The Future of Education: Why Is It Trendy to Trash the Classics?

Although I am trying to be peaceful and positive— avoiding the crowd, steering clear of argument, making chitchat for the greater good, bicycling to save a devastated planet—I have decided to respond to an irresponsible, depressing article published at the Millennial blog, Book Riot“When You Hate the Classics, But You’re an English Teacher.” 

First, let me say I have known many splendid, well-read English teachers.  And yet I have been appalled by others who have not cracked a classic since college.

The writer Lily Dunn may well be of the latter persuasion.  She begins, “Hello, my name is Lily and I hate the Classics. Also, I am an English teacher.”

She writes,

I know what you’re thinking.…but wouldn’t it be more hypocritical if I made my students read books I pretended to love while secretly wishing I could bring the dead author back to life just to tell him (it’s usually a him) how overrated he is? 

Indeed, Dunn is an equal-opportunity enemy of the classics: she spares neither sex in her ravings.  She despises Hawthorne’s The  Scarlet Letter, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Melville’s Moby Dick,  Mark Twain (she finds the dialect too challenging), Joyce’s Ulysses, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  

One does wonder if she has finished  any of these books.  She writes of her loathing of Thomas Hardy, “I can’t expect a 17th century author to be all woke.”  Can’t you imagine her professor writing gently in the margin, “Victorian”? 

I am sure Book Riot has some talented, bright contributors who could have written a thoughtful essay about the classics.

When you click on Dunn’s bio, you will discover that she is not a high school English literature teacher, as she implies, but a literacy teacher in Hong Kong.   

Whew!

The Class in Classics

Class is fluid when you are in classics. You can rise a class or two in the world.  Without classics, I might have puttered around for years as an office clerk or at a library circulation desk (and the latter would have been a long shot). But when you are young, have a degree in classics, and invest your life savings in preppy clothes, you can get any job. Yes, you’ll have to move to Maine or Texas, but at least you’ll work.

I fell out of the middle class for a time.  Can that really happen?  When my parents got divorced, my dad got custody, and then got bored and left me to live on my own. A lesbian teacher on the prowl picked me up (I was her second high school student) and installed me in her house for a year and a half. I wonder, what class was I then? Meretrix (a prostitute)? Serva (a slave)? Later, I knew another classics student who’d been prey to whoever came along, and had a reputation as a meretrix, poor girl. She’d had sex with the sex education teacher.

Classics brought us back into the middle class.  We both found good, if not lucrative, jobs.

Classics— derived from the Latin noun classis,  meaning “a  class or division of the people (according to property),” and classicus,  an adjective meaning “of or belonging to the highest class.”

Language enthusiasts love Greek and Latin. Some enjoy the puzzle of the grammar and syntax, others the elaborate figures of speech and meters, still others the history or the philosophy.

I was always a serious reader.  I’d devoured Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Trollope on my own. I was a Victorian, or might as well have been. But unlike John Stuart Mill, who started learning Greek when he was three,  I took it up in college.  It all started when I decided Homer was ridiculous in translation. Before I knew it I was studying Greek and Latin, and reading Homer and Virgil in the original. I was an epic freak!

It wasn’t just the literature I loved, it was the all-absorbing process of translation. It required so much equipment!  I hustled into the library and spread out my Greek and Latin books, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, notebooks, and flashcards.

The Greeks and Romans are with me for better or worse, through sickness and health. In the hospital, I have recited lines of Latin poetry feverishly. Once a doctor decided I was well enough to go home when he discovered me reading Lucretius in my room.  Nowadays I snuggle up on the couch with classics and a dictionary.  I’ve read classics so long I no longer need an entire table!  There’s less “equipment.”

The ancient languages are no longer spoken; you study them to read the literature. And since you are reading poetry, plays, philosophy, oratory, history, and more, the vocabulary is different for each genre. Even if the words overlap, they mean something different. That’s why you need a dictionary.   For instance, the Latin word classis, which can mean “class,” also means “fleet (of ships).”You cannot read Virgil or Livy without encountering a  classis, a fleet of ships.

Excuse me while I go read Sappho and Catullus.  (Sappho influenced Catullus, and he translated one of her poems.”

Later!