The classics of western man

May 01, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

I've been reading lately about the demise of study in the "classics" at the college level. By the classics is meant the historical canon of western thought and tradition, starting with the Greeks and then moving on to the Romans, the early Christian era followed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, ending in the Industrial and the Modern eras. These periods were defined by thinkers and writers in Europe and subsequently including America. Yes, they were almost all white men - and this explains why they are now no longer held in the esteem they once were. As one who has been enthralled for most of my life by the great western classics, I find this situation in our colleges and universities distressing. In 1972, when I was a junior in college (more precisely a second classman at the US Air Force Academy) an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman came on campus and in addition to selling encyclopedias, he was also selling a series called "Great Books of the Western World" (GBWW). He had a persuasive sales pitch and threw in all sorts of extras and painless payment options to get an impressionable 20 year old to buy the 54 volumes of writings of dead white men. His pitch worked with me. Although my decision to buy was surely impulsive, in retrospect, it was one of the wisest decisions I ever made. For many a year since then I have proclaimed that this was the best purchase I made in my entire life. The pleasure per dollar that I've gotten from these 54 volumes has been all that one could hope for from a purchase (and yes, my camera equipment has brought me much pleasure per dollar spent as well, but I'd rate GBWW higher). As I write this in 2012, it's now 40 years that I have owned them. The GBWW hold a prominent place on my bookshelves and more importantly, they are not just for show. They have given me priceless knowledge and entertainment since the day they were delivered back in - I'd guess - the spring of 1972 and continuing thorough to the present day. Youth today who are not aware of these writings are missing much that the world has to offer them. A few evenings spent reading "The History" of Herodotus or "The Essays" of Montaigne or the plays of Aeschylus (not to mention Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, etc) will bring home that the problems we face in society have been faced by others through the ages and dealt with, that it is in our nature for logic, myth, and feelings to struggle and that somehow this struggle when faced, accepted and blanced makes us all the more human. I agree, one should not study the classics in college in expectation of finding employment based on them alone, but as a one semester or one year survey course, they can and will make the mathematician or computer scientist or secondary ed teacher better at their chosen specialty, and possibly sew the seeds of future continued personal growth in this rich tradition. And, like it or not, we all (men, women, people of all races and nationalities) stand on the shoulders of these giants - perhaps not exclusively, but in a large degree.


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