Education | 7 Minutes

How Reading the Great Books Prepares Students for Standardized Tests in Incredible Ways

Written by Ty Fisher
How Reading the Great Books Prepares Students for Standardized Tests in Incredible Ways

There is nothing good about a root canal. Once, when I was much younger and even more stubborn and spend-thrift, I learned the meaning of this very statement. I went to the dentist because one of my teeth were aching, only to discover I needed a root canal. When the dentist told me the price, I exclaimed to my dentist, “Well, if that is how much a root canal costs then I am not going to have one!” 

He smiled in the way that a parent smiles when a young kid declares that they are not going to eat dinner unless they can have pizza. My dentist knew that my resistance was a weak façade that the pain of my root canal would inevitably destroy, and so he calmly said, “That’s fine, but if you leave now, you will be back later today or tomorrow. Count on it.” 

He was completely right. The pain eventually became overwhelming and I did, indeed, go back with my tail between my legs, ready to pay whatever price he offered. 

Standardized testing is part of life—sort of like a root canal—unavoidable and painful. You might not like the testing. You might, like me, think that our country puts too much stock in these sorts of tests. You might, like Malcolm Gladwell and I, question if these tests are even good indicators of college success. That’s fine. These tests, however, are still coming for most students. Like it or not, these tests stand between high school students and the studies that they wish to do in college. So, like the root canal, it is best to get through it and to figure out the wisest path through it. 

Many people spend lots of money preparing for these tests. This investment might be wise considering the money, scholarships, and opportunities students can receive from the test, but I wanted to point out another strategy that many parents and students miss: The Great Books advocated in Omnibus can be an ideal way to prepare for the Critical Reading section of popular standardized tests, saving you time and money in your preparation for these tests. Here’s why: 

The Great Books Expect You to Think

This might sound weird, but let’s start by recognizing that much that is written in our culture today does NOT have high expectations for readers. Much of what passes for intellectual discussion is little more than propaganda or dogmatic prattle. 

Not so with Great Books. They have a high view of the reader. They believe that readers can follow complex ideas and that the author doesn’t have to hold their hand and lead them to conclusions. A great example of this is the The Divine Comedy. Dante’s Comedy is immensely complex. (I warn my students before they read it that they might not get a lot out of it during their first few reads.) One particular example of how Dante expects you to think is: Dante looks into the sky and describes the position of the stars. He expects readers to know the day and time of day because of this hint. These high expectations call us to greater effort. The Great Books call us to discipline our minds to learn how to wrap our heads around difficult ideas. This discipline helps Great Books students succeed on standardized tests. 

The Content of the Great Books is Worthy of your Attention

The Great Books also speak to us on a very deep level about the most important events of history and the most important ideas imaginable, which, if you are truly reading them, helps develop your analysis skills. They call us back to work through them and drink them in deeply. This habit of reading thoroughly helps students unlock the meaning of lesser texts. The Greatest Book, the Bible, is of course the best example of this. Many Christians spend time in God’s Word every day. I try to. Even though I read it every day, I am consistently amazed by how often I find a new facet of some truth, a new angle on some story, or a new insight. My mind is being formed by the text and by wrestling with the text; I am learning to see the meaning in the text. This is perfect preparation for the Critical Reading section’s questions which require the student to interpret text or parts within a text.  

The Great Books Reward You for Paying Attention to Details and Broader Ideas

The Critical Reading assessment also asks students to interpret details within texts. The Great Books reward this sort of reading. Take for instance Thomas Hobbes book Leviathan. In it, he argues for a powerful government not because he wants to push mankind toward some “greatest good”, but because he wants to avoid the state of nature where every man is at war with every other man. In this sort of world according to Hobbes, life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Reading books like Leviathan and understanding how famous phrases fit into a broader context is superb training for questions on standardized tests that ask students to make connections and that require them to understand evidence in a text for an idea. 

The Great Books Require Readers to Draw Inferences

Again, The Great Books stand the test of time not because they are easy but because they require much of us. Jane Austen’s works stand out in this arena. Most of the meaning in Austen is found between the words. To understand what she is saying the reader has to think about how one phrase sheds light on other ideas. Everything is connected, and Austen trains us to see connections. Flannery O’Connor’s writing are also strong on this point. She rarely tells the reader the moral of the story, letting it remain up to the reader on how they interpret it. When standardized tests require students to draw inferences from texts, the readers of Austen and O’Connor will have a distinct advantage because they have already been trained in how to read between the lines and make inferences. 

The Great Books Provide Words that are Worthy of Intense Repeated Study (Which Builds Standardized Testing Muscle) 

I love movies, but there are very few movies I have watched more than once. Most don’t merit further examination even if they were ones that I really liked. Why? Because most good movies are like ice cream, meant to be sweet and satisfying, but fully consumable at a sitting. Most movies are not great…but a few are. Recently, I have been watching some of my favorite movies with my teenage daughters because, shockingly, they have not seen the movies of the 80’s and 90’s. Many of these movies don’t stand the test of time. Some, like the Godfather or even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, are even better when you watch them again. 

The Great Books are like this. They grow more powerful as we re-examine them. Take the Iliad as an example. Unlike the Odyssey, Homer’s rollicking story of Odysseus’s journey home, the Iliad is an acquired taste, but it is a taste so worth acquiring. (To be fair to Odysseus, the deeper ideas of his epic are unlocked as you grow older.) The Iliad was harder for me to enjoy initially, but as I was pulled into the doomed glory of Achilles and his rage, I found myself drawn more deeply into the text. This sort of repeated, deep readings grows the reader’s reading “muscles”. This is perfect training for standardized testing.   

In conclusion, there are many reasons to be read the Great Books. There are many reasons that are more important than the positive impact that they will have on readers’ standardized test scores, but reading the Great Books is an excellent way to prepare for the Critical Reading skills that are tested on standardized tests. 

(As a side note, I want to praise one standardized test in particular. The newest test, the Classical Learning Test, is a superb test. It uses classic texts instead of novel or obscure texts. I think the creation of this test is a step in the right direction and I am very grateful to the people who made it.)