In Defense of the Classics

One of the charges laid at the feet of people like myself who have read and taught the “Great Books” of Western Civilization is that they are “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” What this means, I suppose, is that they were written by and for those few “effete” intellectuals who can explore the hidden treasures that remain opaque to the rest of humankind. I have always had a problem with this charge and as one who has actually taught many of those books to so-called “marginal students” I can attest to the fact that most of the so-called “classics” can be read and understood by anyone who gives them a chance.

I recall going into a liquor store a few years ago (for a friend, of course!) and running into one of my former students who mentioned that she had thoroughly enjoyed reading Boethius in my class and thanked me for assigning it. She was talking about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which I required in one of my Humanities courses. We also read a couple of Plato’s Dialogues, several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Inferno, and portions of Homer’s Iliad, among other great books. To be honest, we seldom read entire works (except the short ones like Boethius and  More’s Utopia), but it was certainly the case that those students could have read complete works had they chosen to do so. And some have gone on to do just that. My goal was to give them a taste and get their minds stirring.

Then there is the testimony of people like Irving Howe who noted that:

“There were the Labor night schools in England bringing to industrial workers elements of the English cultural past; there was the once-famous Rand School of New York City; there were the reading circles that Jewish workers, in both Eastern Europe and American cities, formed to acquaint themselves with Tolstoy, Heine, and Zola. And in Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine we have the poignant account of an underground cell in Rome during the Mussolini years that read literary works as a way of holding itself together.”

I also read about an experiment in a New York prison involving a dozen inmates who read and discussed “classics” in philosophy and political theory and were excited about the books and thoroughly involved in the discussions. The notion that these books are “elitist” is absurd. I know that and so did James Seaton whose book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism I have referred to previously. In that book Seaton lays to rest, once and for all, the myth that these books are elitist or undemocratic, though he is primarily interested in works or art and literature and the rejection of those standards that would allow us to evaluate great works. I will quote a portion of Seaton’s book at some length because he puts his case very well:

“The notion that the affirmation of standards in art and culture . . . is intrinsically undemocratic depends on the mistaken assumption that the same standards should be applied to both politics and art. The unexceptionable idea that it is possible to arrive at generally acceptable but always debatable criteria for distinguishing between better our worse works of art and literature is confused with the truly undemocratic notion that it is possible to distinguish between those who are fit to command and those who are only fit to obey on the basis of such criteria as race, sex, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political opinions, or indeed any criteria at all. . . .

It is true that the cultural prestige of the twentieth century avant-garde has lent itself to the notion that those comparatively few capable of appreciating avant-garde art constitute an elite, culturally, spiritually, and even morally superior to the rest of the population. Although this kind of elitism does not have the disastrous consequences associated with elitisms based on race, politics, or religion, for example, it is nevertheless based on false premises. As Henry James demonstrates in discussing Flaubert, it is quire possible to appreciate artistic achievements of modernism without condemning those, the great majority of the population, who are either less appreciative or simply uninterested. On the other hand, the notion that there are a certain number of literary or artistic works whose greatness has been firmly established over many generations is not elitist in any pejorative sense of the word. The so-called ‘canon’ [of Great Books] is established, evaluated, expanded, and re-established in a continuing process by the accumulated judgments of the ‘common reader’ . . .. Ralph Ellison’s thesis that the cultural implications of American democracy include a willingness to recognize artistic excellence wherever and whenever it appears provides a specifically American version of the traditional humanistic literary criticism that art and literature should be judged first of all by artistic standards for which criteria based on class, race, religion, or politics are irrelevant.”

Now it is true that Seaton is primarily concerned about literature and art, but his argument applies to all of those works in the “canon” that are said to be great and which have been swept aside by those who are convinced that they are the root cause of  injustice and human suffering the world over. The works of “dead, white, European, males” are rejected out of hand (by many who have never read them, I strongly suspect) on the grounds that they are elitist despite the fact that they were written or created for ordinary folks and are accessible to all if they are literate and willing to make the effort. The notion that they can be called “great” is rejected out of hand as well because the idea of “greatness” is also said to be determined by an elite group of intellectuals. As Seaton shows, this is false on its face.

The fact of the matter is that there are some works that have stood the “test of time”and remain relevant today. They aid us in understanding the human condition, ourselves and the other members of our human community, in ways that science cannot. In addition, they make it possible for us to appreciate sudden insights and beautifully written prose or poetry and to admire the art that reveals to all of us aspects of our world that would otherwise go unnoticed — especially in an age in which so many of us have our noses buried in our electronic toys.

