Classical Considerations on “The Classics”

Classical Considerations on “The Classics”

“A classic is any book that stays in print.”

“A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rule, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” Ezra Pound

A classic is “something that everybody wants to have read

and nobody wants to read.”

Mark Twain 1900 in Disappearance of Literature *

It’s a Classic…..What is?

This question ought to have plagued parents since Greek philosophers began their academies; since Gutenberg revolutionized media access; and since parents, as students, personally suffered through educational reforms redefining “the classics” of literature to each new litter of guinea pigs.

Many a guinea pig was scarred and scared via the latest ed reform dictates of

The Classics.”

Ruminating on my own experience as a 70’s government school guinea pig, whose middle school eighth grade (age thirteen years) literature diet included: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Uncle Tom’s Cabin; having been preceded by a seventh grade year of Literature including Greek Mythology and Edgar Allen Poe ad nauseum; has provided ample motivation for improving literary digestion.

Such an experience of profound literary darkness has precipitated many questions, chasms, observations, analyses, and considerations prior to exposing our own child to what some “academics” classify as “the classics.”

There are ample lists of “classics” out there, but prior to embarking on your own journey I’d offer some considerations, Socratic Questioning, if you will….and some suggestions to ponder and perhaps apply.

  1. What’s the purpose in reading the classics or any work of literature?

Starting with The Most Classic of any classics, The Judeo-Christian Scriptures, I’d offer, the purpose is the Intergenerational transmission of Values from one generation to the next. Only those cultures that successfully transmit their values, survive. Deuteronomy 6.

C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, elaborates on education’s role in establishing the concept of knowing virtue and value, right and wrong, truth from lies;

“Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age of reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in “ordinate affections” or “just sentiments,” will easily find first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.”

The best place to start with a knowing of right and wrong is the Decalogue, the outline known as the Ten Commandments, or the summarized form: “Love The Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

  1. Who do you want your child/student to identify with? Or empathize with?

Whether active or passive parenting– active or passive learning will occur. Wherever the mind focuses attention, that focus, or idea, will impress and decorate one’s mind; particularly if it engages one with identifying characters evoking strong emotions, especially fear, graphic descriptions or a sense of accomplishment or greater cause.

While much of the publicity for “the classics” is advocated as identifying with and witnessing human nature, it must be recognized that much of human nature may not be appropriate for the maturity of most students. Identifying, relating, connecting, easily transfers to empathy and action.

Reflecting on the 60’s and 70’s literary diet one can see the road as somewhat propagandized with an agenda; An educational agenda clearly inconsistent with my own parents’ values.

It would have been far more beneficial for us to have read C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Johanna Spyri’s, Heidi or Cornelli, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or John Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress. Which precipitates an interesting observation– most of these lists of classics omit the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald entirely. Who controls the lists?

  1. Is your student emotionally, socially and spiritually prepared for this?

When selecting any literature, particularly “the classics”, one must recognize that cognitive abilities to decode and opportunities for vocabulary expansion do not necessarily coincide with emotional, social, spiritual, and political maturity. Exposure to shocking emotional, graphic descriptions, vulgar language, sexual forays, humanistic ideologies, paganism, whimsical witchcraft and outright butchery may never be advised; but particularly for a child, regardless of age, who is not mature enough for this acid rain.

Parents ought to read all materials prior to reading with or assigning literature to a student. Parents also ought to recognize that several classics from the 1800’s are affected by the occult of spiritualism, eager to make contact with dead spirits. Thus, the focus on ghosts, apparitions, mysticism, etc. fed by scientists such as William Crookes and authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and dark, gothic novels such as Wuthering Heights, which some also add in this morose category of literature.

  1. How to select a Classic?

Apply the same filter for any literature or media. Ask those questions: Who wrote it? Research the author. Just as in any tidbit of information, always consider the source. What were/are their values? When did they write it? Why did they write it? Who published it? What are the illustrations? (More than once we’ve regretted the artist’s renditions in “classics”) What is the value of reading this? What do we hope to gain from investing our precious time in this book?

