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Seven Reasons to Study the Classics, Pt 1

by Dr. Oliver DeMille

From a Seminar at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona, July 1998. Part I introduces the subject and deals with the first major reason to study the classics—its impact on our society. Part II in the next issue of The Link will deal with 6 additional reasons. Dr. Oliver DeMille is the founder and Provost of George Wythe College, the only college in America specifically designed to train statesmen using the methods which educated Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and other American Founding Fathers. Dr. DeMille may be contacted at George Wythe College, email gwc@123inter.net.

WHY BLOOM’S MESSAGE IS STILL RELEVANT

(Allan Bloom, 1987. The Closing of the American Mind. Simon and Schuster: New York.)

In 1987, the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention, three very important best sellers swept America: Robert Bork’s The Tempting of America, E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, and The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. They presented essentially the same message, about law, society, and education respectively: that we have strayed from our founding and not in a good direction (in fact, together they are a sort of update to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America).

Consider Allan Bloom’s profound analysis of American education. As I read this modern classic, three major points stood out. First, societies are successful when people choose to be good. If people choose mediocrity, they end up with a mediocre society. If they choose excellence they build an excellent society; if they choose decadence society decays. This is not only common sense, it is historically accurate.

Second, people choose to be good when they are taught and believe in good. People’s choices are a direct result of their beliefs. And their beliefs are profoundly influenced by what they are taught, by parents, clergy, friends, teachers, etc. If they are taught falsehood or even evil, and if they believe it, they will choose poorly. Teaching impacts belief, which guides action.

Third, the thing which determines how well they are taught are their national books. A national book is something that almost everyone in the nation accepts as a central truth. The national book of the Jews is the Torah; Muslims, the Koran; Christians, the Bible; etc. It could be argued that Shakespeare is a national book for England, Goethe and Luther for Germany, Dante and Machiavelli for Italy, Tolstoy in Russia, and so on. Whatever the nation, its national books, the books almost everyone in the nation revere and believe in, will determine the culture. Good national books, like the Bible or Shakespeare, will lead to a good nation. Bad national books like The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf will lead to bad nations until they reject such books.

Now, what of a nation with no national book, with no central text which almost everyone agrees upon as the measuring rod of right and wrong? Such a nation is simply without culture, or at best it is in the process of losing it.

So what is America’s national book? Bloom argues that when he was teaching college at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, he could tell what the national books were by asking students what books formed the core of their lives, the basis of society. The two answers he always got were the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. In the late 1960s this changed: Bloom’s students really couldn’t answer his question. They stopped referring to the Bible and the Declaration, and they listed . . . nothing. No national books. The Bible and the Declaration remained for the older generations, but the youngsters came up with no core source of absolutes, no central fountain of truth.

In the 1980s it changed again: students began listing various rock n’ roll music tapes as the thing they revered and turned to for truth and answers. Practically every college student knew this new fountain of truth, studied it daily and for long hours, and felt passionately about it. If you doubt it, Bloom suggested, try to tell a group of youth why it is bad and they will respond with the same energy and even anger as if you tried to tell a group 100 years ago that the Bible had problems.

This obviously has some very negative ramifications for America’s future, but even rock music isn’t truly a national book because it is only shared by the younger generations.

In fact, there is no true national book in America today. No national books means no culture; and this is very ominous for the future. Any society which loses its national book declines and collapses in ignorance, dwindles and perishes in unbelief. In Bloom’s own words:

"The loss of the gripping inner life vouchsafed those who were nurtured by the Bible must be primarily attributed not to our schools or political life, but to the family, which, with all its rights to privacy, has proved unable to maintain any content of its own . . . . The Delicate fabric of the civilization into which the successive generations are woven has unraveled, and children are raised, not educated.

