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Should We Cancel the Classics?

What Would You Say?

You're in a conversation and someone says, "The Classics were written by privileged, bigoted white men, and we should remove them from our curriculums." What would you say?  The term “Classics” refers both to those ancient texts from Greece and Rome written in the classical period, such as The Odyssey and The Aeneid, as well as “the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s words. Without a shared cultural memory, we are blank slates. Classics preserve the best of human culture in a tradition that we hand on to the next generation. In 1952, a committee led by Mortimer J. Adler created a list of what should be our Western classics. Adler’s group composed this list based on three criteria: the book had to continue to speak to our culture, to be worthy of rereading, and to embody enduring questions, such as, what are human beings? How should we interact with one another? What is justice, beauty, good and evil and so on. To cut these significant works from our curriculum would damage our current culture and reduce any legacy of wisdom.  So the next time someone says we should cancel the classics, here are 3 things to remember: Number 1: We cannot erase our past to form a better future. C.S. Lewis argues that a person can no more join a conversation at eleven o’clock that began at eight than someone can say something worthwhile to our current time without having listened to the wisdom of the past. As much as we may desire to read more W.E.B DuBois or Flannery O’Connor, we have to realize that they would not be the writers they were without the inheritance of past authors.   For example, Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, was influenced by Charles Dickens, George Washington, and Cato. His principles of freedom and equality drew, in part, from privileged, white men in the West who did not always live up to the ideals that they espoused. But the important thing to remember is that these men ever put forth such standards. If we are to form a more equitable future, we should not forego the benefit of reading those who—no matter their gender or race—moved us closer to noble goals. Number 2: We should read these writers within their time and place. We have to be careful, even as we seek to untangle ourselves from the ways that gender and race have influenced our contemporary imagination, not to mischaracterize those writers from times and places drastically different from our own. Instead of forcing these past writers to fit our twenty-first century expectations of them, we need to read their work within the limits of their world. We should applaud the good in Shakespeare’s plays, such as the beauty of his language and the accurate portrayals of human nature, while not passing his prejudices against Jews, for instance, down to the next generation. Wisdom is about discernment. Number 3: The Classics is a living list, not a static one.  Rather than removing writers from our curriculum, we should add authors. To quote Lewis again, the use of the guillotine is addictive. Soon no head will be safe. If we approach our imperfect lists of great books with a red pen, no work will withstand our scrutiny. Instead, we should look to include all the great works that were not uplifted in their times and redeem the oversight in our time. People protest that searching for these marginalized voices will lead to a leveling down of the curriculum, or it will necessitate the removal of Homer to make way for Sappho. Neither is true. The “best that has been thought and said” should remain as the standard for what we would include in our curriculum, and not the gender or the colors of the writers.   When it comes to the classics, our default should be addition not subtraction. We are all prone to be so absorbed in our contemporary problems that we lose sight of what is eternally and universally true, good, and beautiful. Without the wisdom of the ages, we are emaciated souls easily tossed by the currents of our day. We should continue to read the classics, so we may be rooted in permanent things. So the next time someone you’re talking about great books and someone says we should cancel the classics, remember these 3 things:   Number 1: We cannot erase our past to form a better future. Number 2: We should read these writers within their time and place. Number 3: The Classics is a living list, not a static one.