Are classic studies worthless nowadays?

After reading Mary Beard’s post where she quoted a capital question a speaker asked rhetorically to a symposium audience:

… whether the whole project we were engaged on was now worthless and time-expired. Hadn’t Classics really had its day? Shouldn’t we be going off and learning Chinese and Arabic?…(omissis).… Shouldn’t we get real?

I have been meditating on the subject and I wish to report some of my conclusions. Naturally I am aware that this issue has involved in the past numerous and endowed academics, consequently I am humbly positive I will not be able to add any particular advancement to this debate – which, besides, is far from being in my blog’s aims; nevertheless I will employ this commentary as my personal justification for my own studies.

cicero.jpg

It is not false rhetoric to underline the strategic pivotal role of education in a culture: the celebrated Greek Παιδεiα, as well as the Institutio oratoria for the Romans, the ratio studiorum for Jesuits are just a few significant examples.

I will leave to your personal meditation Cicero’s celebrated apophthegm “Historia Magistra vitae” and point out instead Niccolo’ Machiavelli (1469-1527) who emphasize the importance of learning lessons from the past experiences:

…(omissis) quanto onore si attribuisca all’antiquità, …(omissis) e veggiendo, da l’altro canto, le virtuosissime operazioni che le storie ci mostrono, che sono state operate da regni e republiche antique, dai re, capitani, cittadini, latori di leggi, ed altri che si sono per la loro patria affaticati, essere più presto ammirate che imitate; anzi, in tanto da ciascuno in ogni minima cosa fuggite, che di quella antiqua virtù non ci è rimasto alcun segno; non posso fare che insieme non me ne maravigli e dolga. E tanto più, quanto io veggo nelle diferenzie che intra cittadini civilmente nascano, o nelle malattie nelle quali li uomini incorrono, essersi sempre ricorso a quelli iudizii o a quelli remedii che dagli antichi sono stati iudicati o ordinati: perché le leggi civili non sono altro che sentenze date dagli antiqui iureconsulti, le quali, ridutte in ordine, a’ presenti nostri iureconsulti iudicare insegnano. …(omissis)

Nondimanco, nello ordinare le republiche, nel mantenere li stati, nel governare e’ regni, nello ordinare la milizia ed amministrare la guerra, nel iudicare e’ sudditi, nello accrescere l’imperio, non si truova principe né republica che agli esempli delli antiqui ricorra. Il che credo che nasca non tanto da la debolezza nella quale la presente religione ha condotto el mondo, o da quel male che ha fatto a molte provincie e città cristiane uno ambizioso ozio, quanto dal non avere vera cognizione delle storie, per non trarne, leggendole, quel senso né gustare di loro quel sapore che le hanno in sé. Donde nasce che infiniti che le leggono, pigliono piacere di udire quella varietà degli accidenti che in esse si contengono, sanza pensare altrimenti di imitarle, iudicando la imitazione non solo difficile ma impossibile; come se il cielo, il sole, li elementi, li uomini, fussino variati di moto, di ordine e di potenza, da quello che gli erono antiquamente.

Volendo, pertanto, trarre li uomini di questo errore, ho giudicato necessario scrivere, sopra tutti quelli libri di Tito Livio che dalla malignità de’ tempi non ci sono stati intercetti, quello che io, secondo le cognizione delle antique e moderne cose, iudicherò essere necessario per maggiore intelligenzia di essi, a ciò che coloro che leggeranno queste mia declarazioni, possino più facilmente trarne quella utilità per la quale si debbe cercare la cognizione delle istorie. [Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio, I, Proemio]

Relatively more recently Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was firmly positive on the higher importance of classic studies, – although on a elitist and almost discriminatory basis – confirmed by his statement of a concomitant necessity for the restrictedness of their teaching:

Une étude peut être utile à la littérature d’un peuple et ne point être appropriée à ses besoins sociaux et politiques.

