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Why everyone should read the classics

By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director, HALC

The teaching of the classics was long considered the core of a good education. Reading the greats of ancient Greece and Rome — the poetry, history and literature — was key to both an understanding of history and an understanding of the human condition in general. This week, Gail Pool makes the case for classics in a fantastic piece detailing the relevance of the classics in the modern world:

Students in their very first year of Greek can read Plato’s account of Socrates, who will instruct them in reasoning and logic, as well as civics. […]

From the tragedians — Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides — students gain a moral compass. They learn that actions have consequences. […] Students may observe that some people think they can get away with anything — just because they’re special, or perhaps because they’re CEO or president. But the Greeks make it clear in the tragedies that only the gods can get away with anything, and they reserve this privilege for themselves.

Delving into Thucydides, students soon perceive that democracy has always been difficult, politics has always been complicated and history repeats — which might encourage them to change the story line. They also learn that brilliant political analysis requires more than 140 characters. From the Romans, they learn that Republics are fragile, that imperial rulers demanding subservient fealty can be ruinous and that great empires can actually decline and fall. It can happen here.

There is a movement to “diversify” the cannon — to replace some of these works with ones by women or minorities (or both). There is absolutely a value in a diverse approach, and such voices have for far too long been neglected the attention they deserve, but such works should supplement, not replace the cannon. There is a reason why the classics have been the core of a well-rounded education for hundreds of years: as Pool notes above, there is tremendous value in their works beyond the stories and history lessons.

The best education is one rooted in the classics because their lessons not only withstand the test of time, but can be adapted with each new era as well. Back in 1999, Mary Lefkowitz wrote about why she still teaches the classics:

What will people be teaching about Odysseus 20 years from now? Probably not what I’m emphasizing now. New experiences in their lifetimes will help them find new meanings in these same texts. That’s why we don’t always need to revise our reading lists, particularly when they’re composed of the so-called classics. No one in the course of a semester or even of a lifetime can completely grasp everything these books have to tell us. We will always be surprised and enlightened by what our own lives have taught us about how to see.

That’s the reason why the top US colleges continue to teach the classics to this day:

Thomas Jefferson, who could read both Latin and Greek, viewed studying the classics as key to any education. And he wasn’t the only founding father who understood the value of looking back in history to learn about the way forward.

Jefferson read the classics in Greek. Today’s classics, with the multiple translations available, the reinterpretations, the derivative works, etc., are far more accessible. Every student should strive to read the classics, even if they aren’t all on a given syllabus. Their value withstands the test of time, and reading them is time well spent.

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