The Death of the Classics

On the volumes written on the subject of education in the past 40 years, one strain has focused on the death of the so-called “classical education.” Through antiquity to perhaps 50 years ago, students studied the Classics. These Classics are the works of Ancient Greek and Roman writers, the foundation of Western literature and philosophy. Rapid changes and progressive knowledge have made much of this learning and writing dated and less relevant than they were to people before the Industrial Revolution. But what have we lost as a society and culture by not reading the “Classics”?

Critics of the death of the classical education point to the dearth of analysis and inference-based thinking in modern education – skills championed by reading the great authors of the past. But there are other aspects of the death of the classical education that strike me as relevant, especially as a lover of history. An unbroken chain of references, counterpoint, rebuttal, synthesis, and genesis have been violently severed in recent years.

Understanding our current moral and political debates without the guide of history and the Classics is almost impossible. Lack of imagination, of an understanding of the history of radical change and great thought, is perhaps responsible for some of our political dysfunction in the present moment in the United States. A reverence for the Constitution, but no understanding of how those ideas were formulated, is deleterious to a progressive and effective politics.

Great works of literature that could point to the Iliad and Odyssey as their spiritual and contextual predecessors are rendered foreign and unintelligible by an uncomprehending populace. General narrative structure for novels, plays, movies, and non-fiction works all owe their form to their predecessors. More than that, most great works up until the recent era have spoken and argued with the great thinkers of the classics. Many of those works survived by luck, but also by a kind of intellectual natural selection. Great works were copied and reproduced and emulated because they were recognized as being great works. Unmoored works produced in the recent era by those uneducated in the Classics run the risk of being intellectually inefficient, they may rehash old arguments and reinvent the wheel without producing original works. Historical references to the great moral dilemmas, matters of state, and war are lost and must be learned again without thoughtful guides.

Another, perhaps trivial matter, is what I would term the loss of Churchillian Moments. Someone well-read in Thucydides or Herodotus might recognize the importance of a historical turning point as its happening. Sensing pivotal moments, some leaders of the past knew they would be playing to history and therefore took altruistic, ruthless, and massive efforts to move public opinion or undertake certain actions. Winston Churchill, during the period leading up to World War 2, and during the War, made repeated references to the great victories and achievements of the past. Great Greek and Roman battles were his guide and he reacted with ferocity to any attempt to surrender to Nazi Germany because he understood how Britain would be viewed by history for its stubborn defense. For instance, if a great political challenge, like reacting to climate change, was undertaken in a historical context – that is, as if it were going to be read about like we read about the Fall of the Roman Republic, politicians might well stake everything on finding a solution.

Dynamic education, education that effects the processes by which people learn, understand, and make decisions, is important. But so is the material itself. STEM’s ascendancy does not eliminate learning about history, philosophy, and politics. We should make sure that if we are replacing the Classics that there is an understanding of what we are discarding.

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