal and Bacon. This is important, because it might save you
lots of time. Do you read a whole phone book if what you’re
looking for is one number??? To be successful with college
readings, you should always figure out the purpose of your reading
assignment so you know how closely to read.
At the general level ask: Why is this important at all? Why is
the author writing? And where does this book fit into the great
What great conversation? You see, what college is about, at least
in part, is to introduce you to a great conversation that began more
than 5000 years ago. The conversation includes every topic
imaginable: politics, religion, male and female roles, economics,
truth, justice: the whole realm of human experience. It really is
a wonderful conversation (nicely summarized, by the way,
in Thorton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth. Remind me to read this to
you in class).
So how can you be ready to take part in the Great Coversation?
Well, it’s nice to have help. I got lots of help from my
dad and my friends and from some occasional high school
teachers—and I hope that I can help you somewhat. But, no
matter who helps you, you’re going to have to do a lot of hard
work on your own if you’re really going to get up to speed.
Descartes (and the 16th and 17th centuries in general) is a fairly good
start because, to a certain extent, the conversation starts over again
It helps a lot to get a quick overview of a reading assignment right at
the outset. Tables of contents, introductions, opening
paragraphs, and closing paragraphs often really help. Notice what
Descartes does for you right at the beginning of his essay, telling you
exactly where he is going with the whole thing.
It’s often very helpful to formulate for yourself a series of
questions before you approach the reading. Notice that I usually
do this for you, giving you a series of study questions for each
assignment. Formulating a question helps you focus and helps make
sure you get out of the reading what you are supposed to.
• Read selectively
Most students have a natural tendency to just start at the beginning of
an assignment and read straight through to the end. In the Voyage
of the Dawn Treader, Lucy has to approach a magic book in this
way—the Duffers having no idea that there is any other way to
approach a book.
Don’t be a Duffer! It’s not cheating to skip portions
of an assignment. Learn to pick out what you really need.
Sometimes, it won’t be all that much! There are times when
there really isn’t any purpose in doing much more than
skimming. There are times when the author’s contributions
to the great conversation aren’t very useful to you. I
don’t bother much with Spinoza, for instance. He’s making
assumptions I’m pretty much sure are invalid, I know why
he’s making those assumptions already, and there’s not much
point in my spending a lot of time here.
Unfortunately for you, with much of what you look at, you’re not
yet able to really judge what will be useful to you and what will
not. What are now some of my very favorite works caused me
problems at first—particularly Greek drama. Be very careful
at this point not to dismiss great works too quickly. Better to
act on the assumption that there’s probably something really
great there that you’re not quite seeing yet! If a
professor is any good, however, you’ll usually be able to tell by
the end of the course if a book is worth looking at again. (And,
by the way, don’t sell back your education! Keep your
With anything you’ve read, see if you can summarize the material
(or, at least, answer your initial question) in your own words.
Jot down your recitation, or make an outline of what you’ve
learned. This process really helps you retain what you’ve
learned. Also, it’s very helpful to underline
important/striking passages and make marginal notes that will help you
remember important ideas.
Discourse on Method is great practice. What should be marked,
highlighted, or noted in this book?
You will remember material far better if you think about it and react
to it even in a negative way. Miranda’s diatribe against
Descartes was a perfect way for her to remember what he said. Or
consider today’s lecture: This idiot combined math and history in
the same class. He put a circle on the board that I
couldn’t read. He said some incomprehensible thing about
the argument from design that no one could possibly be expected to
understand. And he wanted us to laugh at a stupid joke that said
mathematical proofs took a long time, were absolutely right, and
The point is that you don’t want to be a passive receiver of
information. Complete processing and retention of information
requires you do something with it—and waiting until exam time is
often too late.
You will, by the way, be amazed at how much better you learn if
you’ll talk about readings, lectures, etc. outside of
class—even if it’s just to complain about them.
Come back from time to time and review your notes, marginal notes,
highlighted passages, etc.