What Are the Classics and Why Should We Read Them”

This is the first part, revised and expanded, of an essay that appeared in 2007.  I find that I was intending to post it two years ago but lost track of the piece.  Now, as the result of questions that have been posed on a social media website, I am going to take up at length the question asked in the title: What are the Classics and Why Should We read them.  This first part is an unsystematic  introduction to the question that goes round Robin's barn eliminating the vermin of false assumptions.  This essay will be followed and amplified by podcasts and specific recommendations of the ancient and modern classics in a variety of genres.

My Curriculum Vitae still includes a paragraph describing my activities as an “educational consultant,” though it has been some years since I went to Washington to read grants or evaluate schools for the Department of Education.  It was all time wasted, less profitable even than time wasted on politics.  Politicians, to their credit,  know that it is money and power they are seeking, but I have never been able to discover what educators have in mind.  The worst of them babble statistics—IQ’s, achievement test scores, minority percentages, word counts in first grade readers.  None if it amounts to much more than counting, counting words or counting people.

In every discussion of reform, whether it was with professors of education, school board members, or the Secretary and his staff, the conversation always ran aground on the question: “What is your object in teaching a class, running a school, or developing a program?”  When I received no better answer than gimmicks summed up in slogans such as “child-centered education, ”back to basics,” “phonics,” or “writing for reading,” I clarified the question by asking, “What sort of person, if you succeed, do you expect to turn out?”  A Quaker headmaster informed me, when I first came to Rockford, that he hoped his students would simply be themselves; I naturally asked him why parents should pay high tuition to a private school if not to turn their little savages into some kind of civilized human beings.  Why not just let them educate themselves by watching television or playing computer games?

Perhaps I have spent too much time reading Plato.  After all, a simple society can rear its boys and girls to be patriotic citizen-soldiers or competent matrons without having an explicit theory that stipulates the “for what” we teach children, but that is only because traditional societies have an implicit understanding of what a good man or good wife and mother is like.  In such a society, an educated person is someone who has been brought up in a family where he has been taught to share the code of his people.  An Athenian on his way to fight the Persians at Marathon did not have a refined definition of courage arrived at in a course of dialectic or at the end of an argument with Socrates’ father.  He had read or heard the same Homeric poems as his fellows, worshipped the same gods at the same festivals, attended the same meetings of the Assembly and the same courts, where he listened to the wise and the foolish debating the controversies of the day.  We are not so lucky.  

No young man today, unless he has been locked in a basement or reared by the Amish, is unaware that every virtue extolled by parents and pastors is contemned by the really important people in our society, namely celebrities.  His parents may teach him to be polite and respectful in his speech, but if he turns on the television to learn something about politics—a grave mistake—he will be subjected to the coarse hectoring of Bill Maher and and the blond bombshells on FOX.  He does not need to turn on the TV.  Every day in school he learns the same bad lessons, bad manners, and bad morals.  A slave to the indoctrination he has received, he thinks that he (obeying the dictates of the Harvard School of Education or Hillsdale College) is the ultimate judge of all value, whether it is the received wisdom of the Church or the received wisdom that tells grown men to put on a jacket and tie before going to church.  Instead of learning from experience, his own and that of his parents and ancestors, he believes only in abstract speculations about human equality and the progress of humanity.

We live in a culture gone mad on theory: theories of sex and family, theories of government, and, inevitably, theories of education. A debate has raged for centuries over “the future of education.”  Early American liberals like Noah Webster insisted that a democratic society needed a suitable educational system, divorced from the classical tradition that encouraged aristocracy and elitism.  What sort of American democrat could listen to Sarpedon’s admonition in the Iliad, “always to be the best,” without giving a Bronx cheer?  It took over a hundred years, but this appeal began to take concrete form in American colleges and secondary schools between the two world wars.  

