Why The Classics?

A former honors student wrote a note on Facebook recently and asked whether there was any truth to the rumor he had heard that liberal university faculties were putting pressure on their students to lean more to the left. I assured him that there is truth in the rumor, but that it is also the case that conservative faculty often, in my experience, try to get their students to lean a little more to the right. But, since there are a great many more liberal than conservative university faculty members, the trend he mentioned is decidedly of some concern. Indoctrination in any form, especially when it passes for teaching, is most disturbing.

One of the victims of the left-leaning faculty who have a political agenda (which they take very seriously) is the classics — to the point that it is now proclaimed by those who hold the reins of power in academia that there are no such things as classics; just books, and the ones the students should read are the ones the faculty select for them, books that tend to present the viewpoint of those teaching them. The idea, I gather, is to force open the minds of the students to endless examples of social injustice. This in itself is not a bad thing. But the books should be the teachers, not the teachers. And the authors should disagree with one another about almost everything. This generates thought, not disciples.

It is said that the so-called “classics” or “great books” are simply works that were written by “dead, white, European, males” and are no longer relevant in today’s climate of hatred and political chaos. I have vigorously disputed this over the years in my writing, including a number of blog posts (which I referred the young man to), because I have read many of those books (in translation) and have learned so much from them that is not only relevant but timely as well. One such passage I came across the other day while reading Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” of all things. It is in a lengthy comment made by the chorus and reads as follows:

” — A tongue without reins,

defiance,unwisdom —

their end is disaster.

But the life of quiet good,

the wisdom that accepts —

these abide unshaken,

preserving, sustaining

the houses of men.

Far in the air of heaven,

the sons of heaven live.

But they watch the lives of men,

And what passes for wisdom is not;

unwise are those who aspire,

who outrange the limits of man.

Briefly, we live, Briefly,

then die. Wherefore I say,

he who hunts a glory, he who tracks

some boundless, superhuman dream, may lose the harvest here and now

and garner death. Such men are mad,

their council evil.”

This is a remarkable passage and also timely, given the current trend to keep old wounds festering with talk among the power-brokers of possible political recounts. It seems worthy of a few moment’s reflection and serious attempts to see how it applies to today’s world where so much that happens is beyond our control and simply must be accepted — like it or not. As Candide said, “It’s time to cultivate the garden.”

Great books are classics because they are timeless. It matters not who wrote them or when. What matters is what they have to say to those who read them and take them seriously.  Passages like the above are said to be “irrelevant” and are ignored by many of those who have chosen to teach the young because they have other fish to fry, more important fish (as they see it), which leads me to quote another snippet from Euripides:

“Talk sense to a fool

and he calls you foolish.”

 

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Reading Great Books

I received an email from a friend and former college classmate recently that highlighted a program initiated by several major universities, including Stanford University, that will involve young people in reading and discussing great books during the Summer. This was encouraging in an age that seems determined to dumb-down the curriculum at our schools until no pupil is left behind — a system that is certain to turn out numbskulls and leave the bright students totally bored and stupefied by their electronic toys. The notion that our kids simply cannot do tough intellectual work is utter nonsense; it sells them short and is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we expect very little from them we will get very little in return. The fault is ours, not theirs.

I taught at several colleges in two of which I required students, including so-called “marginal students,” to read selected great books and was constantly delighted by the results. But unfortunately there are two problems with expanding such programs into our schools and colleges. To begin with, we don’t think that our kids can read challenging books, even though the books were written in the first place for anyone who could read and not just for supposed experts. As John Stuart Mill said, we won’t know what is possible for people until we ask them to do the impossible. Having young people read great books is not impossible, however, as is shown from my own experience and from numerous experiments around the country — including a remarkable program run in a women’s prison in New York a few years back in which a dozen women were encouraged to read and discuss great books; they not only took to the work like ducks to water, they all turned their lives around and several of them went to college and got their degrees after they were released from the prison. A similar program has been introduced in three prisons in Tennessee that is very promising indeed and there are other such programs sponsored by the Great Books Foundation involving prison inmates and former inmates as well. One can, after all, select works carefully with the reader in mind (hint: read Candide, skip Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason).