  1. Is this Fact or Fiction? History or Fantasy? Biography or Novel?

Is this Real or Pretend?

The lines between fact or fiction are getting more blurred, as the debasement of language continues. The word “Story”, now means fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, and fabrication. With the advent of digital media, on-line and unvetted self-publishing, Computer Graphics Animation, on-line access to infotainment, social media, e-learning, electronic books, and virtual reality gaming– many youth and adults today have profound difficulty distinguishing between reality, fantasy, fact or fiction. It’s been aptly stated:

“Perception is 99% of reality.”

Parents and mentors must explicitly clarify whether the Literature is: factual history, truthful accounts of historical events, firsthand autobiographical narrative or fiction, fantasy, story, allegory, analogy etc. Parents must also guide children in their active pursuit of learning to detect the “truths” within the narrative, do their own active research, develop wise discernment and smell the propaganda in opinions, summations, and experiential narratives. Remember, “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect the lies.” **

  1. How to study a Classic?

Learning and memory retention are both a function of Space and Time.

In order to truly gain from a “Classic”, or any work of literature one must be prepared to make the relationship of space and time, where and when this literature is taking place. One must know the Geography and the History. Space and Time, Where and When, Geography and History, address both hemispheres of the brain.

For example, prior to reading Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” the reader needs to know the Geography of Europe, particularly England and France, as well as the European History of at least the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; Revolutions, Republics, ideologies, Age of Reason, Enlightenment, etc. An Adams’ Synchronological Timeline is an excellent resource for framework and review.

The displacement of accurate American and World History in government education these last fifty years is precisely why The Classics of all genres have been decimated in meaning and learning. They have been replaced with evaporated versions, mere opinions and informational texts and technical manuals designed to design technicians, and emotional social justice advocates; not citizens capable of reasoned self-governing and intellectual piety under God.

The result is students who think they have “read The Classics” yet haven’t a clue as to why the classics might enlighten. The lack of foundational knowledge in World History and the lack of parents and educators capable of teaching, mediating the meaning of the Classics with a Judeo-Christian worldview, contributes to the crumbling hopes of America as a nation of virtuous, free, reasoning, courageous and prosperous individuals.

  1. What Format?

A paper bound printed real book is always the best for a multitude of reasons.

From a sensory learning perspective the visual, tactile, proprioceptive and chronologic nature of a real book contributes immensely to learning and memory. Learning and memory happen by relationship forming connections with the literature, which is enhanced via personal notations, definitions, underlining, reflections and dating made on the book pages itself.

A paper bound book also assists in grasping the cause and effect, action and consequence challenge that is plaguing many individuals today. Increasing numbers of youth suffer from an episodic grasp of reality (EGR), the root of which is a lack of relating cause to effect; their own action, which results in consequences. Thus, the unrepentant patterns continue to repeat and multiply unsavory consequences.

Paper books also permits parental, guardian or mentor review and mediation; As well as future reference, verification, research, and reflective notation. Yes! With maturity and life, good books should be read again! And these become valuable treasures for heirs, children, grandchildren and family to gain insights and transmit those intergenerational values.

Since, digital media is only as long lasting as the battery, the contract, the ethernet-accessing device, the FCC regulations or PC censorship, paper is always best. But, for the elderly, visually impaired or select learning disabilities an electronic mode with magnification, less weight and bulk, variable contrast, and translation options or an auditory mode can be quite helpful.

  1. What’s the Value of Good Literature?

Beyond the points already highlighted, some reiterated, include: phonetic decoding, vocabulary, imagination, communication, and human nature. Recall that multitudes of Americans and particularly children and youth are not able to read (decode) phonetically. Decades of “sight reading”, “whole word”, “context” and “pictorial” reading have left generations of Americans illiterate. American illiteracy has been magnified exponentially via the use of smart phones, text messaging, audio texting and e-learning. Most elementary educators are no longer taught how to teach phonetic reading. Literature that presents a rich variety of language, such as that in many western classics provides a wealth of vocabulary to decode, discuss and equip minds to think, communicate and innovate.

