Saturday, December 12, 2009

Learning from the Classics

A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of;- and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the "Little Reading," and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The above quote was pointed out to me by Michael Clay Thompson in his excellent little book, Classics in the Classroom.  Despite the title of his volume, the advice that MCT gives is inspirational for not just classroom teaching, but for those in any setting who aspire to teach and to learn.

The quote that he uses from Thoreau is undoubtedly thought provoking.  We don't often acknowledge how advantaged most of us are - In this age of technology and open information, libraries and Amazon, anyone who can read this post can also easily and inexpensively access all the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years.  I personally own a Kindle that allows me free access to all the public domain writings of all the classics that Thoreau would have read, including all of Thoreau's work, as well.  (Not a bad deal, for a $250 investment.)

But the question is - though most of us have access to all this information for much less than we spend on fast food or cable every year . . . Do we take advantage of our great good luck?

The answer for most of us is either "no" or "not as much as we could".  Why is that?  Is it because reading the classics takes effort and (shudder) time?  Probably that has something to do with it, although we modern types do sometimes willingly venture to attempt feats of mental challenge.  Witness all the "Brain Age" games for the Nintendos and the wild popularity of Sudoku.  And we're not totally averse to blowing an hour or two of our precious time on TV or Facebook, either.

Maybe it is because we don't want to - that we don't think that these classics contain wisdom relevant to today.  Who wants to waste their limited time and energy studying ancient relics?  In this new millennium, things change so quickly that much of our new information is obsolete before the month is out.  How can works written 100 or 1000 years ago still be of value?

I think that most of us believe the classics are famous because they are part of history.  They are a record of how people once thought, once wrote - at one time, long, long ago.  These droll ancient people who had no idea how the universe worked or how human bodies functioned.  Even those authors who lived a hundred years ago had no conception of the wonders and challenges of the 21st century - computers and nuclear weapons and terrorism and modern appliances.

We understand why classic works would be important to people whose jobs are to study the progress of human thought - history professors and museum curators, for example -  but how can it be that so many well-read individuals from all time periods and all walks of life have had the kind-of-goofy notion that everyone should read these dusty relics?

Are people like Thoreau and Michael Clay Thompson so blinded by their warped elitist egos that they mistakenly try to impose irrelevant "wisdom" on people who are just trying their best to live in the real world?

I'm guessing you've guessed that I don't believe that to be the case.

I haven't personally read nearly enough yet to qualify as "well read" in the classical sense, but I definitely suspect that Thoreau and MCT are on to something.  Here's the very simple reason why:  I have never once in my adult life regretted the time that I've spent reading something worthwhile. I've often regretted the time I spent surfing the internet, or reading silly romances, or watching TV.  I've wondered if I shouldn't have been doing something else with my time.  But I've never had regrets after an hour reading Hemingway or Jane Austen or Plato.

The truth is that the classics are still classics not because they are mere historic relics, but because they are the best thoughts and ideas that people have been able to come up with over the past several thousand years.  Think about it - most of the books that come out this year will be long gone within 50 years (or even 10!)  But the classics are classic because they offer brilliant insights into the things that don't change and that are universal to human experience.

I never read a great book without coming out of it knowing something that I didn't even know I was missing.

Who knows what else I might be missing?  I'm getting off here to go read . . .