My Lifelong Love Affair with the Classics

British School, Man Reading by Lamplight (1839)


Yesterday I wrote about a Los Angeles Review of Books article that seeks to debunk the myth of a classical education. There has never been a time, Naomi Kanakia argues, that we have had massive numbers of students studying the classics. A golden age, during which “the average undergrad could… quote Homer in the original Greek, and when the US Senate was filled with philosopher kings who slept with Marcus Aurelius under their pillows,” exists, like most golden ages, only in our imaginations.

The article disappointed me slightly because Kanakia barely discusses what a classical education does for one. It’s little more, she says at one point, than a class marker. Although she acknowledges at one point that her own extensive reading has “contributed immeasurably to my development as a person,” and at another that the classics “probably” make one “a better thinker or more capable leader,” that’s it. She says nothing else about what her immersion in the classics did for her.

Instead, she treats a classical education like a club she worked very hard to join, only to learn, upon admittance, that it has hardly any members. She walked into hallowed halls, only to find them empty. I sense a feeling of betrayal in her piece, as though she were sold a bill of goods.

She did, however, prompt me to look back at my own life to determine why I don’t fit her profile. While I won’t say that my upbringing was a golden age, it contained more than a few classics, starting with high school.

I attended Sewanee Military Academy, an Episcopalian prep school (now St. Andrews at Sewanee) that believed very strongly in teaching great literature from the past. My first year we read The Iliad, The Odyssey, David Copperfield, and Kim; my second year we surveyed American Literature; my third year focused on British Literature; and the fourth year featured World Literature. The American Literature course was not well taught so I don’t remember it very well, although I do recall Catcher in the Rye (which I hated)and also some fellow student pointing out to me that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a masturbation poem. The British Literature course, on the other hand, was my favorite course of all those I have taken. It started with Beowulf and went up through Dylan Thomas, and along the way we read Chaucer, Shakespeare (Hamlet), Donne, Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, the Romantic poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham and a host of others. In our senior-level World Literature course, meanwhile, we read Antigone, Crime and Punishment, Siddhartha, Camus, Ibsen, and others.

The immersion in the classics inspired me to take Carleton College’s interdisciplinary two-semester humanities course, the first focused on 5th century Athens, the second on the European Renaissance. Although I was a history major, I took two of the British survey courses, a course in the Irish Renaissance, and a course on utopias (including The Republic, More’s Utopia, Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, and various 20th century utopias and dystopias). I also took a classics course on Greek mythology and, in French, the two surveys (starting with The Song of Roland and ending with Sartre) and courses on Diderot, Rousseau, and the 20th century French novel.

Then I attended a graduate school (Emory) that still had a traditional curriculum, which meant that we had a comprehensive exam covering a long list of works, from Beowulf to Faulkner. We were also encouraged to sit in on undergraduate survey courses to fill in any gaps.

So as far as my own education was concerned, it was fairly classical, even though I didn’t learn Greek and though my two years of high school Latin weren’t enough for me to read any literature. And because I had had this type of background, I was prepared to teach survey courses when I became a professor. Figuring that I’d better teach the highlights in my survey classes, which I regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe where my students should at least get a taste of London, Paris, Rome and Berlin–I taught Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer, etc. My colleagues did more or less the same. I don’t know whether this confirms or refutes Kanakia’s view of American education.

But let me get to a second point of reflection, which is what I owe the cultural conservatives mentioned by Kanakia. First, here’s what she has to say in a passage I quoted yesterday:

[M]ost books about the humanities take it as a given that we exist in a fallen time, that the golden age of the Classical education is in the past, but lately I’ve started to wonder if that time ever existed. In recollecting my own education, I’ve started to wonder if the contemporary notion of a “Classical education” is largely the product of a series of popular books that began with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and continued through Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve (1989), Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy (2009), William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep (2014), and others. Like me, these writers were usually outsiders, many of them Jewish (which is to say, they were not themselves part of any notional WASP aristocracy), and they had in their youths at some point bought into the idea of a Classical education. They had pursued this ideal and now found the reality — the position of the Classics in our culture and our educational system — to be somewhat lacking.

Part of me embraced and part of me rejected what these men—they seemed to all be men—had to say. While I too honored the authors they honored, I hated how political conservatives hijacked the classics, using them to batter our multicultural society. “Austen, not Alice Walker” was the slogan of some, which infuriated me since I taught both Austen and Walker and loved them both. “Dead white men” (and a few token dead white women) were used as a club against living authors of color in ways that I found reprehensible. While I have taught Jane Austen so many times that I have parts of her memorized, I have done the same with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Lucille Clifton’s Quilting, and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” They all sing to me, each in his or her own key.

But back to the canonical authors. It became a mission of mine to wrest them away from the reactionary agendas promoted by Lynne Cheney and William Bennett when they headed the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts under Reagan and Bush. If Percy Shelley is right (and I believe he is) that the great authors have a deep vision of human freedom, making them the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then by teaching and blogging about them, I hope to connect readers with their liberating visions. As Shelley, writing of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, puts it,

The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived; the good affections are strengthened by pity, indignation, terror, and sorrow; and an exalted calm is prolonged from the satiety of this high exercise of them into the tumult of familiar life…. In a drama of the highest order there is little food for censure or hatred; it teaches rather self-knowledge and self-respect.

The dusty classics enlarge our imaginations—or to use Lisa Simpson’s verb, embiggen us—and so do the best contemporary authors, including that current target of rightwing attacks, Toni Morrison. And as Shelley preaches, if our imaginations are enlarged, then we become motivated to create a world in which all of us—whatever our class, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual identity—can have the freedom to put our full selves into play.

We feel the stirrings of possibility when we are in the grip of a great work of literature. My mission is to connect readers with works that will set the wheels in motion and give them a sense of where they might go with them.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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