John Dewey and his students developed the argument to include a soft social-science indoctrination that would liberate American kids from the shackles of race, ethnicity, nationality, region, class, wealth, religion, taste, tradition, and anything else their poor benighted parents might have valued.  By the late 1960’s the attack was extended to sex and gender, species and phylum.  An old high school friend—a beautiful and charming woman—once asked me (at an oyster roast) why I could be so concerned about unborn babies when I cared so little about baby seals.  This same woman, if she had not been warped by the propaganda inflicted on her by half-educated PhD’s, would have remained a Trinitarian Anglican and a patriotic southerner.  As things turned out, she was only a New Yorker manquée.  That is why every school in the nation should have a sign at the entrance: Enter at your Own Risk or, better still, Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate.

The conservative response to the progressives’ takeover of education has been of two types, neither of them  effective.  The capitalist response is to emphasize vocational skills, whether at the low level of shop and computer courses or on the high level of mathematics and science.  Bill Gates, himself a model victim of American education, thinks that he can do some good by rewarding students for designing innovative technical projects before they have learned anything about who they are or why they are alive.  The results are all around us, the technological barbarians who cannot even imagine the moral problems presented by cloning, in vitro fertilization, and the virtual reality in which young people are imprisoned.  

Most of us, who are neither angels nor monks, would like to have money, and  sensible people would like to earn their money by pursuing an interesting and useful career.  We all understand that an aspiring physician, lawyer, or engineer must receive specialized training, but what hardly anyone realizes is that money, career, and profession are in most cases only marginally connected to the serious purpose of education. The application of businesslike methods to politics or education is routinely disastrous, because the object of statecraft or teaching is quite different from the object of business.

One way of evaluating a society and a person is to examine what they do with their surplus of time, energy, and resources.  The Athenians built the temples on the Acropolis and celebrated festivals that included great works of drama that are still read today by a tiny remnant of civilized people.  Medieval Christians built churches, and the nobility took part in tournaments that prepared them for war.  Americans in the new Millennium watch commercial television or listen to commercial music or eviscerate mind and spirit taking part in social media and absorbing disinformation from Wikipedia.  We build hideously ugly churches that cost a great deal of money, but far more goes into sports stadiums, where brute beasts who hate our country act out fantasies of mass murder.

The average full-time work week is 40 hours, though many a professional puts in 50 or 60, but to keep it simple, let us be content with 4o hours of work out of 168.  Eating and sleeping take up another 60 to 80, so let us compromise on 70.  That leaves a surplus of about 60 hours, in other words, more time than the worker spends on the job.  If we throw in the roughly one month we receive in holidays and vacations, and 20 years retirement, the proportion of work to leisure shifts dramatically.  The quality--or, to be literal, the "what-sort-of-ness"--of our lives will depend at least as much on how we spend our surplus time as it does on our work time, and any healthy society, in adopting a system of education, would concentrate attention at least as much on leisure as on labor.

It would be easier to understand the capitalist focus on education for labor, if wealthy capitalists made an exception for their own children, but by and large they do not.  Once upon a time, wealthy British and American families made sure that their daughters were given lessons in dancing, drawing, French, and music, while the sons were forced to acquire the rudiments of a classical education.  In the new Millennium, the young children of wealthy American businessmen, physicians, and Silicon Valley billionaires receive the same indoctrination as the children of the proletariat, and if there is any difference, it is in favor of the poor, since the most expensive schools are the most fanatical in teaching the ideology of the regime.  The children of the rich, whether they go on to Harvard or lapse into a life of vice and crime, are no better off, in the matter of mental cultivation, than the children of factory workers.  The major difference is that the rich rarely have an encounter with reality that is close enough to tarnish their fanatical devotion to the gods of  Global Warming and gender neutrality.

So-called cultural conservatives are aware of  the shortcomings in the businessman’s call for vocational education, but their response has been to call for a return to the Great Books, though some of them cannot not distinguish between The Great Gatsby and what William Bennett once described as “the published works of Socrates.”  If our cultural conservative leaders had read some of the genuinely great books, instead of merely talking about them, they might have read in Plato (who wrote the works Socrates did not) that reading impairs the memory.  Plato’s observation—which is truer with every technological step away from simple orality and literacy—might have led them to reflect that books are only a means to the ends of a system of education or paideia, to use a more inclusive Greek word, which means nothing more than child-rearing.  “The end,” as Calder Willingham expressed it in the title of his beautiful and almost forgotten novel, “is a man.”

