Magazine | February 29, 2016, Issue


Timeless Classics

Samuel Goldman writes well about the value of “traditional” education (read: classical education) and studying beautiful things (“Reclaiming Traditional Education,” December 31, 2015). He aptly takes on Marco Rubio’s pandering remarks about welders and philosophers, and attacks the line of reasoning that leads people to think that time spent studying Aristotle is time wasted.

I would like to suggest that where Professor Goldman misses the mark a bit is when he suggests that traditional education changed for the better by incorporating modern literature.

I recommend William F. Buckley’s conversations with Mortimer Adler on this subject. The “great books” are sidestepped for modern literature at our peril. I know Professor Goldman is not prescribing a modern-lit class at the expense of the great books, but I would go so far as to suggest that modern literature be scrupulously avoided while in school until one has had a grounding in the classics. The well-trained mind of the curious reader will lead her to seek out the best in modern literature on her own.

Also, it seems as though Governor Christie caught the line about building fewer rock-climbing walls and incorporated it into his stump speeches. Good.

Caleb Johnson

Washington, D.C.

Samuel Goldman responds: There is much to be said for an orderly procession from the original sources of Western civilization to more recent works. Unfortunately, the structure of the modern education does not often allow this. At most universities, it is nearly impossible for a student who arrives on campus with a long list of distribution requirements and no exposure to ancient languages to start with Homer and move slowly toward Joyce — even if she wants to. In practice, students and professors have to work in “zigzag” fashion, oscillating between modern and ancient.

The results of this strategy are perhaps less satisfying than those of a more coherent curriculum. But I don’t think they’re necessarily terrible. In any case, that’s how I learned what I know of the Greek and Latin classics.

But great books did not cease to be written in the first, or fifth, or 13th century of our millennium. In addition to Aristotle, Augustine, and Alighieri, students should read Balzac, Conrad, and Dostoevsky (to mention only a few authors). I am less confident than Mr. Johnson that well-educated readers will seek out these writers on their own. If they aren’t taught, they will be forgotten. Conservatives should do everything we can to prevent that from happening.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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