I had done something like this before. In the eighties and early nineties, many people teaching humanities in the universities were debating such questions as, "Should the Western canon be imposed on kids descended from Latin American or African families? Was the 'hegemonic discourse' of the West empowering white elites and disempowering everyone else?" And so on. There was much else in "the curriculum wars," but I do remember wondering, back in the late eighties, how anyone could be hurt by reading a good book. Curious to find out, I worked on a hefty tome that was eventually titled (with great invention) Great Books. For a full academic year (1991-92), I sat with students and teachers at Columbia, my alma mater, and read the College's required selection of Western classics—pretty much the same books I had read as a freshman thirty years earlier.
Great Books, which came out in 1996, was a mixture of elements—my own feverishly happy reading; teachers at work on Homer, St. Augustine, Rousseau, and Virginia Woolf; students struggling with the books, sometimes reading them brilliantly, sometimes not. Great Books was something else as well—a physically placid, middle-aged adventure story. Lucky and generally content as a movie critic, I was nevertheless jangled by too many media images rattling around in my brain. I wanted my head to rattle with other things as well. I needed to go back to school. The ceremony of teaching and learning charmed and fascinated me a great deal. Some of the same things are true for this book, which, in the event, has turned into a kind of prequel. Again, I wanted—needed—to see students and teachers; I needed to read and make a report on my reading. I would sit, listen, keep my mouth shut, talking to students and teachers outside of class when I could. And I would try to be faithful to my impressions and reflections, wherever they led. The billionaires throwing money at such education fixes as smaller schools or charter schools have, many of them, spent little time in classrooms. I am not a teacher, but I have been taught, and I have had some success watching teachers and reporting on what they were doing. As before, I wanted to work from the bottom up, with teachers and students, not from the top down.
The earlier book, in part, became a search for myself, a movie critic who was feeling lost in a welter of media images and needed to read and think seriously again. It was something of a reclamation job. But the point of view of this book is frankly parental. I wanted to see what the students were like and how they were doing intellectually. I decided not to suppress my feelings about them. I would describe them physically (or else they would never come alive on the page) and commit the sin of "judging," always bearing in mind that they were very young. Fifteen-year-olds, through an academic year, develop stems and roots, their cells divide. In particular, I wanted to see if readers could be born—what happens when a nonreader becomes a reader?—which meant necessarily recording the students' mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggled into life. 'If' they struggled into life. Beacon is the setting for much of the book, but not its subject. Reading is the subject, and I read all the books, stories, and essays assigned to the students. As I sat in classes, I continued at my regular job—reviewing movies for the 'New Yorker'—so that something like a normal working life would flow in and out of what I read and saw. Sitting down to write, I resolved not to quote Bacon, Montaigne, Emerson, de Tocqueville, or even John Dewey. Then, and later, I read such well-researched and powerful recent studies as The Knowledge Deficit (2006) by E. D. Hirsch Jr.; Proust and the Squid (2007) by Maryanne Wolf; Alone Together (2011) by Sherry Turkle; Present Shock (2013) by Douglas Rushkoff; Book Love by Penny Kittle, and other works about the intersection of technology, education, and reading. My debt to these authors and many others (I have listed them in the bibliography) is considerable, but in the end I relied principally on my eyes and ears as a limited but still useful set of tools.