In defence of classics

For the last few weeks I’ve been reading Bolgar’s The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries (Cambridge, 1954). I’ve now finished it. After reviewing the contribution of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance to the history of education, scholarship and classical learning, the author allows himself a few pages of dignified jeremiad about the state of classics in his time (the early 1950s) and the reasons for their recent decline. Readers of this account will be struck by its full relevance 60 years later, when the mere mention of classics is in simultaneous need of explanation and justification. History and medieval studies – that other side of my proclivity – are not so much under attack these days, given their protean ability to recast themselves into full-fledged social sciences. But everything which wills not or cannot join the ranks of the scientific and technological (though digital humanities still offer a lifeline) is doomed to utter defeat.

Below is the text in full (pp. 389-393). You will forgive me for blocking so many pixels with it, but it is worth its every byte, in my view.

The student of the classics who is concerned about the future of his subject would be well advised therefore to turn his attention to what is often called, for want of a better name, the intellectual climate of the age. The past fortunes of the classical heritage are there to show us how social aspirations and interests can affect the course of education; and the present comparative neglect of the classical discipline originates in causes of the same broad order. It derives from an outlook deeply rooted in our whole present way of life.

The opponents of Greek and Latin take as their basic principle the view that the first task of a modern educator is to fit his charges for the complex activities of industry, commerce and administration. Taking this for granted, they go on to argue that schools should therefore place greatest emphasis on those subjects whose theory provides a background to scientific, technological and professional training. They do not altogether disdain the old Arts curriculum (for they admit that educated men necessarily have some interests beyond the vocational) but they would prefer to restrict the number of hours allotted to its pursuit. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Arts subjects rank in their opinion with those recreational activities which enlightened firms arrange for their staffs on the principle that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But no firm would consider the play more important than the work; and so for those who think along these lines, the Arts subjects, relegated almost to the rank of hobbies whose function it is to make leisure more interesting, appear as mere ancillaries to therealbusinessofeducation. Asfarastheyareconcerned,theclassical discipline which requires a vast expenditure of time and energy is a luxury beyond our educational means.

From the strictly practical point of view, this popular modern outlook is an anachronism. Its origins go back to the days of ‘whiskey money’ and the early polytechnics when our grandfathers facedthe problem of setting up for the first time some form of scientific and technical education. Then the point at issue was how to train a minority of future specialists, men whose work would lie wholly in the laboratory or the machine shop; and all the propaganda which was produced in favour of a preponderantly scientific curriculum must be interpreted in the light of that all-important limitation. Today, however, the curriculum of the nineteenth-century science student is recommended for the majority of our more intelligent children at the secondary level. What had been planned as the training of a specialised class is now advocated for the education of an extensive elite. As has happened often before, in the logic schools of the Middle Ages for example, there is a move to universalise a speciality which the public imagination has clothed in a halo of romance; and this is happening without reference to the fact that a great number of tasks in industry and commerce and certainly in the civil and municipal services require for their perform- ance only a small amount of scientific, technical or economic information, but demand primarily an understanding and judgement which the currently admired forms of scientific, technological and commercial training are ill-equipped to develop.

The belief that science, technology and vocational knowledge belong together and their elements constitute the best possible school discipline for our times cannot be justified on practical grounds; and if we want to discover the reason why it is cherished by so many of our contemporaries, we must look not in the practical realm, but in the realm of values and ideas. During the five centuries which followed the advent of the Renaissance, social progress depended on the success of the efforts made by individuals, and the liberal Humanism of the period had for its aim to justify and encourage the enterprising, the genius and the hero. Since then, the past sixty years have seen the rise of enormous administrative and industrial organisations, each of which is concerned to satisfy some specialised social or economic need, and whose impact upon our lives is so marked and so persistent as to dwarf for us all but the most outstanding individual contributions to human progress. The nature of man’s daily experience has altered, and the inferences which we have unconsciously or half-consciously drawn from our circumstances are leading us to set aside the once admired possibilities of individual development and to prize instead the massive organisations which require our homage. So far this process has hardly reached the level of conscious reason, and when we formulate our emergent values we still employ categories acceptable to the individualism which originally formed our minds. Sometimes an organisation is identified with the whole of society, and its service is represented as socially useful; or doing one’s job is identified with keeping one’s self-respect and is thus given an absolute value. But such formulations merely mask a feeling whose bald reality man’s intellect is not yet ready to accept; and what their advocates demand is in practice nothing less than that each of us should be fully at the disposal of the organisation he happens to serve.

