Rescuing great literature
Authors from both sides of the political spectrum make pleas for the classics
Sign of the times: a young person, head tilted at 45 degrees, staring at a palm-sized glowing screen. Mark Bauerlein has closely observed this phenomenon in classrooms and wrote about it 14 years ago, in his caustically titled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Our Youth and Jeopardizes Our Future.
Now Bauerlein, professor emeritus at Emory University and editor at the Catholic journal First Things, has seen the future. It’s not encouraging.
The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults could have been the disgruntled musings of a sidelined academic who finds his discipline (English lit, of all things) hopelessly irrelevant in our glossy modern age. But he begins by blaming his Gen X peers for mistaking the tech savvy of millennials for a new kind of knowledge—even a new kind of wisdom for navigating the information age. “There should have been many more critics” of youth’s obsession with video games and social media. One enthusiast, John Perry Barlow, welcomed the coming of virtual reality as an Incarnation in reverse: “Now, I realized, would the Flesh become Word.” True enough; the glitter and headlong dash of media left printed words in the dust, and an entire generation intellectually poorer.
But “dangerous adults”? Possibly; sober-minded old fogies on the left as well as the right have begun to notice the weaknesses of young professionals: their thin skins, their shallow analyses, their lack of nuance, their solipsistic tendency to exaggerate every slight. When drama erupts in the newsroom or boardroom, it’s almost always from millennials who don’t feel heard, respected, or safe. The snowflakes of 2009 were supposed to get toughened up by the real world, but instead they brought their unrealistic expectations into the real world.
According to Bauerlein, teachers who should know better did not insist that their students learn to read and think and contemplate life in all its complexity. Discarding literature as a core discipline was a huge mistake, as literature is a proven path to character formation. Digital media are anti-formation, reducing human complexity to memes and emojis, with dire consequences for a pluralistic society.
Bauerlein sounds like a prophetic voice in the wilderness. On a similar theme, Roosevelt Montás opts to tell a story: his own. Montás arrived in mid-1980s Queens, New York, as a poor country boy from the Dominican Republic, with no English and a father who’d stayed behind. Family dysfunction and fervent Pentecostalism consumed his first years in the States, but in his midteens his life changed with the discovery of a discarded set of clothbound Harvard classics thrown out by the neighbors. Opening a volume of Plato, he recognized, however vaguely, “the treasure I had come to America to find.” It was the seed of Western civilization, sprouting within his own imagination.
Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation presents a case for a classical education. Montás examines four great mentors—Augustine, Socrates, Freud, and Gandhi—while recounting a series of fortunate encounters. A teacher noticed him reading Plato’s dialogues in the hallway of his high school and nurtured his interest in the classics. A program for low-income students at Columbia University introduced him to one of the few core-curriculum programs remaining at a major American university. Falling in love with Western philosophy and literature led him to a teaching career. Now he directs the same curriculum that redirected his life.
The American university model, as he sees it, has become a kind of glorified trade school. In contrast, rather than asking how to make a living, “liberal education asks what living is for.” Studying Plato and Augustine is as meaningful for plumbers and mechanics as it is for philosophy professors: “It shakes you from your certainties. It encourages intellectual humility, a tentativeness and skepticism about simple truths and absolute certainties.” Even though he’s discarded his boyhood Christianity for a genteel agnosticism, and writes from the opposite political spectrum as Mark Bauerlein, Montás makes a similar plea: Don’t ditch the classics. Is anybody listening?
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