Free-Thinking Students Should Embrace Classical Literature to Become More Human
What does The Bible, The Iliad, Meditations, Hamlet, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Crime and Punishment, and Animal Farm have in common? They all fall under the umbrella of classical literature. What was once seen as timeless, evergreen classics that communicate insights into moral truths and the human condition across different times and cultures are now subject to immense debate and criticism. And the heat is coming from students, teachers, school boards, and parents equally.
The arguments against classical literature boil down to its Euro-centric origins, its perceived lack of relatability, its patriarchal viewpoints, and its glaring homogeneousness (a.k.a. the author and most of the characters are all white). These arguments might hold validity in an ethnocentric, sex-centric, race-centric, secularized, post-Enlightenment world, but does it hold much weight for those who believe in individualism, educational freedom, timeless truths, human nature, and empathy? Free-thinking students should embrace classical literature to become more human.
Let’s be clear: the attacks against classical literature are made through the same mindset and worldview that demonizes Western Civilization and the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian values that comprise it. Oddly enough many who argue against Western Civilization uphold many of the values derived from it. According to ScienceDaily, “Values of Western culture have, throughout history, been derived from political thought, widespread employment of rational argument favoring free thought, assimilation of human rights, the need for equality, and democracy.” Classical literature is hardly being criticized for being outdated, but rather for the values and institutions it represents.
Contrary to the narrative, there are many benefits of reading classical literature. Meredith Curtis at the Ultimate Homeschool Podcast Network writes, “Reading classic books will develop your character and compassion. Times may change, but human nature and the problems people face don’t change. There is nothing new under the sun. Identifying with people from different times and places will stretch your heart.”
Leo Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych writes, “Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?” Here it is clear that there needs to be some frame of reference as to what it means to live as we ought to live. If we as a people are trying to create our own future without looking into the past we will surely fall victim to many of the same mistakes our predecessors made. Classical literature is a tried-and-true measure that helps humans become more human, to get more in touch with our nature and condition.
Free-thinking students who believe that there’s much to be learned from classical literature, and Western Civilization will live and breathe that worldview with the people they encounter. Our schools should embrace and promote classical literature, and help students understand that reading obstacles, disconnectedness, and different perspectives are not grounds for discounting the timeless lessons, morals, and humanity that benefit us all.