The Art of Being Human: What ‘Old Books’ can tell us (and warn us) about living in the 21st century, by Michael S Rose; Angelico Press, December 2022
AFTER reading this book, I felt envious. At my convent boarding school in the 1960s we were never challenged to think beyond the narrow confines and syllabus of the exam boards. Michael Rose, an American headmaster, wrote it as a result of conducting seminars at three Catholic high schools in the States. His students had to annotate, analyse and discuss selected books conveying ‘great ideas’ of literature, such as ‘good and evil; pleasure and pain; virtue and vice; democracy and despotism; war and peace’. They were asked: ‘What does it mean to be human?’
At a time when students are moving from childhood to young adulthood, from the certainties of home to the alternative certainties of their peer group, these fortunate pupils were being guided to grapple with fundamental questions. As we know such questions are being answered by politicians in more or less debased ‘progressive’ fashion all the time. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
Rose found that the most fruitful seminars centred on three books: Frankenstein, Brave New World and 1984. No surprises there. They are rightfully considered classics of dystopian literature. But his pupils were fed a rich and varied diet, including short stories I did not know and which I now want to read. Dividing his book into three parts – Promethean Pursuits, Transhumanist Goals and Totalitarian Dreams – the author includes writings by Robert Louis Stevenson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jonathan Swift, C S Lewis and Ray Bradbury among others.
Every text the students studied is shown to be ‘relatable and relevant to their lives’. Frankenstein (1818) points towards those who seek today to alter the human person ‘through the use of genetic engineering, human cloning, IVF’ and other techniques. Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (1884) raises questions of medical ethics and our regard for the dignity of the human body. Fettes, a medical student, is gradually drawn into the ‘horrible reality’ of how corpses are obtained for medical dissection. Morally weak, he comes to realise ‘that he’s become a member of an elite sacrificial religion’. Stevenson would have recognised our modern age, where research companies purchase aborted babies in order to harvest their parts, a scandal that is barely denied.