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"The Classics": An Abused And Overused Culture Wars Media Trope

April 2, 2008

[Note: This was originally written in January 2007. I’m reposting it (with mild editing) for Kristi M. Wilson, Assistant Director of Stanford University’s Hume Writing Center and Lecturer in its Program in Writing and Rhetoric. She plans to have students in her class, “Ancient rhetoric in modern contexts,” comment on the piece. Feel free to join or observe the discussion. – TL]

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While researching the great books idea for the past seven or eight years, I encountered hundreds of media stories about “the classics.” It’s been a popular subject to toss around during the culture wars. Unfortunately, many legitimate educational and cultural issues are obscured by “the classics” trope. The term has become overly vague, inclusive of too many variables. For instance, promoting the reading of great books is quite distinct from efforts to promote the classics. The former include both ancient and modern works, up to authors such as Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf, while the classics are generally comprised of ancient Greek and Roman texts.

Vagaries surrounding the phrase make it difficult to understand what journalists are truly talking about when they use it. Moreover, I think a lot of the media’s attention to the classics is just an attempt to capitalize on the idea’s culture wars currency – ultimately to sell advertising. This does a great disservice to the general public. Media misuse of the classics idea causes important educational issues to become buried in inflammatory, culture wars rhetoric.

Yesterday, for instance, I was drawn in by a Washington Post article titled “Why Read Shakespeare When Clancy Can Get You a Pizza Party?” The piece was written by Valerie Strauss. A few paragraphs into the article I realized that the classics quotient of the piece was actually based on one man’s complaint. He opposed a reading program that he believed contained built-in “disincentives” for middle-schoolers to read the classics. While this was a valid part of the story, how much should the education establishment – or any parent for that matter – be overly concerned about how many classics middle schoolers are tackling? At that point just getting students to read more and longer books is an accomplishment.

The true essence of Post article was the technical failures of a program called Accelerated Reader, a product of Renaissance Learning, Inc. That program seeks to classify books for various grade levels and ages of readers. One of Accelerated Reader’s goals is to get students to “choose longer books.” With that, it makes some sense that Shakespeare’s plays and the Gettysburg Address don’t score highly. But why didn’t anyone, especially either the father of the middle-school student or the article’s author, Valerie Strauss, think to test Accelerated Reader ratings of long great books. What about those by Charles Dickens, for instance? It would be my “great expectation” that reading his books would gain student groups enough points to score a pizza party. The article also failed to mention the Harry Potter series, which no doubt scores highly under “longer” works criteria. Still, length does not make a classic, or determine “the classics” in general, so the classics part of the piece was somewhat of a ruse.

A week or so ago, the Wall Street Journal also traded on “the classics” trope to publicize a story about the installation of conservative readings rooms on major campuses. The article was written by Katherine Mangu-Ward and titled “The New Campus Dissidents: Conservatives Try to Add Classics to the Curriculum.” Again, after reading the story I realized that the classics part of the piece was really made up of just a few sentences. The first was the introduction that referred to Allan Bloom’s The Opening of the American Mind. The second a quote from Patrick Deneen, head “the newly formed Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University.” Deneen said that he wants colleges to return to “an emphasis on classic texts, and particularly the way in which the American tradition draws on classical Western tradition and biblical tradition.”

The rest of Journal piece, however, focused not on any specific great books or the classics, but rather the problems associated with getting conservative think tanks and centers set up on college campuses. These conservatives are not, at their core, promoting classic authors such as Homer, Thucydides, or Plutarch, nor are they advocating for the study of Greek and Latin. Advocates for these centers are not even promoting modern great books on the whole, just a few modern works that happen to be great books. I can only conclude that Mangu-Ward’s use of the classics trope was a rhetorical means of drawing in readers.

In sum, these articles and many others I’ve seen use “the classics” only to introduce other, core subjects. Perhaps the pieces above were not conceived as involving the classics, and were just tweaked by editors? The reader will never know. The first piece understandably needed a hook. Few people want to read about school reading programs – no matter the legitimacy of the subject. Its misuse of the term classics, therefore, is somewhat forgivable. But the Journal article was primarily about another, unrelated culture wars topic – one that could’ve drawn in readers without help. David Horowitz’s recent screed, for instance, has renewed discussions about political liberalism in the ivory tower. Why do we need to mix up that controversy with the classics?

Continued use of “the classics” as a culture wars media trope is meant primarily, I’m sure, to keep newspaper circulation high and sell advertising. But misuse of the phrase also results in an insidious indoctrination via the straw man fallacy. This side effect keeps tensions about the great books idea unnecessarily high. The promotion of fallacious reasoning – intended or not – also feeds never-ending, tail-chasing debates that dodge core educational issues. Those essential issues include, at a minimum, questions about (1) age-appropriate reading, (2) how to challenge readers, (3) developing critical reading skills, and (4) what books are worth saving. – TL

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One Comment
  1. Hi Tim,
    I am a classicist and teacher of rhetoric and writing at Stanford. I am teaching a class called ancient rhetoric in modern contexts this quarter. I would like ask permission to have my students write a casual response to your blog post on the first day of class (in an informal essay). This will mean printing your post and distributing it in class. I have to have students write a diagnostic essay for the purposes of a study we are doing at Stanford but I could also ask them to post a response to your blog. What do you think?
    Kristi (kmwilson@stanford.edu)

    Like

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