If you are asking yourself how on earth this is relevant to your world, recall that these deniers are the ones who have brought us “alternative facts” and “political correctness,” among other modern horrors. The rejection of standards of excellence is simply one more sign that most people would prefer not to take the time or the trouble to think and would insist that “it’s all a matter of opinion.” It’s certainly the path of least resistance and we do like to take that.

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.”


My Top Ten

No one asked. But a blogging buddy who posts by the name of “Cafe Book Bean” recently posted five of the Classics she has on her bucket list. It gave rise to some reflection on my part: what novels would I list as my top ten? I exclude great books in philosophy, psychology, or the sciences — such as Darwin’s Origin of the Species. This list includes novels that I have the highest possible regard for, though I would add that in the case of most of the authors you can’t go wrong in reading anything they wrote! Huxley is the exception since Brave New World is his only literary work, to my knowledge. But in the case of such authors as Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Wharton, and, of course George Eliot you really cannot go wrong. So (wait for it) here’s the list:

  1. Eliot: Middlemarch
  2. Dostoevsky: Brothers Karamazov
  3. Conrad: Heart of Darkness
  4. Austen: Pride and Prejudice
  5. Tolstoy: War and Peace
  6. Wharton: The Age of Innocence
  7. Melville: Moby Dick
  8. Narayan: The Guide
  9. Balzak: Lost Illusions
  10. Huxley: Brave New World

I have omitted novels by such excellent writers as Wallace Stegner (whose Angle of Repose is superb) and Barbara Kingsolver who is also outstanding –one of the very best who is still writing. And I might also note that the Book Bean also recommended to me novels by Amy Tan and I have read The Hundred Secret Senses. She is a remarkable writer and I look forward to reading more of her novels. But for now, that’s the lot.

Please note that I have omitted other great books by such authors as Dante, Plato, Camus, and Kant because their works are so decidedly philosophical and I have tried to stick with literature, per se. But they also warrant reading for those who have the time and the inclination. Strange to say, the list is hard to come up with because I didn’t want to leave off such great works as Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and House of Mirth by Wharton, Victory by Joseph Conrad, and Sense and Sensibility by Austen. I would also add that I do not regard Huxley’s novel as great literature, but it is one of the most thought-provoking and engrossing novels I have ever read and it demands a place on this list.

One final comment about the list: I highly recommend the translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by Pevear and Volokhonsky. They have translated all of Dostoevsky’s major novels as well as War and Peace. Their translations (I am told by those who read Russian) read about as close to the original as a translation can hope to do.

As I have noted in previous posts, we live at a time when many both within and without the Academy regard any such list as bogus, because, they say, there is no such thing as greatness. I regard this claim as spurious and suspect at times that those who make the criticism have not read most, if any, of the books they reject. A great book, like any great work of art, is so because it still has something to tell us, it is extremely well done, and it invites repeated visits. Each visit brings with it new insights and a flood of new ideas. Great books provide hours of pleasure and expand the mind. The books on the above list fit those criteria. Thanks for reading!

Conservative Types

There are at least two different types of conservative, the “intellectual conservative,” and the “dollar conservative.” The former wants to conserve the very best of the past and learn from it going forward into an uncertain future. The latter, of course, simply wants to make more and more money. Please don’t confuse the two.

I have posted a number of blogs critiquing the dollar-conservatives, those types the wealthy Republican Teddy Roosevelt described as the “predatory rich,” those “mere money-getting Americans, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.” These are the folks who don’t want to pay taxes — except to support “defense” — and want to tear down the agencies of government that are designed to control our mindless determination to destroy the planet, all in the name of greater profits. I have noted the obvious fact that taxes, while there is assuredly waste, are the glue that binds this society together; among other things, they go to support those agencies that have been put in place to fill the void created by the “predatory rich.” Moreover, they help those who are in greater need than those who pay them, to wit, people, like you and me who have come on hard times and need a hand up.

This country was never healthier, financially, than right after the Second World War when the wealthy paid their fair share of their wealth into taxes. They now pay little or nothing at a time when there is great need to collect and spend tax monies wisely and the country as a whole ranks 32nd out of 34 among the world’s largest countries in percentage of income paid in taxes. And yet we hear that we are taxed “enough already” and there are shouts of complaint from the predatory rich that taxes should be done away with, along with the agencies they support. Meanwhile, these dollar-conservatives are busy hiding their wealth in off-shore accounts or taking their money elsewhere by moving themselves and their companies to countries that have lower labor costs and income tax rates. All of which is to the detriment of the disappearing middle class, those in real need, and the maintenance of the infrastructure that allows us to carry on in our daily lives.