"I am speaking here not of the unhappy, broken homes that are such a prominent part of American life, but the relatively happy ones, where husbands and wife like each other and care about their children, very often unselfishly devoting the best parts of their lives to them. But they have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others. The family requires the most delicate mixture of nature and convention, of human and divine, to subsist and perform its function. Its base is merely bodily reproduction, but its purpose is the formation of civilized human beings. In teaching a language and providing names for all things, it transmits an interpretation of the order of the whole of things. It feeds on books, in which the . . . family . . . believes, which tell about right and wrong, good and bad and explain why they are so. The family requires a certain authority and wisdom about the ways of the heavens and of men. The parents must have knowledge of what has happened in the past, and prescriptions for what ought to be, in order to resist the philistinism or the wickedness of the present . . . . [T]he family . . . has to be a sacred unity believing in the permanence of what it teaches . . . . When that belief disappears, as it has, the family has, at best, a transitory togetherness. People sup together, play together, travel together, but they do not think together. Hardly any homes have any intellectual life whatsoever, let alone one that informs the vital interests of life. Educational TV marks the high tide for family intellectual life.

"The cause of this decay of the family’s traditional role as the transmitter of tradition is the same as that of the decay of the humanities: nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth . . . . In the United States, practically speaking, the Bible was the only common culture, one that united simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, young and old, and . . . provided access to the seriousness of books. With its gradual and inevitable disappearance, the very idea of such a total book and the possibility and necessity of world-explanation is disappearing. And fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise—as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine." (Bloom, pp. 57-58)

And also:

"Almost everyone in the middle class has a college degree, and most have an advanced degree of some kind. Those of us who can look back to the humble stations of our parents or grandparents, who never saw the inside of an institution of higher learning, can have cause for self-congratulation. But . . . the impression that our general populace is better educated depends on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word education, or a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education. A highly trained computer specialist need not have had any more learning about morals, politics or religion than the most ignorant of persons. All to the contrary, his narrow education, with the prejudices and the pride accompanying it, and its literature which comes to be and passes away in a day and uncritically accepts the premises of current wisdom, can cut him off from the liberal learning that simpler folk used to absorb from a variety of traditional sources . . . . When a youngster like Lincoln sought to educate himself, the immediately available obvious things for him to learn were the Bible, Shakespeare and Euclid. Was he really worse off than those who try to find their way through the technical smorgasbord of the current school system, with its utter inability to distinguish between important and unimportant in any way other than by the demands of the market?" (Bloom, pp. 59)

And finally:

"My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards, and my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible’s commandments, and their explanation in the Bible’s stories and the commentaries on them, and had their imaginative counterparts in the seeds of the myriad of exemplary heroes. My grandparents found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfilling of their duties in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past. Their simple faith and practices linked them to great scholars and thinkers who dealt with the same material . . . . There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives. This is what a community and a history mean, a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief.

"I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning . . . . Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside. The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished." (Bloom, pp. 60)

If Bloom is correct, and I think he is, then America cannot remain free, prosperous or moral unless the overall culture adopts a central text of the caliber of the Bible. This is not only profound, but it is actually a marching order for parents and educators. Bloom argues that the whole problem is a result of families not reading scripture together daily, and of schools throwing out the classics and replacing them with value-relative textbooks.

This is the first reason for studying the classics: we need a national book to maintain our morality and civilization, and a nation that doesn’t regularly read good books, think about important ideas, or consider the big picture, is not capable of adopting or following a national book. The classics must be carefully studied, pondered, discussed and talked about by a large portion of the population or they will lose their value and impact. This is true whether the chosen classic is the Koran, the Bible, Shakespeare, War and Peace, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or any other classic. We must read the classics, or we will cease to be the kind of nation that deserves success, prosperity, civilization or happiness.

This may seem too dramatic, but the reality is that Greece, Rome, Egypt, Israel and all other great civilizations in history fell the same way, following a similar pattern. We may think we are above that; so did they all, and it is only in a post-Bible, post-classics America that we think otherwise. Our freedoms can be lost, and it is only in a post-Declaration of Independence America that we doubt it.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media