Examining Worldviews in American Literature is a challenging, year-long high school course that is presented in a 278-page PDF guide. The course requires students to read a number of literary works, and you will need to acquire many of them on your own. Some of them are available online since they are in the public domain, some of the shorter literary works are included within the guide itself, and seven of the shorter readings are provided in a separate, free PDF that you get when you purchase the course.
The author, Marie MacPherson, describes the course as written from a conservative Lutheran perspective (p. 5). For instance, in the course she refers to salvation by faith alone and to the efficacy of sacraments (rather than treating them as mere symbols). Even with such theological distinctions, the course should be usable for most Christian students. Theological differences might provide opportunities for fruitful discussion.
The course uses non-Christian literary works, but students will study and analyze them from a Christian worldview with the lesson material in the guide. (This study is not a good choice for those who are not interested in exposing students to a Christian worldview.) The literary works used in this course are often encountered in other American Literature courses. They include works such as The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Fahrenheit 451, and “The Gettysburg Address.” This course will partially prepare students for the CLEP American Literature and AP English Literature exams.
Here is my slightly rewritten version of the course description that McPherson provides in her book:
American Literature (1 Credit): The student will survey American literature from the time of the Native Americans through the colonial, romantic, transcendentalist, and modern periods. The course discusses the development of American literature as a genre using novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. The course places special emphasis on comparing and contrasting the works of several well-known authors, such as Hawthorne and Hemingway, as well as lesser-known yet impactful minority authors, such as Potok and Angelou. The student will complete a research paper and exam for each of seven units as well as a cumulative final exam. Emphasis is given to the application of Christian discernment when analyzing American literature.
Students need to be fluent readers to handle the amount of reading, and they should already have a foundation in literary analysis. They are expected, for instance, to be able to summarize the plot of a book without assistance. Students can be allowed to use sparknotes.com or other resources if they need help.
MacPherson advises us that another prerequisite is familiarity “with the contents of Luther’s Small Catechism, including the 6th Commandment, as well as information about sexuality, adultery, and fornication” (p. 6). These sexual themes arise frequently in the assigned books, so students are expected to understand the terminology. (Students might be familiar with these topics through other sources than Luther’s Small Catechism.)
How the Course Works
The course is divided into seven units that present the literary works in approximate chronological order. For each unit, students will read two entire books, read a few briefer works (poems, plays, and short stories), write an essay, and take an exam. They might also complete one or more of the optional activities.
The course should require about 150 hours to complete, but the time required will vary for each student. To make the course easier, parents might choose to omit some readings, possibly assigning an optional activity in place of one of the novels or other readings in a unit. The essay assignments often require students to compare two or more of the literary works in some fashion. Since students are given a number of essay topics from which to choose for each unit, eliminating any assigned readings might mean also eliminating some potential essay topics. On the other hand, to make the course more challenging, parents can assign more of the optional activities or additional reading from the “For Further Reading” sections. (The course description would need to be altered to reflect adaptations.)
The guide introduces each unit with a list of the literary works to be read. Sometimes the lessons specify excerpts from the shorter works that can be read in place of the entire work. For each unit, immediately after the list of readings are the essay topics and the optional activities. Optional activities might include memorization, map work, geography study, research, art projects, creation of a slide show, or music appreciation. Next, MacPherson provides a timeline for the period covered by the literary works in the unit, and then she presents a brief overview of how these literary works fit into their historical and cultural context.
After the introductory material for each unit, MacPherson provides detailed study material for each novel. This material includes a scripture passage related to the literary work, an overview of the work, historical information (if appropriate), and key themes. The two novels will be studied first, and the reading for each novel is broken down into sections. For each section, MacPherson provides a list of vocabulary words and their definitions, telling students to highlight these words as they read them in the literary work. Following this is MacPherson’s commentary and instruction on literary devices, worldview issues, and other topics that students will encounter in the assigned reading. (Just a few of the worldview issues raised in this course are in regard to slavery, superstitions and spiritual discernment, sexual relationships outside of marriage, the nature of sin, attitudes toward suicide, conflicts between the authority of church and state, capitalism and other economic systems, workers’ unions, and the differences between man and animals.) After the commentary, MacPherson adds a few selected quotes from the reading.
There will be a number of such sections for each novel. The study of each novel concludes with a “Life Application” that MacPherson bases on the reading and a short, annotated list of additional books students might want to read. For some of the assigned novels, MacPherson adds a short commentary titled “After Finishing the Book.”
Study of a few of the shorter readings from poems, plays, and short stories follows after the studies of the two novels in each unit. Sometimes the actual reading material is included within the guide. The commentary and helpful information for the shorter readings are much briefer.
Students work independently for the most part, but the course guide encourages parents to discuss the reading material with students. While no specific discussion questions are provided, you might use some of the essay topics for that purpose. (This might help students solidify their thinking about which topic to address for their essay.) However, parents who aren’t familiar with the literature are likely to have a hard time participating in such discussions.
Other important resources are at the back of the book. The first of these is a checklist that can be used by both students and parents to keep track of the assignments. An essay rubric lets students know how their essays will be graded on content, spelling, grammar, length, style, organization, the use of other sources and reference material. (If parents are not familiar with the literary works, they might have trouble evaluating the content of student essays, but they should be able to evaluate the other elements.) Seven unit exams all include both matching and short-essay questions. The final exam has only four sets of matching-column questions. The answer keys that follow the exams include suggested responses for the short-essay questions. Parents will probably want to provide students with a copy of the entire study guide except for the exams and answer keys.
Examining Worldviews in American Literature provides students with an excellent selection of classic literature along with helpful study material and writing assignments. So this is an excellent course academically. In addition, many homeschooling families will greatly appreciate the presentation of worldview issues that can help students evaluate and think through their own beliefs and attitudes. Even if you don’t agree with every point of MacPherson’s theology, the issues she raises are worth consideration.