But intellectual conservatives, such as myself — who lean decidedly to the left politically and willingly (?) pay our taxes — are concerned about the disappearance of rich veins of intellectual wealth that are also disappearing from the country as a result of various popular waves generated by the counter-culture that are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Notably, the urge in our colleges and universities to read only contemporary tracts and literature that reflect the views of a small group at the center of this movement has grown to dominate the college educational scene. The result is that our future leaders, when they read at all, are told to read material that has a very short shelf life and which almost certainly promotes the political agendas of the ones assigning the material. It is said that the so-called “classics” by “dead, white European males” are totally irrelevant to today’s needs. And while I think this is true of some, perhaps many, of the books we have treasured for centuries, we need to be wary about replacing the books that past minds have drawn from to the benefit of our current age only to replace them with inferior material that tends to state the obvious and will soon pass into oblivion. The one expands the mind, the other shrinks it.  Young people can learn a great deal more about justice by thinking their way through the dialogues of Plato and discussing them in small groups than they can be sitting passively and listening to a zealot go on about his or her favorite injustice lately committed.  Additionally, they learn to think in the process. It’s a zero-sum game, and one that is played by many with little or no consideration for the price that is paid by all of us in turning our backs on seminal ideas that have brought us so many of the benefits we take for granted.

Like so many words we use carelessly, we need to be sure how we use words like “conservative,” because there are conservatives of many stripes, and they don’t all get along. I know I am myself reluctant to be confused with the “predatory rich” who want nothing more than to continue to accumulate wealth until the day they die.

The Old Double Standard

I’m sure you have read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It’s a classic and I am reading it for a second time to see the things I missed the first time through. The book centers around a truly awful example of the double standard that was as much in place during Hardy’s Victorian era as it is in ours. You may remember it.

Tess, the heroine of the novel is a poor girl who is seduced/raped (it’s not clear. Victorian novels rely on the reader to use his imagination and mine has faded with increased television viewing) by a truly despicable womanizer early in the novel and has his illegitimate child. Fortunately for Tess, the child dies within a few months leaving her unencumbered by little else than her lively conscience. She is convinced she is rotten to the core because of her “weakness,” and swears to herself never to marry. She leaves home and goes to work at a dairy where she attempts to fit in with the other dairy maids and lose herself in her daily chores.

As it happens (and it always happens, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story!) a young man by the name of Angel Clare happens to be at the dairy learning the trade so he can eventually run his own farm. He is from a “better” family, even though Tess’ ancestors, we are told, have considerable blue blood in their veins. The color of her blood matters not because Tess and her family are dirt poor and she views herself as inferior to Angel with whom, predictably, she falls in love. Madly. Since she is beautiful and bright and even fairly well educated, Angel falls in love with her as well. To be honest, he falls in love with the woman he thinks he can make of her, with improved knowledge and further polish gladly provided by Angel himself.

The problem is that Tess spends considerable time worrying about her pledge not to marry while falling deeper and deeper in love. A letter from her mother in response to her request for advice urges her to keep quiet and plunge ahead. From her mother’s perspective, it is a very “good” marriage. But Tess continues to waiver on the issue until after a wedding filled with all manner of portents of impending doom, including a rooster who crows three times in the afternoon, when she determines to tell her new husband all — after he tells her his secrets. This was Angel’s idea since he, too, has a past that he is not terribly proud of: he has spent a brief, but wild period in London in his youth with an older woman of questionable virtue (!) and in an effort to bare his soul he confesses to Tess on their wedding night. Instead of being angry or upset, she is delighted at his confession because, as she says, “I have a confession too — remember, I said so.” He replies that her sin “can hardly be more serious” than his, to which she replies “It cannot — O no, it cannot be more serious, certainly, because ’tis just the same! I will tell you now.”

