On Studying the Classics

While the New Republic is still getting some mileage out of it’s articles on the Ivy League, it has also just republished an interesting article from 1991 on studying the classics in college. Debates on the “classics,” or what might also be described as the “western canon,” are often portrayed as a dispute between stuffy traditionalists and free-thinking modernists or between conservative reactionaries and liberal revolutionaries. The article attempts to make the point that this framing is false. People from around the world and from many different political and social backgrounds have found inspiration in the classics. An education in classic works of literature need not be limited to inculcating beliefs in traditional values. There are many different ways to analyze literature and one might be surprised at how non-traditional the traditional western canon might seem. Subversive and even potentially radical viewpoints can be found in works such as Boccaccio’s Decameron (challenging religion through satire and bawdy jokes that might seem offensive even today), Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (viciously attacking his political opponents in the Inferno), and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (perhaps challenging the traditional gender roles in an incredibly patriarchal Athenian society).

The article also points out that the “classics” or the “canon” is an idea rather than a strict list. What constitutes the “classics” is constantly changing, but at the same time we can’t pretend that history never happened and that every class of people is equally represented in the canon at all times. Prior to the last few centuries the western canon is almost exclusively written by men of European descent because western culture – to the extent it even exists as a coherent concept – is largely just western European culture and because wealthy European men were more or less the only people given the opportunity to produce great works of art and literature. Things aren’t like that any more, so we might expect the canon to continue drawing from an ever more diverse cast of authors in the future.

It’s important to acknowledge that the canon is Eurocentric, but the author suggests that this is not a bad thing. I tend to agree. Drawing from a single tradition is helpful from a pedagogical standpoint because the works share common artistic values and cultural context. Trying to draw a bit from every tradition leads to a confusing, incoherent syllabus where everything seems like tokenism. Even then, it will be impossible to include everything so choices have to be made at some point anyway.

The article mentions the decline in liberal arts requirements, which seems to have only increased in the 20+ years since it was written. A few schools still maintain strong humanities cores. The most notable examples are Columbia and Chicago, both of which have extensive Core Curricula and a liberal arts focus at the undergraduate level. St. John’s College has an all-Great Books curriculum, which is an interesting idea for those interested in the humanities, but not particularly useful for many fields of study. Having attended Columbia, I find that I agree with most of what is said in the article. One of the most important things that I got out of my core classes was to look critically at everything – even the concepts of the canon and western culture.

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