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 Historical references to the great moral dilemmas, matters of state, and war are lost and must be learned again without thoughtful guides.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.

The Destruction of the Western Canon: The Unnoticed Casualty of Progress

Modernity’s movement of inclusiveness is reversing monstrous injustices. Old, white, male intellectuals and artists are rightly downgraded in importance and their authoritativeness disavowed in the face of modern writers and artists from marginalized communities. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is the destruction of history. A thread of thoughts and a conversation can be stretched from Homer to Cicero to Pope to Orwell but then slowly is thinned into nonexistence. What happens when we no longer value the ideals and conversations that have formed Western Culture? The values of justice, individualism, freedom of thought, and political thought have all sprung from the Western Canon. Numerous individuals and artists were enriched from their participation and examination of those works. It is ironic that a white, Western, male-dominated strain of thought that centered on the superiority of logic and on the equality of mankind has undermined the august position of the progenitors of those ideals.

A sad fact is that minorities in Western society fundamentally lack power. Many gains made by minorities in the realms of social justice and equality are, in fact, granted by the majority. In much the same way, works reacting to the dominance of the white patriarchy are derivative of that same system of thought. If artists truly want to break from current power structures, radical, original art must be produced AND disseminated from sources that are entirely minority. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” has generally been viewed as a pop-cultural piece rooted in minority experience, but it is promoted and released through corporate structures that are largely owned by white males.

If the Western Canon is to be disavowed, a new, radical minority-driven Canon should replace it with original thought and ideals, instead of being a reaction, there must be creation as well as destruction. If this does not occur then we will have abandoned the good of Western culture while disposing of the evil without actively replacing the missing virtues.

Shakespeare Quotes and the Bull-Moose Party

On the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death I think it is appropriate to delve into the bard’s almost -sacred texts and present you with some of his finest wisdom: This above all: to thine ownself be true.

The only problem with this quote is that it is intended to show what a hypocritical blowhard Polonius is, as he spouts platitudes to his children and describes values that he clearly does not share. The point is that we forget context. When we reach into the multitudinous past of history and literature we try to find kernels of truth and sage advice that we can apply to the here and now. But often we learn nothing. That short quote, what does it tell you? Not nearly as much as the entire play (“Hamlet” by the way) does, which deeply examines the fundamental lack of knowledge of our world and of others that we face as we try to shape our lives. We cannot separate a part from the whole and gain much insight.

As the United States heads to a possible contested convention for the Republican Party, as well as its splintering, many writers have tried to find an analogy from the past that will inform our view of the present. The most popular, and recent, in “The Atlantic” today, is to look to Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. The admittedly light-hearted article suggests that Trump’s actions and rhetoric and a forcefully contested convention are nothing new and that the United States came through the chaos fine then and so should be ok now. This does not take into account the very different circumstances in play. The political parties have different platforms, Trump’s insurgency has not been outright dismissed by the Republican Party, the structure and concerns of the nation were completely different, and the institutions of the time were constructed differently. There is no precedent for what is happening right now in American politics and attempting to predict the future is risky.

When we do look to the past we can use it to inform our understanding of the present. We do this not by comparing actions directly but seeing their similarities on a fundamental level and using that to make broad conclusions about a current event, not a specific one about a specific instance. Guessing specifics is almost impossible. Saying that this has happened before without taking into account the completely different circumstances surrounding the event in question gleans little insight into what the consequences  of a modern-day contested convention will be. I am positive that, in context, it is apparent that this splintered Republican Party and a possible contested convention would have nothing in common with Teddy Roosevelt’s in 1912.

What we can understand from that historical analogy is that political parties are durable institutions and that outsized personalities may inspire unusual loyalty in their followers, besides that we face the same uncertainty that the Prince of Denmark did.

I Think Shakespeare Would be Upset

I was struck, while watching the new version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, by the blend of realism, authenticity, and modernity. All of these concerns were completely unimportant to Shakespeare, who was a writer firmly rooted in his time and concerned with pure entertainment.

The film has an anachronistic concern with trauma. In many ways it explains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions as a kind of result of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are haunted by the death of their daughter (long a favorite speculation on the Macbeths’ backgrounds before the start of the play) and perhaps Macbeth is haunted by the violence of battle (which seems to have taken from him another son). This new version, rather than focusing on will or fate, or the supernatural, or even moral decisions, is centered around the experience of loss and grief. The realism we are so much in love with in recent cinematic history diminishes the humor and rhetorical flourishes which (to me) add great depth and complexity to the play.

I have always been an advocate of reading Shakespeare, which allows for close analysis of motifs, themes, and wordplay. Creating a “realistic” Macbeth confines the interpretation of the play and pushes it toward one articulation of the story where much nuance is discarded. In any case, the film is spare and atmospheric in its cinematography and is excellently acted. Perhaps the next interpretation (which I’m sure audiences are just clamoring for…) will leave in some of the fantastic, which both enriches the play and will marry it to its original intent.