To his own surprise and much public debate, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 and just released his corresponding public lecture. In it, he cites works of classic literature as his inspiration and source material.
When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.
But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.
Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
Unfortunately, Dylan’s reminiscences of what constitutes “typical grammar school reading” may have been standard when he was a child in the 1950s, but it is no longer today. Young Americans would be lucky if they read even a few of these books by the end of college. As Dr. Sandra Stotsky and others have chronicled through meticulous research, the typical American curriculum, both in public and private schools, has become less challenging, less focused on classic literature despite its greater contributions to developing children’s souls and intellect, and less common across schools. This has many consequences, including a loss of cultural unity, common understandings, and purpose.
This is one of the major cultural deficits Redeemer Classical School aims to address. Our students read selections of “Don Quixote,” “The Odyssey,” and “Gulliver’s Travels” in grade school, and the entire works plus “The Odyssey,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” and “Robinson Crusoe” by graduation. Our students also learn, starting in their first week, American and Western folk songs like those that inspired Dylan and developed his musicality.
These works have stood the test of time as great literature that develops character and intellect, which are the basis for maintaining a free society. That more schools do not do so is a major loss to American society in many ways, not least that it diminishes the likelihood we will all get to enjoy and understand poets like Bob Dylan, and that deeply influential artists like him will exist at all.