The Value of the Classics–What you read is important, too

Pile of books

                I grew up in Morgantown, WV, the daughter of professors (as it turns out, the little sister of a couple of more professors).  Many of the kids I went to school with were also the sons and daughters of professors.  One such friend, Kate, was transferred out of our Blue Award-winning school right before her senior year of high school, because her father had taken a new position with the University of Pittsburgh (incidentally, arch-rivals of WVU).  With so many options for school, she ended up in an aggressive college-prep program and private school.  She did not love it.  As AP Tests were approaching, her English teacher handed out a list of all the books students should have read if they had attended the institution for their entire high school careers, and of these Kate had only read those which the senior class had read that year.

“That’s what you get for going to a school in West Virginia!” snarked one girl, after Kate raised her hand to explain.

Then, the teacher handed out a list of the recommended book list for AP Literature exams.  He asked if anyone in the classroom had read any of these books.  Kate looked around as one or two students had read one or two of the books, before raising her hand.

“I’ve read every single one of these.  That’s what you get for going to a school in West Virginia.”

* * *


                I tell this story for several reasons:  1) out of sheer middle-class delight in Snarky getting deliciously one-upped by Kate, and, 2) what were they thinking in depriving high schoolers of the greatest works in the English language or Western Civilization?  Why force post-modern literature on adolescents?  Is that not the purpose of college or long, disillusioned hitch-hiking trips across the country?  There is plenty of time for the wacky, the strange, the experimental, the nouveau, the trippy… etc., but can we at least provide a foundation in the great works?

Ok, so what does this have to do with history?  Only everything.  The great works of our civilization (in the grand “Western” sense of the word) is the humanities’ corpus.  It begins with the Greeks, the Romans, the Medieval Europeans, the Early Modern Europeans and then extended to some of the colonial production in the Americas.  This body of work reveals the great ideas (good and evil, destructive and productive, etc.) that help to explain our culture and society today.  It is a collection that constantly references itself throughout different eras and epochs.  Once that basic, though expansive, foundation is established, it grows to include an exposure to the rest of the world’s great literature, and if one has taken the time to really understand one’s own developmental leaps, it will be possible to gain an understanding of other civilizations, as well.

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The great works of literature, philosophy and theology are inextricably linked with the history that produced each piece.  They should not be taught separately, really, but should be harmoniously and simultaneously engaged.  The entanglement of Livy’s history of Rome and Augustus’s Rome through which Livy lived is inseparable from the work he wrote.  The same can be said about Augustine and the City of God, about Beowulf, about Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales, about  John Locke and Two Treatises of Government, about Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, about Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist, about Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse Five, etc., etc.

For an entertaining experience of this effect compare the Arthurian stories through history, beginning with the Arthurian-like leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, from the 6th century author and monk, Gildas; next, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version, written in 1135 AD, in History of the Kings of Britain; then, Chrétien de Troyes and the Arthurian Romances, written in 1170-1185 (notice how French his name sounds?);  Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (notice how French this Englishman’s title sounds?); onto Lord Alfred Tennyson’s version, Idylls of the King; and, finally T.H. White’s Once and Future King.  If you compare these works and the history contemporary with the authors, you get the opportunity for some pretty fascinating expositions in both history and literature—incidentally teachers, this makes a truly awesome collaborative elective!  (Note that Gildas and Nennius—another Arthur story source ca. 9th century Wales—and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History is available online.  The rest are found in any decent book store.)


History and the Great Books of literature, philosophy, drama, theology and, well, history are gloriously and inextricably entwined with each other.  They enrich each other.  Students studying Greece should read Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Herodotus and Demosthenes.  On the one hand, it is simply a sampling of the incredible number of varied sources we still have today that enrich our understanding of Greek culture; on the other hand, they have been continuously read since they were written and inform not only our own ideas of literature, drama, philosophy, history and politics, but have been embedded into our culture in ways we cannot possibly realize until we have been exposed to their elements or aphorisms or mechanisms.  One does not realize how ingrained Socratic dialogue is until one reads Plato’s dialogues.

American history should be accompanied with the literature, essays and philosophy that fueled it and responded to it.  It means reading Jonathan Edwards, Nathanial Hawthorne, Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving, and so many more in concert with the study of historical events and movements.  What is the point of inflicting Walden Pond on anyone without the historical context that makes it seem glorious to Henry David Thoreau and his cadre?  History is the primary reason for reading Thoreau (I’m not saying that Civil Disobedience is limited to its period, here, for the record, but understanding what he was responding to is just as important as recognizing his influence on later figures).


I am advocating an in depth initiation into Western Civilization precisely to understand the roots and developments of the culture.  Once that is achieved to a substantial degree, I further advocate the expansion to the history and great works of the world over.  Once one has read the great literary, theological and philosophical works of the West, continue with Bhagavad Gita, Lao Tzu’s Ta Ching, the Mayan Popul Vuh, etc.  I am not so rigid that I demand one wait on all of these other works until one is well-versed in Western Civilization, particularly if a good opportunity for exploration arises—being such a slave to a construct is as deficient as no construct at all.  However, I do think curriculums should not be aimed at world history and world literature before Western Civilization for students who are being raised in the West.  This does not presuppose that everything “Great” was simultaneously flawless.  Part of studying Western Civilization is recognizing the faults, although we must always seek to respect that our point of view did not exist in the eras that we study, while acknowledging that past eras do not earn a complete pass on moral action.  Finally, just because I endorse reading theology and philosophy does not mean that everyone must be a faithful adherent of such Western thought—indeed, it would be impossible even if one sought to be given the numbers of wars we have fought in the West over precisely those ideas.  My call and encouragement for this program is made for the sake of cultural literacy.

For educators or for others in a position to influence youth in studies of the past, I encourage an approach that allows for the study of Great Books to enrich history.  This used to be the primary method of education for the great intellectual giants in our history.  Its fall from such primacy is a tragedy in Liberal Arts education, and to an extent a further dumbing down of education.  While many teachers, programs and Boards of Education seek to achieve some semblance of this education, others are either skeptical of it, afraid of it (for varying reasons), or incapable of it (again, for varying reasons).  I know that American literature and American history are often required in the same years in high school, but I also know that the links between the history classroom’s material are not always made with that of the English classroom unless a teacher guides the students to make them (with some exceptions, of course).  Meanwhile, Shakespeare is seldom studied with the English Reformation in mind until college courses.  If one has the power to influence a link between the great written works of our civilization with its history, jump on it!  Make it come alive in ways students could not have imagined possible!


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Filed under Drama/Theater/Cinema, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction

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