The significance of this shift in human values will become apparent if we consider the character of the firms, corporations, Government Boards and Authorities that proliferate around us. They exist, as we have said, to carry out specialised tasks, and the policies of those who direct them are determined not by any overall conception of humanity but by the pressures of a particular need, which may be to sell more goods, to dig more coal, to collect a larger audience, to win higher rates of pay, or to provide some statutary service at minimum cost. Everything is planned with reference to consumers, listeners, readers, wage-earners and other such abstractions. The energies of millions are mobilised for fragmentary ends which take no account of that harmony of purposes and interests which each individual must of necessity try and establish within his own experience. Moreover, the labours which these great organisations demand are if anything even more specialised than the ends they pursue. The techniques of the assembly line have had an influence far beyond industrial practice. The majority of able men who have mastered some skill or professional competence are expected to spend their working hours performing with theexactitude that comes from repetition a small succession of tasks, to which they are bound for the rest of their lives since experience is regarded as a man’s main qualification for employment, and a specialist knows only his speciality. They are also expected more and more to centre not only their working hours but the whole of their lives round their specialised task. The successes of industrial psychology have encouraged the view that eating and sleeping, exercise and amusement the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity and the relief of emotional tension are processes analogous to the oiling and maintenance required by the machines which are the workers’ inanimate counterparts. They are necessary for efficiency; but they are to be provided for efficiency’s sake.

Society always wears a double face as far as the individual is concerned. It furnishes certain services and demands others in return. But the services furnished by modern society provide only for certain selected needs while the services demanded similarly involve only a small number of each person’s capabilities. The citizen of a modern state, absorbed in his specialised tasks, has been justly compared to the ant or the bee; but if we consider his leisure rather than his work, we may prefer to liken him to a customer at a fair surrounded by a ring of barkers, each of whom is competing for his full attention, so that he goes from one to another, deafened by their clamour, and never has a chance to think of what he is or what he wants. The ant-heap and the fair seem to belong to different worlds. Fundamentally, however, the man who has come to resemble an ant and the befuddled fair-goer suffer the same kind of frustration. Both find that a part of their being has been elevated above the whole. The importance of some limited trait, impulse or interest has been over-emphasised at the expense of an inner harmony and the integrating power of the will.

If we take this characteristic of modern life into account, and if we come to see that the ethics of fragmentation are threatening to replace the ethics of Humanism, the educational trends of our time will become easier to understand. The traditional Arts curriculum still—in spite of the defects foisted upon it by the current love of specialisation— inculcates a view of life which respects individual responsibility and the individual integration of human experience. It is therefore in conflict with the forces described above, and we need not be surprised to find it pushed aside in favour of a scientific and technical training which can be more easily reconciled with the desire and pursuit of the partial. Technology has no concern with ethical presuppositions, while the scientific tradition which stresses the importance of a disinterested search for truth, says nothing about the personal needs of the seekers and so remains neutral in the struggle which the older disciplines cannot avoid.

It seems therefore that the dislike of Arts studies, which is implicit in so many contemporary pronouncements, derives in the last analysis from causes beyond the control of any teacher or student. There is reason to suppose that if the trends which distinguish our century from its predecessors continue unchecked, the classical discipline may disappear from our schools, as the most intractably Humanist of all the Humanities. Nevertheless the classical scholar has a choice beyond mere acquiescence in a regretted but inevitable collapse. The time for dignified despair has not yet come.

If we examine what men have said and written during the past hundred years, we shall find that these social and economic develop- ments which threaten Humanism have already called forth a multitude of protests. Nineteenth-century capitalism was bitterly castigated for treating its workers as if they were economic pawns, and the totalitarian states of our own time have been similarly attacked for judging their citizens on political grounds alone and killing, imprisoning or exiling thousands because they happened to be ‘bad security risks’. We do not conceal our indignation at the suffering which is caused when a civil or a military bureaucracy overrides personal needs for the sake of admini- strative convenience, or when the sensational press corrupts the young on the excuse that its sole function is to provide entertainment which will sell. We deplore the nagging taste for luxury which its advertisers stimulate on the ground that their task is to arouse public demand; and we are appalled at the emptiness of our churches since religion does not attract a generation brought up to avoid hard thinking about the moral problems that occupied the minds of their forefathers.

Echoes of these discontents can be found in all the major writers of the past hundred years from Baudelaire to Orwell, and taken together they represent an impressive total. The conflict we can trace in our schools is not just another example of a hopeless struggle waged by an outworn tradition against a triumphant new order. Those social developments, which are the ultimate cause of the present attacks on Humanism, have aroused an opposition which is firmly rooted in an awareness of present injuries; and in view of this opposition, the triumph of the order they herald appears neither assured, nor altogether desir- able. Humanism can be convicted of the atrocious crime of having a long history; but at the same time it stands in the closest alliance with needs and impulses generated by the very trends which would destroy it; and the classical student should bear this in mind before he despairs of his subject.

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