The Importance of Teaching the Classics

How the classics help students relate to the human condition
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One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “‘Out, out—,’” in which the poet begins with a rustic scene wherein a boy badly injures himself cutting wood using a buzz saw. The poem ends, suddenly, with the boy succumbing to his injuries. On first reading, I was surprised and felt visceral sadness; I did not expect the boy to die. Upon further reflection, I was taken with the theme — that we are sometimes at the mercy of powers which are so large our lives are insignificant in comparison. 

Paying attention to the title of the poem, one notices a peculiar feature: it is in quotation marks. Reading the poem again years later, I realized why: The title comes from a famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, spoken by the titular character upon being told of his wife’s death (emphasis mine):

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, 

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, 

To the last syllable of recorded time; 

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! 

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, 

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, 

And then is heard no more. It is a tale 

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 

Signifying nothing.

On first reading, I hadn’t yet read Macbeth and wasn’t aware of the connection. Having since read the great play, I then could. It didn’t change the idea of the poem for me, but it had a profound effect on how I experienced the poem. Knowing the previous work upon which Frost’s poem comments opened up possibilities not just of what the poem could do, but what poetry could do, what all great literature does.

In English classes across the country, there are teachers who are motivated to get rid of the classics in schools, who would dismiss Frost as just another dead, white, cis, hetorsexual man. In his place, they would urge a writer who is more “inclusive,” one who is more in touch with what school aged children are going through. 

Classic literature reaches backward into history and connects us to our culture. In a class which is devoted to teaching only modern or recent literature, we are depriving students of a shared culture tracing back thousands of years. The argument is often made that students from diverse backgrounds either don’t share this culture or aren’t represented by this culture, but this is poor reasoning. Frederick Douglass read the classics, and it allowed him to see himself as a part of the American project, not apart from it. The Western literary tradition belongs to all of us. 

Shakespeare, for instance, speaks to something human inside each of us that is real and important. This resonance is what has allowed his work to last while others haven’t. To select books based on a standard of current relevance is to ignore that our current moment is fleeting; much of what is written now won’t last for the fact it is transient, as were many works which haven’t survived to our time.

It is common practice to focus on criticizing the present, or viewing historic authors through a modern lens, only to discuss the ways in which they don’t measure up to current standards. This is folly. To read the great works of literature is to grapple with the fact that all humans are subject to the vicissitudes of their time, that we are all influenced by our culture, and that even the best of us are flawed, but we are also sublime. I wince at the use of the n-word in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I also rejoice at Huck’s coming-of-age in which he comes to view Jim in the fullness of his humanity. To remove a work such as this is to ignore our sublimity in abject fear of our flaws. 

Great literature allows us to see the universal in the particular. An understanding of the classics puts one in touch with the abstract universality of the human experience. This feature of literature is what makes it eternally relevant. It is a nod to something larger than ourselves, yet which still includes ourselves. 

The works of Homer and Shakespeare, of Morrison and Walker, of Wilde and Woolf allow us to experience worlds to which we otherwise have no access. By doing so, one learns, despite all that has changed, we have remained largely the same. To be guided through this experience by the greatest minds in history is to put us in conversation with our profoundest collective truths. To trade that in for visibility, or a meditation on identity characteristics which separate us from one another is to rob students of an invaluable gift. 

The resultant obsession with self has resulted in such a balkanization that we no longer know how we connect with something which isn’t us. One’s personal identity is indeed important to themselves, but unless it’s coupled with an understanding of our common humanity, it results in division and suspicion. If all you have in common with one another is the concern that anyone, at any time, can do or say something which gives away that they are your enemy, you get what we have in our culture today. Reading and understanding classical literature may not be the singular solution to this problem, but not doing so contributes to it. We need a return to the works which inform us all of what it is to be human. We need a return to the classics.

 

Jason A. Furey
Jason A. Furey is a high-school English teacher from Wisconsin. He is a regular contributor to Chalkboard Review and has been published in City Journal and National Review.