Two recent articles look at the idea of teaching and reading the classics.
In Prospect (UK), Richard Jenkyns asks Do We Need a Literary Canon? When we are talking about The Canon, we are essentially talking about the classics. He generally answers in the negative, seeing the origin of "A Canon" in two ideas: The early Church's efforts to decide which texts would eventually become The Bible, thus giving the idea a religious feel he seems uncomfortable with; and the idea of genius as something that is easily recognized and clear to everyone, another idea he seems uncomfortable with.
Here is his main argument:
The present tone of politics has created the suspicion, justified or not, that there has been a trahison des clercs: that whatever they say, at heart our governors are anti-intellectual. That is evidently O'Hear's belief: he protests about a system of education that "deprives ourselves and our children of the ability to read classic authors and the opportunity to love them." The chief rabbi, for his part, is more concerned with the coherence of society and the place of ethnic and religious minorities within it. However, his argument connects at least two and probably three different things, which may be related but which are in principle separate. The first is the importance of shared experience—he is explicitly attacking multiculturalism. The second is the importance of high culture. Significantly, the examples Sacks gives of texts which everyone once knew are Shakespeare and the Bible—with which, as we know, every decent desert island is equipped—and the great novels. The great novels, note; by implication, a shared experience of Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming will not do the trick. And Sacks may also be hinting at a third idea: that it is important for us to understand where we have come from, to know the texts which have formed the beliefs and behaviour of the world in which we live. If we know nothing about the past, or even if we know only about the recent past, we are fated to misunderstand the present. This is certainly part of O'Hear's case: "We are cutting ourselves and our descendants off from our cultural roots," he has said. "It is an unforgivable form of intellectual and spiritual suicide."
It is easy to make exaggerated claims about the canon. Take Don Quixote—as it happens, the one among O'Hear's great books that I have not read (well, have you?). That may be my loss aesthetically, but I doubt whether it has wounded me in any larger way. We all know about the dotty knight and Sancho Panza and the tilting against windmills (curious how the famous parts of that very long book come so near the beginning), but we have learnt this indirectly, and it is surely debatable whether reading Don Quixote is essential to a deep understanding of our culture. None the less, O'Hear is right. The greatest loss, of course, has been knowledge of the Bible: it is not rare these days to find professors of English literature missing allusions that humble people would have picked up 150 years ago. The literature of Greece and Rome, too, remains or ought to remain essential to us, not only for its intrinsic quality but for the ways in which it has helped to shape our own world, from the middle ages onward.
Sacks is right, in turn, to say that a society needs shared references and resonances, but there is no inherent reason for these to be high cultural ones. It is surely vain to suppose that poorly educated and disaffected young Asians can be brought to a stronger sense of belonging in Britain by a diet of Hamlet, Middlemarch and the Psalms. The truth is that shared references and resonances mostly need to evolve naturally, that most of them derive from popular culture, and that many of them are like family jokes. Television has had enormous power as a unifier; this power is now declining with the proliferation of channels and new media, but in their time Morecambe and Wise did more than Milton and Wordsworth to make us feel one people.
I'm not entirely sure Jenkyns opposes the idea of a canon, but I think he feels it is no longer relevant, at least in the forms we have come to be familiar with.
Someone who does value the classics is Michael Dirda, as evidenced in his new book, Classics for Pleasure. What follows comes from the review given the book in The Christian Science Monitor:
Recognizing that classics have gotten a bad name from deadly school assignments, Dirda starts out somewhat defensively. He asserts that "Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century." Fearing that if he'd arranged his book chronologically, readers might skip the older stuff, he instead relies on 11 categories, such as "Playful Imagination," "Loves Mysteries," "Traveler's Tales," and "The Dark Side," enabling readers to zero in on the types of books they prefer.
More significantly, Dirda refrains from rounding up the usual suspects (Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy). Instead, there are plenty of unfamiliar names (Jean Toomer, H. Rider Haggard, Sheridan Le Fanu) and some less highbrow surprises (Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Philip K. Dick). Dirda explains, "It seemed more useful – and fun – to point readers to new authors and less familiar classics."
In other words, "Classics for Pleasure" is not a book for people hoping to chart a course toward general literacy. Instead, it's aimed at avid readers looking for substantive recommendations that are neither obvious nor contemporary – readers who might ask, "What have I missed?"
Dirda conveys his passion for some 90 authors in brief essays filled with alluring quotations, juicy minibiographies, and sharp assessments. His tantalizing plot summaries deliberately leave us dangling. (After reading his encapsulation of the 14th-century medieval romance, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," I had to unearth my copy, untouched since high school, to find out what happens.)
In case his synopses don't do the trick, Dirda clinches each "sale" with lively shorthand comparisons to more familiar, beloved works. Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Svejk" is called "a Slavic cousin" to Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," while The Icelandic Sagas evoke "a thirteenth century Hemingway."
Discussing Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels, Dirda writes, "Imagine a mix of Oscar Wilde, Wilkie Collins, and Sophocles, or think of a gloomy P.G. Wodehouse." Georgette Heyer's regency romances elicit comparisons to Patrick O'Brian and Jane Austen, and Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov is called "a Slavic version of Forrest Gump." "Oblomov" is one of my old favorites, but that's not an association I would have made.
Dirda is both witty and wise. Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca" is praised as "a tour de force of narrative control and point of view worthy of Henry James," while Walter de La Mare's strange "Memoirs of a Midget" "may be regarded as one of the best novels that Henry James never wrote."
Although Dirda wears his erudition lightly, his literary zeal runs unchecked. "Not enough people read Samuel Johnson," he complains. Writing about the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, he notes, "It's nearly always rewarding to read several translations when one doesn't know a poem's original language."How contagious are Dirda's enthusiasms? He aroused my curiosity about J.G. Frazer's "The Golden Bough" ("one of the great Victorian monuments of eccentric scholarship,") C.K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday" ("both Dickensian and Kafkaesque"), and Georgette Heyer's "The Grand Sophy," to name just three.
This is definitely a book I'll want to read and own. People forget sometimes that the classics aren't just Homer, The Bible, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and a few others. There are core classics that nearly everyone can agree upon, and then there are secondary classics which fill in gaps, add new perspectives, and generally flesh out the tradition. All of these are the classics.
I sincerely believe that if we taught the classics, in one form or another, to everyone in college, no matter their major, we would have a much more educated and tolerant society. These great works of art, literature, music, and now film are the common thread that tie us all together. They are the expression and the foundation of much of who we are as people. We lose a lot in not sharing these common ties.