Like many lovers of classics, I have been distressed that the “culture wars” — as we probably shouldn’t call them, but do anyway — have increasingly engulfed the Great Books that I hold as necessary for any proper liberal education. If it were merely the quiet problem of crowding the curriculum, as increased attention to a wider and trendier diversity of authors would naturally entail, I doubt I would be quite so disturbed.
It’s the joy, however, with which some, particularly educators, reject classics that rankles me. Although the headline “Even Homer Gets Mobbed” from a little over a year ago turned out to be an exaggeration, it takes little imagination to see the crowd from Disrupt Texts being gleeful about the removal, year by year, of more Great Books from school curricula.
Twitter and other short-form social media (which is to say, all social media, really) already seem inherently hostile to the classics; try as some users might to give a pithy line from Plato, a meme of Milton, a gif of Goethe, the fact is that deep thought rarely fits into a character limit and never digests so rapidly as to fit between Tik and Tok. So, it’s no surprise when the result of online battles over identity literature, CRT, and the hegemony of tradition is either a pro forma apology from the advocates of tradition or some form of cancellation.
One day recently, however, I woke up and realized: that’s good. That’s the best news the classics have gotten in a while. I simply need to remember how to react to it properly.
The Machiavellian part of my teaching persona has long since learned to take advantage of my students’ desire to read the forbidden text. Teaching Chaucer at a previous school, I pleaded with my students not to read “The Miller’s Tale” lest I should get fired, and they returned the next day, saying, “I don’t know why you were so worried — ‘The Miller’s Tale’ wasn’t that bad.” Teaching now in a school that takes student voice into account when choosing texts, I start class with a quotation about censorship from Kurt Vonnegut and explain that Slaughterhouse-Five is an amazing and brilliant book that they should never ever read because of how inappropriate it is. The next semester, they’re clamoring to read Vonnegut’s Player Piano (to my mind, the better novel).
Few things are as perennial as the desire of students to rebel against restrictions, to side with the underdog, to be curious about what they are forbidden. To suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Facebook threads does not mean we need take arms and fight back on behalf of the classics. That the popular authority of The Internet(TM) stands against these books and authors means that we already have our students on our side.
All we have to do now is not lose them.
Social philosopher Eric Hoffer, that rare atheist who recognizes the value of religions to which he cannot bring himself to subscribe, wrote that “you can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.” (1)
The perpetual claim made to try to frighten the classics is that they are not relevant, that they do not speak to the diversity of readers whom we should be empowering, that they are literature by, for, and of wealthy white heterosexual Anglo-Christian males. If you’re not laughing with me yet, consider Homer: a differently-abled, brown-skinned, non-Christian, perhaps not-strictly-heterosexual Greek. Consider Christ: a working-class, brown-skinned Jew from the Middle East. Augustine, the African Berber. Shakspeare, the possibly bisexual religious minority. (2)
Consider Mary Shelley, daughter of the most powerful feminist of her century, single mother, inventor of the entire science fiction genre. Consider whose books Frederick Douglass, for whom learning to read was the greatest pride and source of power, kept in his personal library: Cicero and Carlyle, Homer and Goethe, Byron and Keats. When a student hears that these are the objects of derision for lacking diversity and empowerment, we need not concede that argument.
As to relevance, I point to the fourth-best book from the years 1599 and 1999.
The fourth-best thing written in 1599 was arguably As You Like It, a very memorable and enjoyable Shakspeare comedy. The three above it are by the same author. In 1599, Shakspeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, and Julius Caesar as well. His real project, however, was not finished until the next year. You may have heard of it: Hamlet.
The fourth-best thing written in 1999, according to Publisher’s Weekly, was the novelization of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. How does the relevance of modern popular writing hold up even two decades later?
The more that opponents of classics protest the Great Books’ irrelevance, the more they reveal their justified fear that their own era’s literature will soon prove irrelevant, while no bookstore or library will ever be complete without copies of the greatest hits from 1599.
To be canceled, or to be bullied into an apology, is both high praise and a great weapon granted by one’s opponents. We worry too readily over the fleeting power of denigration that has turned “trend” into a verb. The word, if we remember our Old English, means “to rotate or revolve,” which should be a sobering reminder, too, that revolutions are in their very nature the momentary motion of Croesus’s wheel of affairs.
Classics have endured such revolutions many times before, including the more deluded ones that believed burning books or killing thinkers would overcome their power. Socrates was banned by the Athenian courts; Christ was cancelled by the Romans. In the centuries since, the youth of far more than Athens have been “corrupted” by Socratic inquiry, and temples far beyond Judaea have been converted to Christianity.
Emerson reminds us: “The martyr cannot be dishonored. Every lash inflicted is a tongue of fame; every prison, a more illustrious abode; every burned book or house enlightens the world; every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side. Hours of sanity and consideration are always arriving to communities, as to individuals, when the truth is seen, and the martyrs are justified.”(3) Perhaps we should welcome the efforts to silence Great Books. Perhaps the response should not be a counter-campaign, or a resolution to make the halls of social media ring with quotations from our great forebears, but instead a dignified and courageous calm.
- Teaching the Great Books with Josh Gibbs
- Teaching Three Great Books with Flora Armetta
- The Black Intellectual Tradition and the Great Conversation with Anika Prather and Angel Parham
- Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (Hopewell, 2006).
- The romantic proclivities of pre-modern authors are, of course, subjects of speculation rather than certainty. The point at issue is merely whether there is any diversity (as this is typically conceived) among the authors of the classics.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation.” Accessed 15 February 2022.
Nathan E. Bradshaw has been a liberal arts teacher for his entire professional career, having studied Literature at Davidson College and the Great Books in the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College. He and his wife are currently co-directors of East Burke School, a human-scale high school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where they tailor their curriculum to introduce rural students to the classics.
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