We can’t talk about ideas unless we have words to describe them and be able to communicate richly within our own minds and with one another. The most effective way to debase a people is via debasement of their language. Imagination, innovation, empathy, comprehending human nature, and shared values all require a rich store of linguistic language. Have a Webster’s Dictionary by your side to verify the meanings, and Latin, Greek and Germanic roots etc. and model this practice of verification, analysis, and life-long learning to your heirs.

Intergenerational Transmission of Values. Every culture has their “classics”. The classics are not just a Western Tradition. The Middle East, East, African, Latin and Island locales have their traditions, literature, music and art. Each ethnicity and most nations have a common shared, oft-overlapping, and at times conflicting, heritage. Literature, music, art, foods and fashion are means by which values, faith, knowledge and beliefs are transmitted from one generation to the next. In essence these are the transmissions of culture. Most of us belong to more than one culture.

Literature, music, art, foods and fashion are also the means by which cultures, values and faith can be transformed. Cultures can be transformed for better or for worse; or from deprivation, distortion, degradation, and mutation or to extinction.

Literature can unify and nationalize, such as The German Classicism under Goethe and Schiller, or rationalize such as German Romanticism and idealism under Hegel, Fichte, Kleist, Schlegel etc. Or propagandize such as Mao’s Little Red Book, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, or Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Just because it’s out there, does not mean one needs to feast upon it.

The author of most of The New Testament shares wise counsel regarding any thinking pursuits:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things.”

The Apostle Paul, letter to the Philippians 4:8

  1. Classical Standardization?

With the advent of standardized testing, computer (artificial intelligence) driven embedded formative assessments, social media and e-learning, we face the peril of mass producing mass men. Think Communist China on terabytes.

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” With short attentions spans, and limited vocabularies, there has developed a check-a-box, cubicle mentality toward the classics, literature and independent thinking, in general.

“Just give me the bottom line. What opinion am I supposed to have for the test?…..For image presentation?…. To look PC, fit in, and get the job?…What’s trending today?”

Resist the temptation to standardize by feeling one must “read” all the classics, form the same cut and paste opinion and give the testing Borg, the matrices mongers the answers that will “score” points.

  1. How many should we read?

The Stoic philosopher, Seneca (b. 4 B.C.) is recorded to have advised: “read good books many times, rather than many books.”

Thinking takes time and needs to be rewarding in order to create a memory trace. Best make sure the reward is intrinsically motivated…. otherwise you’ve just been behaviorally modified like a guinea pig…. classically. 

Regardless of your own educational exposure to literature and the classics, a comment to encourage a study of human nature comes from a man whose works are noted as profoundly “classic” tragedy, and whose life experiences reveal why he could express such convincing depth in this realm, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky wrote:

“I never could understand the reason why one-tenth part of our people should be cultured, and the other nine-tenths must serve as the material support of the minority and themselves remain in ignorance.” Diary of a Writer, January 1876

As one critic noted regarding Dostoevsky,

“In the midst of general prosperity, he alone spoke of the cultural crisis and of the unimaginable catastrophe that awaited the world.” 

Crime and Punishment is not for the young or the faint of heart.

Perhaps one might begin with Little Women, and like the character authoress Jo, note how much there is to learn from good literature with a good, wise teacher, who also knows how to refute the philosophical pyrotechnics of Hegel and Kant, acknowledges God on the Throne, in his heart and in his mind.….and models a working relationship with The Author.

….back to work. 

* Mark Twain was referring to a learned academic’s opinion of Milton’s Paradise Lost meeting the definition of “classic” literature.

** Walter Lippmann


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