Si l’on s’obstinait à n’enseigner que les belles-lettres, dans une société où chacun serait habituellement conduit à faire de violents efforts pour accroître sa fortune ou pour la maintenir, on aurait des citoyens très polis et très dangereux; car l’état social et politique leur donnant, tous les jours, des besoins que l’éducation ne leur apprendrait jamais à satisfaire, ils troubleraient l’État, au nom des Grecs et des Romains, au lieu de le féconder par leur industrie.

Il est évident que, dans les sociétés démocratiques, l’intérêt des individus, aussi bien que la sûreté de l’État, exige que l’éducation du plus grand nombre soit scientifi­que, commerciale et industrielle plutôt que littéraire.

Le grec et le latin ne doivent pas être enseignés dans toutes les écoles; mais il im­por­te que ceux que leur naturel ou leur fortune destine à cultiver les lettres ou prédis­pose à les goûter trouvent des écoles où l’on puisse se rendre parfaitement maître de la littérature antique et se pénétrer entièrement de son esprit. Quelques universités excel­lentes vaudraient mieux, pour atteindre ce résultat, qu’une multitude de mauvais collèges où des études superflues qui se font mal empêchent de bien faire des études nécessaires.

Tous ceux qui ont l’ambition d’exceller dans les lettres, chez les nations démocra­tiques, doivent souvent se nourrir des oeuvres de l’Antiquité. C’est une hygiène salutaire.

Ce n’est pas que je considère les productions littéraires des Anciens comme irré­pro­chables. Je pense seulement qu’elles ont des qualités spéciales qui peuvent mer­veil­leu­sement servir à contrebalancer nos défauts particuliers. Elles nous soutiennent par le bord où nous penchons [De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. II, I, Ch.XV].

Undoubtedly the importance of classic studies relies on both similarities and diversities between past and present. In the first place the study of similarities has often guided those early historians who tried to teach, by means of their writings, lessons to future generations and thus hoped to prevent them from committing the same mistakes. This approach, as we have witnessed in these last 2000 years, has proven to be somewhat naïve and unfortunately ineffective – this does not imply that we must stop trying, though… Nonetheless this course of studies, we should admit it, has probably over-exploited the classic sources and texts.

On the other hand, the interpretation of the diffrences to the past through the present “multidisciplinary and magnifying lens” opens a never ending course of studies. Following this approach events, terms, concepts, sources and characters of the past can be re-studied and re-interpreted by using findings from other disciplines and modern technologies, and enhanced by easier and more frequent contacts and relations among scholars – and this sounds very promising for classic disciplines that have been declared almost dead…

However, in my opinion, the real barycentre of the question needs to be shifted to what we ought to expect from education. The problems lies into the interpretation of what we consider adaptation of our schools and institutes to current and modern needs. It seems to me that without teaching the classics, schools and universities will progressively lose their main function: to educate – where for Education I mean the crucial transmission of principles, moral, values and knowledge.

The proliferation of enriched school programs with more management, foreign languages and IT oriented subjects in spite of classic and human studies, solely for the sake of seeking a hopefully immediate impact on the labour market does not mean to me true Education. Thus ultimately, the main issue is: true Education or mere technical training? Which in the medium-long range ought to be read as: are we trying to “generateman and women and conscious citizens, or just aspirant employees and managers?

Classic studies educate, silently and minutely, to logic, aesthetic and psychology; they produce the habit to reflection and analysis and develop a natural reluctance to passive acceptation of new concepts and impositions – something nobody should ever give away.

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9 comments on “Are classic studies worthless nowadays?

  1. ggwfung says:

    Education is all about a curious mind. It can be the classics, maths, or literature, but it’s all about asking questions.

    Unfortunately, drills and repetition don’t promote this open attitude.

    I loved the Latin that I did, and am glad all the texts are available online.

    The classics are worthy!

    ggw

  2. stoa says:

    Thank you, you are absolutely right!
    What would be this world without “scientific curiosity” in any field…
    People should stop measuring the worth of studies and readings merely by their immediate professional marketability and pay more attention to their spiritual growth.

