By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I heard a reference to Tennyson yesterday. Yes, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Lived 1809-1892. I used to think his middle name was “Lloyd”. That’s because his name reminds me of Andrew Lloyd Weber (born 1948). Not Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). And it’s got nothing to do with Falling Water.
Can you name any other buildings designed by Wright? The Guggenheim. The Johnson building. That thing he built in Arizona, Telesen West? Actually its spelled Taliesen and was built in 1937.
The signposts of civilization, of learning, intellectualism, is often knowledge of the classics. To some degree it is also knowledge of modern cultural icons; writers, philosophers, architects, musicians. You can tell a lot about a civilization and its educational system by what is required reading and what is expected knowledge.
The 1869 Harvard entrance exam is an interesting signpost along the way to determine what was expected knowledge at that time among elites and cultured people and what is today. One question asks respondents to know something about Leonidas, Pausanias, Lysander. If I had to guess I’d say Leonidas was king of Sparta, led the 300. Lysander was active during the Peloponnesian war. Pausanias, no idea. Turns out I’m right about the Leonidas and Lysander. Pausanias was apparently a geographer in the second century AD.
Let’s look back at writings we are supposed to be familiar with.
Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. That’s my extent of knowledge of the Greeks. Never read them really. Socrates was executed. Plato accepted slavery. Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, right? What about the rest of philosophy? If I had to name what I know I’d put Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche. Machiavelli.
A quick look at Wikipedia gives us more names we should be familiar with. Thomas Quinas. Augustine of Hippo. Roger Bacon. Peter Abelard. The entry has some Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides, and some Muslims such as Averroes. Then there are the early modern philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Locke, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Adam Smith, Rousseau. Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes. Then more modern: Foucault, Derrida, Levinas, Camus, Freud, Sartre, Heidegger.
Even if I’m familiar with all this, I could only say I’ve read snippets of a handful. I read The Prince. I read the Communist Manifesto. The rest of these writers are impenetrable.
I found a list of ‘The Greatest book’ online. Before looking it over, the only one’s I’m likely to have read are Shakespeare and the Illiad. Perhaps a few others. Let’s see. They include authors such as Marcel Proust, James Joyce and books such as Don Quixote, Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Great Gatsby, Madam Bovary, 100 years of Solitude, Brothers Karamazov, some Mark Twain and Homer There is Catcher in the Rye, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Middlemarch, Kafka, Catch-22, Grapes of Wrath, Charles Dickens, Canterbury Tales, Whitman, Voltaire, Hemingway. I’m surprised Paradise Lost wasn’t on there. But I never read it anyway.
Looking through the list I realize I’ve read a few of them, including some Twain, several of the Russian greats, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Whitman, Hemingway. But in reality most of these I only tried to penetrate and gave up. Heart of Darkness, Bovary, War and Peace. I actually read most of Great Gatsby I think. Or perhaps I just saw the movie. Catch-22 also I can’t recall if I read the book or not. Kafka, never read it. Dickens, Joyce, Proust? Boredom. 100 years of solitude, I tried reading and found it 100 years of boredom. I did read Orwell. I read Brave New World and Fountainhead, but apparently these are not on the list of “fifty greats.” I’m not sure why, but I read Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker. Probably to escape The Color Purple. I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Beethoven, Mozart. Bach. Is there anything else? Wagner.
Poetry. Besides those poets listed above, surely I enjoy Yeats. That’s about all.
Visual art? Well there is Van Gogh, Picasso, Leonardi Da Vinci, Pollock. Let’s see what the 20 of “20 pieces of art everyone should recognize” tells us we must recognize. So here’s some name cropping: Andy Warhol, Klimt, Monet, Rembrandt. Valasquez. Michaelangelo. Rodin. Dali. Vermeer.
It seems the reality today is that the veneer of having actually read most of the “classics” is vanishing. It has been replaced with a passing familiarity with them. A bit of name-dropping combined with some admiration. There is some expectation and decency associated with familiarity with classical themes, such as Cincinnatus returning to his farms.
But the reality of our time is that the educational system is in a mutli-decade process of replacing most of the classical western texts with more diverse offerings. However in general the attempt to replace major western texts with sprinklings of diversity has not resulted in more knowledge, but less knowledge. People don’t read more black authors or female philosophers, they mostly just read less white authors and less male authors, they don’t read the whole Mahabharata or Kenzaburro Oe (I had to read something by him), so much as have a bit of familiarity.
People can tell you more about Sufism than they might have in the past, but they don’t actually read anything by Sufi writers.
The next generation will be less familiar with the “classics” than this generation or the last one. In general there is a massive decline in knowledge among the elites and the semi-elites. Among the larger segment of the poor there isn’t so much of a decline perhaps, because that section of educated people is a new phenomenon anyway. Not so long ago they were illiterate. But among the middle and upper classes there is a definite decline. There is a decline in the amount of reading people have done and what they are expected to read.
My passing familiarity with the “greats” is evidence of that. A recent publication ranked the boarding schools I attended as the 15 and 17th best in the US. I attended the University of Arizona and obtained a PhD at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The building blocks of my education should have been similar to those of an upper middle class American. Half of the familiarity I have with western classics was self-imposed. I chose to study art history in Italy in 2001. I chose to read some of the classics. I chose to familiarize myself with philosophy and art. The education provided was simply lacking. And it will be lacking more for the next generation.
We simply no longer read The Federalist Papers or John Stuart Mill or whoever. It isn’t because of the ‘decline of the humanities‘, it is because of a decline in basic education. This is one reason that this generation and those after it will have more trouble grasping and struggling with the great questions and challenges facing not only the West but the world as a whole. Non-familiarity with the past will mean ignorance going into the future. It makes people naive. On the one hand some in the West want to preserve their “culture” and their “secularism” but they don’t even know how they got to the present. They don’t know what their “culture” is. They don’t know why they are preserving what they want to preserve. How can you preserve something that is so empty. When education throws away the need for knowledge of most western classical texts and arts, and replaces them with bare minimum of passing familiarity with other texts, it leaves an empty body, an empty mind. It isn’t that these empty minds are particularly “un-cultured” in the sense of being uncouth. People are perfectly snobbish and bourgeoise. But they have not of the assets, culturally and intellectually of the classical bourgeoise and none of the striving of the typical nouveau riche. They are simply a garbageman for western civilization. Collecting scraps, unfamiliar with them, throwing them away.
They who are the garbagemen are not so much as at fault for this. The civilization was already packed up and discarded. It merely needs one more generation to throw it away entirely.