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A Case for Classics


Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Old Book Bindings at the Merton College Library photographed by Tom Murphy VII

Old Book Bindings at the Merton College Library photographed by Tom Murphy VII

Keeping Classic Literature for College Freshmen

Several colleges and universities across the country continue moving away from teaching Classic literature, particularly to newer students. While there may be motives for this drift at the administrational level, among the professors the reasons appear to be twofold: an effort to reduce plagiarism and a will to struggle against the perceived dominance of literature by “dead old white men” as some instructors choose to say. These reasons, however, promote a non-historic view and reinforce a mistaken belief that the current age has progressed to a state that renders the Classics obsolete. Classics, however, are still examples of evolving forms of creative writing and provide templates for understanding subject matter and elements of craft.

Given the advent of the internet, plagiarism has never been easier. One can purchase and download a paper without ever meeting the person who wrote it, and since many students are more proficient in Web usage and internet communications than their teachers, combating this conspiracy is an increasing drain on university resources. On one level, it makes sense for professors to assign papers over new or obscure works where the threat of plagiarism is diminished versus an assignment on The Aeneid, or Gulliver’s Travels. A casual look at any collection of Sparknotes, however, reveals that guides to not only Classic literature but even works as contemporary as Dune or the Harry Potter series are available. The most effective option for those who are unwilling to throw out the Classics is old-fashioned elbow grease: to get to know and encourage students’ developing styles, perhaps give some class time over for in-class drafting, and web searches when encountering suspected plagiarized language (it’s fair to use the internet to fight plagiarism). Barring this, it will help to have a tragic view of student’s as well and accept that a few are determined to not do work at all. In this way, an instructor will be disappointed but not alarmed when fraudulent works are discovered.

The desire to challenge and expand the accepted canon is not wrong, and it keeps those who cherish the Classics from lapsing into complacency and arrogance. It should not be assumed that the canon is immoveable nor should Classics be disregarded because it presents themes, views, or characters that may be in conflict with or even repulsive to current values. Likewise, an author’s background and should not be a mark for or against any work whether the author is European, African-American, male, female, Jewish, homosexual or any other biographic criteria. If one is to bring Soyinka into the class it should be because Kongi’s Harvest is a work of lasting influence that has meaning for readers. The same standards should then be applied to Miguel de Cervantes, Chaim Potok, Mary Shelley, John Milton, Chinua Achebe, Sylvia Plath, Leo Tolstoy, and the rest. To encourage a wholesale dismissal of canonical texts borders on irresponsible iconoclasm. Deciding not to teach Moby Dick because Herman Melville was a white male is no less unethical than not teaching Beloved because Toni Morrison is an African-American female. There is only so much time and a lot of ground to cover in a semester or quarter, but deciding on texts based on theoretical dogmas or personal disdain is ultimately a disservice to the students who should read widely and deeply of Classic works to question and discover why they remain significant. Blind commitments to ideology or particular critical modes is of little value for college students, especially those just starting serious forays into literature. Classes that serve as an introduction to literature and composition should be platforms to expand student knowledge, not as means of having them invest in their own unhappiness through needless adherence to critical dogma.

The purpose for retaining the Classics is to show students the possibilities of writing; this, of course, is one reason to encourage expanding the canon. To examine what topics and forms have been discovered and used and how effective or ineffective the authors are at deploying them is a matter of importance to any aspiring writer and useful to all students. Likewise, exposing students to works of literature worth decades or centuries of reading and study may encourage them to continue reading on their own and developing their own style.

This essay was originally published in the 2007 edition of AWP's Pedagogy Papers.

© 2009 Seth Tomko


Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on June 30, 2009:

I agree that any literature can be a deeply enriching part of any education. Literature has the ability to explore social, psychological, ethical, and moral issues in ways that are harmless and yet deeply meaningful.

The points you bring up in your article also apply to the value of a liberal arts education in general. Wheras the science, math, accounting, and business majors often lead more directly to well-paying careers, the liberal arts have a way of making a person's education more meaningful in ways that are much more difficult to quantify, yet no less valuable.

Kindle anyone?

Iphigenia on June 17, 2009:

I vote for the classics - after all, what influenced modern novels ? I did a literature degree in a traditional red-brick UK university in the '70s. We started learning Old and Middle English so that we could read Béowulf and Chaucer in the original - and it was well worth it - the course took us though the renaissance and onto Elizabethan, Jacobean, Carolingan/Cromwellian, Restoration, Augustan - then into the 18th century, Romanticism and Victorian - and right up to the modern era. It was a jam-packed course. We read so much and I loved every minute of it.

My personal favourites were Chaucer, the Renaissance and the Augustans.

But, to your premise, I think that students today have a completely different mindset and I dislike the argument that they are not as 'good' (?) as previous generations when it comes to academic rigour and sheer concentration. Thay live in a different world, with different technology and different concepts. However, there is still a place for the classics - we just need to use the new rechnology to get the classics out there.

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