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Classical Literature for All

We read.

We read to learn. Sometimes we read in search of consolation, or in flight from boredom. I know many who read simply for the pleasure of it—a pleasure that envelopes our whole consciousness in new ideas or imaginings, or the warm, worn contours of well-known stories and ideas.

Teachers are often this kind of reader: one for whom reading is a chief source of pleasure in life, and for whom the decision to teach, to share with others, is an almost inevitable consummation of this pleasure.

Too bad that this love of reading doesn’t always make us great teachers. In fact, sometimes it can present a challenge especially if your students don’t share your enthusiasm. To you, this book or idea might be one of the most beautiful and important things you’ve ever known. To them it’s just another maneuver in the great class war…no, not that class war — the one that every class of students wages against its teacher, and vice versa. Those sometimes-subtle maneuvers in which the two are not even necessarily on different sides, but operate in adjacent battle spaces, if you will, with entirely different and sometimes directly conflicting objectives.

The teacher wants to teach (at least good ones do). The class…well, it’s a complicated mix of objectives including but not limited to: I’d rather be fishing; gotta check my insta-likes; snore; do you even lift bro; and I’m hungry. The mark of a great teacher is when he or she unifies the objectives of the teacher and the class. No, not by quitting and joining the other side, even if you too like fishing, but by overcoming this educational inertia, this divergence of object, with a common purpose—let’s call it a desire for learning.

In many classrooms just reaching this point is a minor miracle. But now that we’re there, we have to know what exactly constitutes learning.

At the most basic level, learning includes familiarity with the natural world around us and mastering the necessary techniques of reading, writing, and arithmetic. This is the entrance fee, if you will, to the rest of one’s general education. And what should the rest be?

The classics have, for many, many, years, been the answer to this question. By classics I mean those works of literature, history, philosophy, art, and music that capture something about the human condition that is so important, so moving, and legible that they achieve a certain kind of immortality.

Increasingly in recent years, however, we hear that the classics are elitist, racist, or simply out of touch. For example, in 2021 the eminent Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta opined to the New York Times that “systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics.”[1] I don’t know how one would substantiate this kind of claim other than anecdotally, and perhaps it’s indelicate to point out that his own prominence at Princeton as a classics scholar presents anecdotal evidence to the contrary. But clearly, his purpose is to discredit the classics. And frankly, if they were what he describes them to be, then I would agree with him. Those are criteria for disqualifying a work from classical status.

But far from being tools of exclusion, the classics are a great equalizer—a common birthright living not in one person’s mind and memory, or even in one hemisphere’s collective mind and memory, but rather, existing as an essential part of the whole human story wherever it is encountered.

Against this idea, the writer Alejandra Olivia argues that “deciding what books are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’ of a canon, particularly on the basis of historical popularity can be a messy, racist, sexist endeavor.”[2] The implication here is that it’s better to be safe than sorry and to have no canon at all.

Of course there can be legitimate disagreements about which works should be considered classic, but that is hardly a reason to argue that there are not, or should not be, classics.

The effort to identify and read the very greatest things measured by a broad set of criteria is an effort toward solidarity, or inclusivity if you will, because it strives to establish among us humans a set of shared stories and experiences rather than a cultural menagerie as fractured and divisive as Babel.

Teachers with extensive classroom experience are often best equipped to recognize this integrating effect of the classics. Sherlene Merritt, an education specialist from an urban Atlanta school district argues that “intentionally ignoring the canon is to exclude our learners from a larger cultural conversation.”[3] It makes their world a little bit smaller.

I’m inclined to consider the classics as a large and growing category, one to which there should be additions as generations of people sift the artifacts of human existence for the universal, durable, and intelligible. What a shame to tell the young there are no such things—to deprive them of the opportunity to contribute.

That the classics should constitute general education is no argument against subsequent specialization in something that is not itself classical. After all, general education is to give us all common ground, footing in a shared culture. Having established this shared culture, individual specialties and interests can flourish and beautify common human experience without receding into mere idiosyncrasy or barricading itself in anti-social esoterica.

Take, for example, a particular folk tradition one might love. For the student of that particular tradition, probably one of the loveable things about it is that it is so particular, so local, so intensely rooted in one people or time. If it were more universal, perhaps it would lose the tang of familiarity that makes it so attractive. Often folk traditions are particularly rich in their relation and reference to the classics themselves, where each sheds light on the other and deepens the others’ meaning.

And remember, if there are no classics because no thing is better than any other thing, then no student can aspire to create a new classic. The greatest works inform and inspire us to contribute what greatness we can.

If there are too many classical works to learn in general education, we should read and teach the best, and equip and encourage students to seek out the rest. We all know how precious and fleeting those hours of youthful study are, and how soon the workaday world will intervene. We have to give them the very best, nothing else will do.

This article first appeared in the Dallas Morning News at:


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