Upon revealing her hidden past to her husband she is stunned by his sudden anger and resentment. His response to her is to lose all respect and even find his love fading. He will not, he cannot, become intimate with her. And here we have the nub of the double standard. Given the limitations of the Victorian novels, we are led to believe that, indeed, Tess and Angel have had the same sorts of sexual experience, albeit the consequences of Tess’ weakness, if it be such, were quite different from her husband’s. The point is that he turns a blind eye to his own past while he cannot deal with the mistakes of the woman he loves. Hardy has provided us with what he apparently believes is a critique of Victorian values — the wealthy and supposedly well-bred young man who cannot bear to live with the mistakes made by a poor young women — even though he made the same mistakes himself.  One could even make the case that his “sin” (if it be such) was greater than Tess’ since he engaged in the activity voluntarily whereas hers was forced upon her. In any event, what Hardy is pointing to in fact, is the age-old double standard whereby men and women are measured differently for (more or less) the same mistakes. Needless to say, the outcome, for Tess, is tragic. But the real tragedy is that we read about such things and yet we still go on measuring men and women by two different standards, one more forgiving than the other.

Martina Navratilova reminded us of this some years ago when Magic Johnson confessed that he had sex with a great number of women  and was never censured for it while, as Martina pointed out, if a women had said such a thing she would have been labelled a “whore.” This is apparently what Angel was convinced his new bride was, because she had succumbed to the lures of a womanizer and was unable to avoid the snares he so carefully laid out for her. The double standard is hypocritical at its core. Some of us live in glass houses and still persist in throwing stones.

Picking and Choosing

As the twentieth century dawned Charles Elliot, president of Harvard College, introduced elective courses to the world. At that point it seemed to make a modicum of sense — after all the young men (no women, of course) who attended Harvard were on the whole well prepared for college work and had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do with their lives. And as Elliot said they were in a better position to determine what courses they needed than their professors who were not omniscient. Indeed not. But even at the time the argument wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. The professors were not omniscient, but they had a better sense of what young men would need to prepare them to go forth in a changing world than the young men themselves.

At that time education was not as focused on jobs as it is now and the young were better prepared for college — compared to today’s entering college students. But if elective courses were questionable in Elliot’s day they are even more so today, given the facts noted above — and they are facts, sad to say. To make matters worse elective courses are now common in high schools as well as colleges where they have become commonplace.

By 1983 more than 50% of the units required to graduate from high school in thirteen states were elective courses, that is, courses young kids could pick and choose among at random. And that number has proliferated since that time. Not only were the courses elective, but they allowed students to take “life adjustment” courses such as “Life and Leisure,” “Home and Family,” Tools of Learning,” Work Experience,” and “Occupational Adjustment.” Often these courses replaced required courses in such things as civics and history, among others. The idea was to whet the appetites of disinterested and unmotivated students to keep them in school and hope that they learn something by the way. Research done by a variety of disinterested sources reveals that the vast majority of those graduating high school students are ignorant of their own history and how the government works. A great many of them also have difficulty reading, writing, and figuring — the three things that have always been the staples of basic education. As a consequence, roughly half of the students who enter college today are required to take remedial courses in spite of the fact that there are some exceptional teachers in the high schools who are asked to do the impossible for very little money.

I must confess at this point that I attended a high school in Baltimore where the entire “college-prep” program was laid out beforehand. I had no electives. I then attended a unique college in Annapolis, Maryland where the entire four years were spent in reading the “great books” and taking four years of required courses leading to a liberal education. I never questioned the right of the faculty to tell me what I ought to study. If I were choosing my own reading material I might have chosen to read trash like Atlas Shrugged, if you can imagine!  It was simply a given that the faculty knew what would best prepare me and my classmates for a changing world — contrary to Mr. Elliot.

Needless to say, I think Elliot was terribly wrong, even in his day. Admitting my bias I would still maintain that today’s students — especially — need to be told what to learn by faculty who are admittedly not omniscient, but who know more than the kids do. How on earth can we expect a disinterested, ill-prepared 17-year-old person to know what college courses will make them wiser and better informed? We can’t. But we do. We hand them a course schedule and turn them loose on hundreds of courses of unequal weight and benefit and hope for the best.

I think it is time to admit that Elliot’s experiment in education went terribly wrong and that the colleges should shore up their basic requirements, at the very least. However, the trend is in the opposite direction as general courses are shrinking in our colleges and universities while electives and major requirements gain in numbers. This is a mistake from the students’ point of view as it makes them increasingly narrow at a time when they need greater breadth of learning across a wide panorama of subjects.

College faculties must take responsibility for the education of the young people who come to them embarrassingly ignorant and who are supposed to leave several years later able to make informed decisions that greatly affect their lives. The job of these faculties is not to turn out historians, poets, artists, accountants, or biologists. It is to turn out educated citizens. As things now stand, college professors refuse to take responsibility as they fight over territory and seek to protect their academic domain while the students look on perplexed and disinterested and wonder where the party will be this weekend after the football game.