    Atheneion

  3. Ana de La Robla says:

    Es probable que tengas noticias de una “nueva” (no más de veinte años) disciplina que intenta poner en relación la cultura con el valor: la llamada Economía de la Cultura. Dentro de ella, como es natural, hay tendencias diversas, pero suele predominar la conciencia de que determinar el valor de la cultura es algo sumamente complejo, por no decir inabordable. Sin embargo, persiste la idea de que la cultura debe ser necesariamente algo mesurable en términos económicos. Una aberración. Qué decir de los estudios clásicos, que suelen entenderse como un anacronismo que debe desaparecr, dada su absoluta carencia de rentabilidad. El Hombre humano, demasiado humano, está dejando paso al homo oeconomicus. Qué miedo…
    Enhorabuena por tus escritos, de una calidad que desbarata cualquier pretensión estrictamente mercantil. Es un placer leerte.

  4. stoa says:

    Thank you for your compliment, I hope to keep meeting your expectations in the future.
    Actually I have always watched with resolute skepticism these late aberrations of the very interesting and plausible Baumol’s cost disease theory, whose arguments to me make a lot of sense when estimating the productivity of the public sector, health care industry, governmental agencies and the likes.
    What really scares me is the daring – if not provoking – approach of these theories that wish to apply concepts like productivity, marginal utility, budgetary control and cost effectiveness not simply to “Hollywood movie business” (which is of course reasonable) but to real, I mean real, art and culture…!
    Another sign of this “Sad, mediocre times we live…”

  5. inel says:

    I am so glad I found your blog ten minutes ago, and will return tomorrow for more enlightenment. Actually, last year I wrote a post on education similar to yours here, but mine was from an engineer’s viewpoint. Your quote:

    Classic studies educate, silently and minutely, to logic, aesthetic and psychology; they produce the habit to reflection and analysis and develop a natural reluctance to passive acceptation of new concepts and impositions – something nobody should ever give away.

    applies just as well to engineering, apart from the fact that engineers do not typically study psychology. However, at work and in life generally engineers who design products for use in the real world by real people need to be aware of psychological issues, but without any formal education to prepare them for that challenge!

  6. stoa says:

    Thank you for your comment; I really hope you will also enjoy reading my other articles, when you have some spare time!
    I like very much your perspective and interpretation from an engineer point of view – how could we get any progress without it…
    I deem the only limit we all should try to set is to benefit of technology and not – as it seems it is happening nowadays – to be prisoners of it.
    I would really like to read your last year’s post you have referred to, please let me know its link.
    All the best,

    Atheneion

  7. inel says:

    Hello Atheneion,

    I found my post from last November. You are welcome to read it whenever you have time.

    With three kids in middle school in the UK now, and administering a few blogs and websites for teachers in California (as teacher appreciation gifts, instead of chocolates and flowers!) I virtually see education up-close on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously.

    Having personally trained hundreds of engineers on highly technical work-specific courses as well as having taught small groups of children on sensitive spiritual and moral issues over several years, my views on education are the same as yours. I would support all attempts to offer true education, encouraging citizens to contribute to society and to love learning, just as you wrote:

    However, in my opinion, the real barycentre of the question needs to be shifted to what we ought to expect from education. The problems lies into the interpretation of what we consider adaptation of our schools and institutes to current and modern needs. It seems to me that without teaching the classics, schools and universities will progressively lose their main function: to educate – where for Education I mean the crucial transmission of principles, moral, values and knowledge.

    The proliferation of enriched school programs with more management, foreign languages and IT oriented subjects in spite of classic and human studies, solely for the sake of seeking a hopefully immediate impact on the labour market does not mean to me true Education. Thus ultimately, the main issue is: true Education or mere technical training? Which in the medium-long range ought to be read as: are we trying to “generate” man and women and conscious citizens, or just aspirant employees and managers?

  8. antique piano

    The normal user would be under the impression that investing the time to obtain knowledge on this topic of interest is a waste of money.

  9. Diomedes says:

    Well spoken and well thought out! You are absolutely correct on all accounts. If Cicero were alive today he would have enjoyed this.

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