In September 1958, 109 other students and I started as freshman at the Bronx High School of Science. In March of that year, William Faulkner had given a speech at Princeton where he warned that schools were becoming “baby sitting organizations.” Nobody told Mr. Hoffman.
Irwin Hoffman was our freshman English teacher. We read a book a week for his class. Actually that’s not accurate. We got two weeks each for David Copperfield and Moby Dick. And oh, by the way, we read the whole Moby Dick, not those abbreviated versions that leave out the history and technology of whaling.
We didn’t just read a book a week, we wrote papers on the books, and we discussed them. Mr. Hoffman expected you to know the basics, what he called “who kicked whom in the belly.” Then he expected you to think about the book and form opinions and be ready to defend them.
We read some challenging books in Mr. Hoffman’s class. In addition to David Copperfield and Moby Dick there was Hiroshima and Souls of Black Folk. Our class read and discussed Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, The Scarlet Letter, and The Red Badge of Courage. I don’t remember the names of all the books, but I remember the experience.
Every week we read and discussed another book. Every book was good. Many of them opened up whole new worlds. Analyzing and discussing them was a living example of what education should be. At least for me it set the pattern for a lifetime.
Today, more than half a century after I sat in Mr. Hoffman’s class I read like he’s still challenging me. Read this! What do you think? The idea was that reading could stretch you, help you grow, help you become more than you were. Reading was the way to real education.
Today is World Book Day. Here’s the World Book Day Irwin Hoffman Challenge.
For the next four weeks, read a book every week that you’ve always wanted to read. Or, read a book that’s on your personal list of books you “should” read.
Read those books like Mr. Hoffman is your teacher. He’s going to ask you questions to make sure you know “who kicked whom in the belly.” Then he’ll ask you what you think.
Reading a good book every week, or even every month, will change your life. It changed mine.