Readers Weigh In on Teaching the Classics

National Association of Scholars

Readers of Ashley Thorne’s recent article in the British national newspaper The Guardian made numerous comments, many of them reflecting on the broader significance of the trends noted in NAS’s new report Beach Books. These are readers who recognize the validity of the critique that common reading programs with only contemporary books are missing the bigger landscape of the literary world.

Among the comments were:

  • “The attempt to eradicate older literature is all part of the attempt to change society in a radical way that is detached from previous human experience. […] If you only read books from the past 20 years then you are only exposed to the political ideas of your own time and that is very dangerous.”
  • “If students are taught well, they tend to find that they have a lot in common with the characters of the Iliad.”
  • “Set the bar high, as high as you can, and be passionate about what you teach. In reaching for the bar, they'll be airborne; set it low (and far too many schools are setting it way, way too low) and they trip over it and resent you like hell for thinking so little of them.”
  • “I'll stake my career on what this fine article and author note: we have to know our literary history. […] As Emily Dickinson said, ‘There is no Frigate like a Book/ to take us lands away...’ The classics both anchor us and carry us away.”
  • “Too many adults fail to see that a lot of kids, even if they don't know it yet, are starving to be intellectually challenged, and to be treated as if they can deal with something more complex than TV. We do them no favors by hiding everything difficult from them.”
  • “I would say the books that I have gained the most from have been at least 100 years old. I think a lot of people assume that before the 20th century no one knew anything, and thus disregard most of human culture.”
  • “It always amazes me that Dickens' book about his visit to the US in the early 1840's (American Notes) is not read more in America. It is entertaining, highly opinionated, and incredibly interesting from a historic point of view in tracing how America got from there to here. The sections on new town development, prisons, banking scams, and slavery are all highly relevant to today.”
  • “I know from my own experience that reading Old Stuff is a revelation; one discovers that many of our ‘modern’ (or even ‘postmodern’) predicaments were subjects of discussion as soon as writing was invented. And no doubt the subject of long oral traditions before that.”
  • “You cannot possibly understand the literature of your day if you do not understand the literature of your parents. An education in literature without a deep knowledge of the Western canon is just a reading group. […] I still remember how utterly insulting it felt that my teachers would grasp around for reasons that Shakespeare 'related' to my life. As if I couldn't understand another person’s experiences, or just merely enjoy the beauty of a thing.”
  • “It's quite impossible to understand the present without studying the past! If ‘the past’ is limited to the last few decades, even ‘contemporary’ literature will remain a puzzle.”
  • “A truly good author is one that can communicate across time without any mediation or interpretation from teachers. Then afterwards, some of the joy of literature is appreciating how the author is saying something differently to you than he did to your parents’ generation because of course we bring our own life and baggage to the experience when we read a book. […] Books can be utterly ruined if they are interpreted for you before you've had a chance to enjoy them as a private communication between the author and you.”
  • “Universities exist in part to challenge their students. Even at the beginning, they should be setting books with which their students will struggle, at least a little: how are they to learn, otherwise? Or to understand that higher standards exist than their own?”
  •  “This may be the 21st century, but we grew from the 20th, the 19th, the 18th, and all beyond. To cut ourselves off from what made us—which is what ignoring the classics essentially is—is like seeking to wipe out our collective memory. […] Blank out the past, and you risk blanking out the present and the future.”
  • “Many first-year students of literature now find reading 'an entire book' difficult. […] I find this scandalous. […] This is a matter of fundamentals, such as the ability to pay attention for long enough to read, say, thirty pages of adult prose, without distraction and with some understanding. […] I suspect that the choice of common reading texts reflects the beliefs and attitudes of current faculty concerning their students. I see no reason to doubt that they believe that standards have dropped over the last four decades to the point at which setting a book that presents any degree of difficulty is self-defeating. […] The choice of common reading texts may only be a straw in the wind: but it does indicate which way the wind is blowing.”
  • “This trend is indeed distressing to me. It would seem to be part of the dumbing down which includes the elimination of Latin and a disregard for the arts. It also follows an apparent lowering of standards across the board, not only in colleges, but in the wider world. Where can we find any models for educated judgment and established principles?”
  • “I lament every grand old book and author I have never read, and there are many of those, and cherish others that found their way to my eyes and wayward mind.”
  • “It's only a matter of time until a blog or a twitter stream is assigned to this generation as having historical significance.”
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