All of the above might have been written 20 years ago, and, indeed, I have many times made such arguments.  All that has changed in 20 years is that these false conservatisms, which used to be limited to movement periodicals and small ideological colleges, have now metastasized into a viral empire of websites and distance learning programs that feature the usual cafeteria of computer skills and great books.  Recently, a website titled something like Fast Food For the Mind, published a list of ten essential books drawn up by a Catholic philosopher who believes in the salvation of pet animals and the compatibility of Islam with Christianity. This is not only a case of the blind leading the blind, but also, as Kenneth Tynan once famously said of The New Yorker, the bland leading the bland.

All of these "conservative" projects will fail, and most of them will do more harm than good.  Even at their best they will distract well-intentioned parents, teachers, and students from considering the purpose and function of education.  

To be completed....

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. theAlabamian says:

    It is a very sad and unfortunate situation. Take for instance Montgomery, Alabama where just this year the names of three schools were cheerfully voted by the Board of Education to be changed. The names of these schools were Sidney Lanier, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. I would think that any one who understood a shred of history would look at such men as people to look up to, to be inspired by, and understand that their culture was better than our almost cultureless (unless you count the disgusting progressive/statist replacement), disgusting, ignorant culture if anything. Rather these men are all unworthy of having their names on the schools of Montgomery, Alabama because they are associated with the Confederate States of America, white supremacy, and they do not fall in line with the post Civil Rights progressive enlightenment. These same Montgomery public schools have been criticized within the same year for their poor test scores, the environment, and the fact that outsiders moving in due to federal jobs do not want there children in these schools. Just a county to the south Troy University has changed the name of at least one of its buildings, and the University of Alabama has removed a Confederate monument, and changed the names of buildings. BLM is a welcome sort of thing falling in line with the progressive’s ultimate expression of Americanism: The Civil Rights Movement, and the ultimate American hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I suppose they believe Jefferson Davis would have been much more educated and a better man had he had the opportunity to hear MLK speak, rather than filling his head with the classics in their original languages, the Bible, and the Constitution.
    Here I am, only having an understanding of the true Southern cause of the War of 1861 for a year, trying to connect more with my traditional heritage and culture, educate myself and others on these things, and I feel like an adulterated, mangy barbarian trying to connect with the beauty, wisdom, and morality of my ancestors past, and western culture. Then you have progressives treating everything I am pursuing as if it is backward, racist, and uncultured.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I shouldn’t worry too much about these developments. In a way it is good that the delusions of the 1950’s–we can all get along if we accept Lincolnian rhetoric wrapped around Deweyite principles, hurray for equality and the past ain’t half as bad as some people say. Now that they have demonized everything good true and beautiful, we know they are the enemy and do not have to listen to anything they say. Tanto peggio, as the Italian communists used to say, tanto meglio. So much the worse, so much the better. In this instance, the more evil the enemy becomes, the less we have to worry about compromise.

  3. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming, you are right, at least it as easier to identify friend and foe, and the agenda isn’t really hidden anymore, people willingly ignore it.

  4. theAlabamian says:

    I would also like to add, Thank you Dr. Fleming for inspiring me to look into the Classics and such, and I am grateful for The Fleming Foundation. Also the way cover things helps people to see the relevance of the Classics to our times, rather than appearing as some very old, obscure, subject matter only for people who are into certain fields of study.

  5. theAlabamian says:

    **Admended and corrected
    I would also like to add, thank you Dr. Fleming for inspiring me to look into the Classics and such, and I am grateful for The Fleming Foundation. Also the way you cover things helps people to see the relevance of the Classics to our times, rather than appearing as some very old, obscure, subject matter only for people who are into certain fields of study. The heart of the teacher is very important to educating people. Your heart in the matter is evident.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you for this encouragement with reading in ones leisure time and reading delightful works that have withstood the assaults of deteriorating time.. Looking forward to the rest of the story too!