Feb
06

Why the Classics?

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One of the hallmarks of a Regents Academy education is exposure to the truth, beauty, and goodness inherent in the Great Books.

We do so through our course called the Omnibus, which students take in the 7th through 12th grades. In addition to studying writing, vocabulary, and the facts of history, students read the great authors, poets, philosophers, dramatists, and theologians who have shaped Western civilization. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the Western canon has gone the way of the dinosaur in most academic circles. It behooves us to remember why our school is seeking to recover this precious heritage.

The following excerpts from the article “The Necessity of the Classics” by Dr. Louise Cowan, first published in the Intercollegiate Review in 2001 and republished by Memoria Press in 2011, present a passionate assertion of why we need the classics in our children’s education. Dr. Cowan reminds us why it is so critical to recover a study of the Great Books – especially the classics – as we strive to endow students with a Christian worldview and train them to love truth, beauty, and goodness.

We have begun to see a world in which the classics have virtually disappeared—though they have been woven so tightly into the patterns of our culture that meaning, for us, is hardly separable from them. For a while we may be able to get by on the echoes of their past glory; but when they finally have become perfectly silent, what sort of world shall we inhabit? To lose the classics is to lose a long heritage of wisdom concerning human nature, something not likely to be acquired again. Yet most college curricula now remain sadly untouched by their august presence, or at best make a gesture in their direction with a few samplings for select students. Such neglect is one of the most serious threats our society faces today.
This body of writing, until recently considered the very center of European and American education, has stood guard over the march of Western civilization, preserving its ideals of truth and justice, whatever its lapses may have been. And the later writers included in this remarkable group of texts have continued the unsparing examination of conscience that the Greeks inaugurated three thousand years ago. Hence, the Greeks make up the unmistakable foundation of our body of classics. To be ignorant of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles is to be ignorant of the range and depth of human possibility.

The primacy of the Greeks in the Western curriculum, then, as Bernard Knox, one of our foremost classical scholars, insists, is not a result of any decree by a higher authority; neither Church nor State has imposed them, nor even men of money and power. The Greek texts hardly compose a ―master narrative‖ enforced by conservative tradition. Nor has any ethnic group gained power or prestige from their study. They have had their effect, quite simply, from their intrinsic quality: and it is that quality—to which the classics call us all—that makes them immortal. . . .

Heroism is one of the fundamental patterns built into all of us, a universal potentiality that must, however, be ignited to be realized. America has been steeped in the classical heroic tradition. But it can easily remain merely latent if each generation simply starts over again without the guidance of the classics. Admiration for the heroic principle will surface from time to time in surprising ways; but without a tradition of reverence it is likely to be deformed and misplaced. A godlike aspiration, a selfless desire for a commitment to a calling, a sense that honor is far more valuable than life—these are aspects of the soul that must be awakened by a vision of the high and the noble.

And herein lies one of the great values of studying the classics: our poetic heritage gives imperishable form to the heroic aspiration. Shakespeare’s Henry V, Melville’s Moby Dick, Conrad’s Lord Jim, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—these and other works enter into a dialogue with the Greek and Roman classics to kindle the image of the hero within the individual soul. The heroic thus be-comes not a set of rules but a living ideal, incarnated in the lives of us all.

Our loss of the Greeks and Romans is symptomatic of our loss of the idea of quality and of aspiration, our loss of the heroic which is known in poetry. . . . Our need for the classics is intense. Yet any defense of them in our time must come from a sense of their absolute necessity— not from a desire to inculcate ―cultural literacy,‖ or to keep alive a pastime for an elite, but to preserve the full range of human sensibility. What is needed is to recapture their spirit of high nobility and magnanimity, of order and excellence, but to recapture that spirit in a framework of democracy engendered by a Biblical culture of radical openness. The things worth preserving, the things we ought to be passing down, far transcend any single heritage: they partake of the fundamental structures of being itself. Melville called them the ―heartless, joyous, ever-juvenile eternities. And if our children do not encounter these realities in their studies, they are not likely to encounter them at all. Greatness of soul is an aspect of human being as such, but it is not a quality that comes naturally. It must be taught. The classics have become classics because they elicit greatness of soul. Far from being a particular province of the specialist, they are the essential foundation of our educational process and the impulsion toward that forward movement of the human spirit for which schools exist. In an unpoetic age, we have to learn all over again what and how to teach our own children. We need to re-read the Greeks.

I strongly encourage you to read the full article online, and, even better, pick up the Aeneid or the Odyssey and then have a discussion with your children about them.

Categories : from the headmaster

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