What I hadn’t realized when I was in school was that a degree only takes maybe 12 courses

What I hadn’t realized when I was in school was that a degree only takes maybe 12 courses

The impossible ideal of a collegiate Classical education – an idea so beloved of so many university professors – has killed the spirit of autodidacticism that allowed many 19th- and 20th-century Americans to achieve the same result

If, for each course, you read only 10 books (Stanford is on the quarter system, so each class was only 12 weeks long), then you get a degree by reading 120 books. Of these, most, if you’re an English major, will be comparatively recent modern novels. Others will be much too long to teach in a single course. That’s how you can graduate from a Russian Literature program (as my ex-boyfriend did) without reading Anna Karenina or War and Peace or from an English Department without reading Moby-Dick. The truth is that if one is to be truly given a Classic education, there is no room for fat in the curriculum. One of your 12 courses must be devoted to Plato and Aristotle, another to the Greek playwrights, a third to Shakespeare, and so on. In the bygone era of the WASP or Victorian British gentry, students had to start this education in secondary school, and even then, most graduated college without knowing much of anything.

But even if college didn’t stunt people’s desire to learn on their own, it’s highly unclear whether knowing the Classics confers any social or professional advantage. What proponents of the Classical education misunderstand is that people never learned Latin and Greek merely because it would “make you a better thinker” or “give you access to the world’s knowledge.” They learned those languages because, at certain times and places, it offered a concrete way of getting ahead. Generally, those were times and places when there was strong growth in a nation’s management responsibilities and when the traditional aristocracy was unable to meet those responsibilities. The middle class, kГ¤y tГ¤llГ¤ sivustolla täällГ¤ to prove itself, would adopt the culture of the aristocrats, and do it better than they ever could. It’s only the active engagement of the middle class that has ever renewed knowledge of the Classics.

Notice, I leave aside the question of whether knowledge of the Classics makes you a better thinker or more capable leader. I would argue that it probably does but that, in most eras, the wisdom conferred by the Classics is more likely, as Tocqueville noted, to discourage you from pursuing paths to power. As we can see in our own culture, nuance and wisdom are nowhere particularly desired. This is a time for anger, action, and black-and-white thinking.

At most other times, the Classics would languish: they would either be actively disdained, as in early medieval Britain or high Republican Rome, or they would be given mere lip service, as during most of American history

Moreover, during this time, power is increasingly wielded only by the few, and they wield it due to their birth rather than their merits. It’s obvious in the biographies of our politicians, our business leaders, our actors, singers, biographers, and academics. Increasingly, only the extremely well off and well connected are achieving prominence and wielding power. In this environment, only the education of those few can be a matter of public interest. For the bulk of Americans, who are destined to be employees rather than bosses, and whose public role, even as citizens, has been increasingly devalued by the slipping-away of our democracy, there is little need to concern oneself with their education, nor do I think it will be possible to get them to ignore the fact that the wisdom conferred by a Classical education will be useless to them in the life of precarity and drudgery to come.