Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What is a Classic?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s a very good chance that your classical reading is not what you think it is. What I mean is that many of the presumed classics you may have read are really not classics at all.

You might question my right to make such a claim. After all, my training is in the sciences and there is a lot of good literature that I still haven’t read. Even so, I stand behind my claim. The more I stumble through our so-called modern classics and best-sellers the more I realize their fiction: they just aren’t classics.

What my children are reading in their high school and college English classes are award-winning novels. It is a gross misjudgment to call them classics. I don’t mean they are poorly written; they aren’t. Nor do I mean that their stories aren’t interesting or even important; many of them are. I do mean that they usually lack the key ingredient of a classic: a timeless and significant accounting of the great questions.

Now many of our award-winning novels are thought-provoking stories. Many of them also touch on great themes. But the great questions - sometimes called the Terrible Questions - are almost always absent. These are the questions inextricably associated with religion: Why are we here? What does death mean? How is it possible to find meaning in life?

Not all religions answer these questions alike. In a society that allows for differing religious beliefs, it is inevitable that these questions will be answered differently. But the fact remains that the sacred texts of these religious traditions, insofar as they grapple with the great questions, are classics.

Of course, you might not like your children reading my religious books at school. And I might not like my children reading your religious books either. Or maybe were both a bit more enlightened and are OK with this sort of cultural exchange. Either way we both have to acknowledge that some people would be offended by it. In a free society, it makes sense to keep controversial religious opinions out of public schools.

This doesn’t mean, though, that we should keep the great questions out of public schools. In fact one has to wonder how we can claim to be providing any kind of a quality education without them.

In the past we managed nicely with an accepted bundle of classics from Ancient Greece, Rome and pre-modern Europe (sacred Eastern texts were also included at times). And while these texts were mostly products of Western Civilization, they were suitable for a religiously diverse culture to discuss in a public forum.

Yet very often we look in vain to find them. What has happened to them? I think the answer is a combination of things. An important obvious reason is that there isn’t much money any more for the humanities. Another reason is that the remaining classical courses are only electives anymore. Yet another reason is that we’ve started teaching from award-winning novels instead of from the classics.

Now I don’t mean to be disrespectful of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, or Harper Lee. In fact I like some of their writing a lot. I’m even happy that my children read them (for the most part). But I’m not at all happy that their books are taking the place of the classics. [I group Mark Twain with the award-winning novelists because I think he would have received an award if they would have been available in his day.]

It’s instructive to consider for a moment how literary awards are given. The important ones are chosen from a panel of representatives from prestigious publishers (of books, newspapers and magazines). One is hard pressed to find religious representatives - or from anybody who is particularly interested in the great questions.

This is really very understandable. Publishing houses along with other media sources (what Richard Weaver called the Great Stereopticon) are the great competitors of religion for the minds of citizens in a free society. I’m not suggesting that this competition is necessarily a bad thing. Yet while it may be true that actively religious people get exposure to the great questions through their participation at church, more people never take the chance to do so.

Instead, we force everyone to read whatever award-winning novel their particular English teacher happens to be familiar with. The great questions about what it means to be human are never considered. And we delude ourselves into thinking that our modern world is all that matters and that the solution to any problem, can be solved by popular vote.

Sadly, we now live in a society reaping the rewards of this myopia. Instead of wise leaders with a moral backing in what really matters, we have figureheads making decisions based on opinion polls. Nobody wants to talk about the important questions in public because we’ve thrown their associated texts out of our schools.

The result of all this is a society that has lost its moral grounding. We’ve pulled anchor and don’t know where we’ve drifted. Even worse, we don’t know where we’re going. Many of us are enjoying the scenery at least for the moment. But there’s a word associated with waking up from a dream and not knowing where you are. It’s called fear. And fear can only be the heritage of drifting souls.

One thing, however, is certain. We’ll never learn how to change this without a good deal of thinking about the great questions. It’s certainly time we stop confusing false classics for the real thing.


Weaver, R.M. 1948. Ideas Have Consequences. University of Chicago Press.

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