The second problem is that there are growing numbers of intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities who deny that “greatness” can be defined and reject the notion that any books are great. Instead they prefer the ones they themselves have read that promote whatever political agenda they happen to have up their sleeves at the moment. But, as my friend “Jots” has noted in a recent blog, “greatness” can be defined. She defines it as “ageless and recognized in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and forms.” Indeed. I would only add that greatness can be recognized by those who have been exposed to it and know whereof they speak. And whether or not you accept Jots’ definition, we have the testimony of Robert Pirsig who noted in his seminal book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that value (and greatness) can easily be recognized when we encounter it — if we know what we are looking for. Many of those who reject the notion of greatness in books and the fine arts have never bothered to look closely at what they reject, if they looked at all. But there are books that are “ageless,” and these books can be read by anyone who is willing to make the effort. And they are great because they enliven the minds of those who read them.

One problem that stubbornly remains, however, is the fact that fewer and fewer of our young people read at all and are rapidly losing the ability to read and comprehend what they do read. Thus the reading of books, great or not, becomes an ongoing challenge. But it can be met. Take it from me. Or take it from the folks at Stanford University and other such places of higher learning who are placing the books before young, inquiring minds and expecting great things. And, I predict, they will be pleased by the results. As I said, we sell our kids short — and we should really take the toys out of their hands and replace them with books.

Ignorance Is Bliss?

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Toothless Tigers

The situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. It is estimated that the government has been responsible for the death of at least 14,000 of its citizens. A recent story tells of the attempts to “broker” a peace settlement between groups that hate one another, a nearly impossible task. The story reads, in part,

GENEVA (AP) — An international conference on Saturday accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan that calls for the creation of a transitional government in Syria, but at Russia’s insistence the compromise agreement left the door open to Syria’s president being part of it.

The story gives us a sense of the futility of this agreement: But even with Russia’s most explicit statement of support yet for a political transition in Syria, it is far from certain that the plan will have any real effect in curbing the violence. A key phrase in the agreement requires that the transitional governing body “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent,” effectively giving the present government and the opposition veto power over each other.

In a word, neither side will agree to the agreement: one side wants Assad to remain as President, the other will not agree to any settlement of which he is a part. The U.N. sits in the middle attempting to get the two sides to agree to something (anything!) while all the time they know full well it will not happen. As one who has always advocated reason and restraint and who hates war and bloodshed, this situation is most disturbing. It would seem that increasingly violence is the only thing many people understand and an international group that lacks the power to back up its agreements is indeed a toothless tiger. The members can meet and come to a compromise of sorts, but the people in the streets will continue to kill one another. It’s not a new story, but it is unsettling to say the least.

Leibniz told us long ago that this was the “best of all possible worlds,” and he thought he had argued his point convincingly. But it takes a giant leap of faith to accept his argument. That was a leap Voltaire could not take and he ridiculed the notion in Candide — which he wrote after the earthquake at Lisbon killed thousands of men, women and children. There have been worse catastrophes and now that war includes war against civilians as well as combatants — a situation all civilized countries agreed would not happen when they signed the Geneva Accords — the earthquake seems a minor event. And, of course, our government, which signed those agreements, is very much a part of the problem sending drones into residential neighborhoods to “take out” known (or suspected) terrorists. Doesn’t this make us the terrorists?

One wonders where we have come and where this will lead. The world needs an international group with effective sanctioning powers and a world court with punitive powers as well. I am not an advocate of power except in the case that it will invariably lead to the resolution of conflict involving innocent victims. And I have always supported the idea of the United Nations: it’s important that people come together to discuss their differences. But I recognize that a debate society that makes agreements they cannot get the parties to buy into is not what the world needs in times of trouble. This is certainly the case in Syria. As the above story says in its final paragraph, The United Nations says violence in the country has worsened since a cease-fire deal in April, and the bloodshed appears to be taking on dangerous sectarian overtones, with growing numbers of Syrians targeted on account of their religion. The increasing militarization of both sides in the conflict has Syria heading toward civil war.

It does seem that the only thing people understand in the end is power. If people will not even sit down together then might does, in the end, make right. I cannot accept that even though it appears to be the case. Perhaps that is my leap of faith.