Nobody Wants to Cancel the Classics — Except Academic Elites

Bust of Plato in the library of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
The great books are accessible to anyone who chooses to study and read with an open mind.

Pigs must be flying, hell frozen over, and the lion laying down with the lamb. At a time when the divide between Left and Right has widened to a chasm, figures as dissimilar as the progressive hosts of The View and representatives of the right-wing Claremont Institute have found a source of unity in their passionate support of classical education.

The View’s Joy Behar recently said, “It’s important that we all learn about the Greeks, for example, who basically gave us everything,” while co-host Sara Haines believes that the classics “should be the foundation of college-level education.” On the right, Claremont’s Spencer Klavan, host of the Young Heretics podcast, argued that “everyone — whatever race, whatever background — should read the classics. It’s your . . . chance to learn from the best about how to be human.”

The catalyst of this collection of accolades for the Western canon was a piece I co-wrote with Professor Cornel West on Howard University’s decision to remove their classics department. Obviously, Howard’s decision struck a nerve, perhaps because the forces seeking to displace the Western tradition have been growing in power for some time.

When racialist ideologues removed Homer from the curriculum in a Massachusetts school, teachers cheered, with one even saying she was “very proud” of the censorship. An entire movement of teachers, operating under the hashtag #disrupttexts, attempts to replace the Western canon with more-contemporary books that conform to today’s ever-shifting political standards. At Princeton, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a well-recognized historian of Rome, even called his own academic field of the classics “equal parts vampire and cannibal,” stating, “I hope the field dies . . . and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”

The book-burning — and often quixotically self-hating — fervor of the cancel-the-classics mob is completely divorced from popular and elite opinion alike. This is not the case of the Right defending the classics against attacks from the Left or of anyone who, educated at private, charter, or home schools, stands opposed to those who attended traditional public schools. The only ones who appear to desire the death of great books are fringe academic elites and the student radicals they have failed to educate.

People who hold every political opinion from every educational background in every profession and from every corner of our country love the Western canon and have embraced it as their own. Their hearts have been set aflame by the heroism of Virgil’s Aeneas and filled with terror at the ice and fire of Dante’s Inferno. They have been swept up in the grand movements of history in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and overwhelmed by the bright and bitter agony of love in the epic volumes of Proust. They rose with the Roman republic in the writings of Polybius and with the militant empire in the words of Livy, and they watched the pillars fall from the pages of the African bishop of Hippo, Augustine, and the British historian Edward Gibbon.

These are not the stories, the history, or the wisdom of one people at one time. They are the common tradition of each and every person who chooses to embrace them. They are accessible to anyone who chooses to study and read with an open mind — and they have the power to change lives.

Years ago, when I taught at a public high school in Maryland, I was tasked with teaching evening school for a group of eleventh-grade students who had failed their English classes. The first day, their eyes glazed over anew as we opened up the same old textbook of fragmented passages, meaningless activities, and bland stories that had barely mustered a scoff of indifference from these students the year before.

So, the next night, I threw the textbook in the trash. Instead, I bought copies of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and we made a deal: no homework, no tests, no quizzes, no busy work, and, most of all, no textbooks. Every evening we would read aloud in a circle and discuss what we read. As we did, the scales fell from their eyes, and they became obsessed with O’Connor’s shocking stories.

Their entire lives, these students had been fed the thin gruel of schooling without substance and readings without meaning in a system intended to train working cogs instead of designed to form decent and spirited people. They were starving for more than skills-based learning and so-called critical thinking. They wanted to study religion and philosophy, morals and ethics, love and war, good and evil. They didn’t want to be trained like children. They yearned to be taught like humans.

The Western canon by itself cannot unite and give life to diverse and divided groups of people. But great books have always inspired and formed the great souls who can. There will always be political and cultural differences between us, but it’s clear more and more of us are united around the idea that classical texts must inform our education.


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