Related Reading: Education and Classics

I feel as if I’m caught in a reading zeitgeist, with many online articles touching on similar themes.

At The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz details what he sees as “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education“:

[I]t makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you …[and] inculcates a false sense of self-worth.

An education from an elite US university, like Yale, will reinforce the class system, and prepare students for the security of an upper-class job, not introspection and independent thought.

In “The New Learning That Failed” at The Criterion (link from Arts & Letters Daily), Victor David Hanson argues that modern universities have lost two important lessons from a classic, Western education: the value of self-criticism and introspection, and theories of exploitation based in the real world. The result, according to Hanson, is pedagogy focused on what to think, not how to think.

Hanson also notes the loss of three things that used to distinguish between what once was studied in a traditional liberal arts education, and pop culture:

an appreciation that a few seminal works of art and literature had weathered fad and cant and, by general agreement, due to their aesthetics or insight, or both, spoke universally to the human condition.

[an] old assumption that professors, through long training, were necessary to guide students through such classic texts [like] Dante’s Inferno

an appreciation of a manner of formal thought and beauty that separated some high art and literature from more popular and accessible counterparts.

Historian David McCullough echoed this idea of established classics in a recent commencement speech, “The Love of Learning” (link from Mental Multivitamin):

Read for pleasure, to be sure… But take seriously–read closely–books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again.

At The Times, Rod Liddle writes about books that don’t survive their age (link from Bookslut):

[T]hey seem to be books that fitted in far too comfortably with the sensibilities of a certain chattering-class elite when they were published. Remove a work of fiction from the milieu in which it was written and you remove some of its purpose and point, of course; however, with Hesse, Powell and Fowles, as with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you seem to lose all the purpose and point. Everything simply evaporates.

Liddle’s, though a rant, is similar in subject to Jonathan Yardley at the Washington Post on Cannery Row and other Steinbeck works (link from Arts & Letters Daily):

Not many books of our youth survive unscathed into what passes for our maturity, and many other books await that maturity before we are ready to appreciate and understand them.

For more on Steinbeck’s books as classics, see “The Rescuing of Steinbeck” at The New York Review of Books. (link from Arts & Letters Daily)

All of the preceding articles provide an interesting context for Entertainment Weekly’s lists of new classics–the top 100 since 1983 in books, movies, tv, music, and more. In the blogosphere, at least, EW’s lists seems to have quickly eclipsed the AFI’s 10 top 10, released the same week. As with any list, there’s a great deal of righteous protest: This should have been higher, that lower, this one’s missing, I can’t believe that one is on there.

EW qualifies their lists up front. They’re not only based on quality, but on influence. They include recent works, because that’s what EW does–it’s a weekly magazine for entertainment, focusing on what’s new.

A few things struck me about the lists, and the commentary on it. First, I think there’s great value in a waiting period to see if a work endures. Second, lists are only ever a starting point for discussion. Nearly every list that’s published acknowledges this, but that gets lost in the ensuing outrage. Third, I think there was a great deal of justice done in the lists for works that were critically acclaimed but not blockbusters, or for things like comics that still aren’t considered by many to be real books. Finally, my own numbers told an interesting story: 37 books, 87 movies, 67 television shows, and 46 albums. I don’t agree with all of EW’s choices, and I think they put too much emphasis on recent works, but it affirmed why I am a fan of the magazine–I like much of what the writers like, so EW is a good index of things I might like.

3 Responses to “Related Reading: Education and Classics”

  1. SmallWorld Reads Says:

    Great post!! I love this quote by the WP especially: “Not many books of our youth survive unscathed into what passes for our maturity, and many other books await that maturity before we are ready to appreciate and understand them.” When I have a few minutes I need to read that Steinbeck article.

  2. Amy Says:

    There’s a value in waiting to see if a book endures, but I don’t necessarily think a book should be devalued because it doesn’t. Same thing for books that were important to me as a youth that would bore/embarrass me to tears now. It’s all part of the process of living.

    That said, the books that I bother to reread are few and far between, because there are simply too many other books out there that I’m dying to read. Among those that I do reread periodically is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I read again about every five years, and I always seem to get something more from it. Hmmm…it’s been almost five years…

  3. girldetective Says:

    SWR, Thank you! This post was banging like Athena in my head, and the longer I took to write it, the more links accumulated that I needed to add. I was getting rather dizzy thinking about them and am glad to have them written down.

    Both Steinbeck articles are interesting, but negative about his work. They wonder why the books are still so popular. After my book group’s discussion, I don’t wonder; I was the only one who didn’t love the book. One woman commented that when she read Grapes in high school, she probably skipped the commentary chapters to focus on the Joads. As a 40yo she read them, but paid them less attention. They didn’t bother her as much as they did me.

    Amy, I agree that it’s impolite to disregard books from our youth that were important, or books that don’t endure. But I think that best-of lists that include up-to-the minute choices will pick more duds than one that has some perspective of time. I never found a compelling review to read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty,and I wonder if that will still be deemed a new classic in a few years. And I wonder if other recent books, like Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which I loved, might show stamina in the longer run.

    I read the Stegner a few years ago, when my sister recommended and lent it to me. I loathed it. I thought it was an anti-feminist tirade by a sexist old man, and was so moved by my dislike that I wrote a long essay on it for the now-defunct site Chicklit. To each her own. It makes for some wonderful book discussions.