The Classics – Good or Bad? (1)


The following article is a condensation of a speech which I made for the Mothers’ Circle for Protestant Reformed Secondary Education. I have been asked to condense this speech and hope that I can clearly present the arguments which I developed the evening I spoke to the women in this organization.

The committee selected the topic for the speaker to investigate and discuss. The selection of literature and more particularly the selection of the classics as the subject for discussion presents a problem because traditionally the classics have been considered to be those literary works which outlasted all other literary productions because of their superiority as an art form. These works are used by educators to train students. They are also used by Protestant Reformed educators.

It must be emphasized that the matter of selection of reading material is an acute problem today. There is no difficulty any longer for young or old to find something to read but the problem is more acute when one selects that which he shall read from the abundance of available material.

Educators are aware of this difficulty. Numerous booklists have been prepared. These booklists are prepared as guides in selecting books for the school library and classroom. We take the time to mention this fact and could even give names of available booklists because these are the resource materials which help teachers in the selection of reading materials which are deemed advisable for children, young people, and adults. Included in these lists will be those books which are generally referred to as the classics.

Statement of the Problem

In general let it be stated that we deal this evening which a rather complex problem. It is a problem that is specific and has specific appeal but also rests in the area that is somewhat nebulous and where it is difficult to give simple “yes and no” answers.

Each person who has come of age and has passed through distinct stages of life has experienced the nature of the problem. When we were children and had acquired the reading skill, and if we were at all adept in our ability to read, were challenged to read. Our reading tastes at that time were considerably different than they are today. As children we were fascinated with stories about other boys and girls, animals, and experiences similar to our own. We also enjoyed fantasy and enjoyed telling fantastic stories. (We deal not here with the value, merit, right or wrong of fairy tales.) As we grew older our reading interests changed. Boys and men appeared to devote much of their reading time to books and articles dealing with science, current events, sports and mystery tales along with their particular occupational interests. Members of the male sex may read literary fiction and poetry but they are much less likely to be interesting in the love theme which seems to be such prevalent reading material for the female sex.

Most of our early reading, therefore, and much of the reading done by the adult today is not in the area of the classics. Much which is considered classical would be considered too boring and necessitate too much effort on the part of the casual reader. Besides the individual may not be sufficiently intellectual nor spiritually mature to read the classics.

In order to answer the basic question of this speech it is necessary that we spend some time in defining the classics.

What are the Classics?

The classics as originally understood are those literary works of the past that have been handed down to us. They are part of the great books which the world has preserved for mankind in the twentieth century. The classics are those works which belong to the first class or first rank in literature or art. They are those works which adhere to the standards and principles which have been articulated for proper forms in literature.

The classical writers originally were those Greek and Roman writers who wrote prior to the fall of Rome. Since that time, however, many scholars have written and the term classical has been expanded to include other writers who have made “good.” The writers of antiquity and those others who have contributed to the mass of literary material are what are sometimes referred to as the “Great Conversation.” Every list of Great Books will differ but there are certain standard works and authors that would appear on every such list of great books.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica went into the area of book publishing and has published a series of books which men such as Mortimer Adler considered to be great. Included in this list of books are the works of such men as Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Virgil, Plutarch, Ptolemy, Copernicus, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Rabclais, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Marx, and Freud just to name a few. This list included several more than just the men who wrote prior to the Fall of Rome (476 A.D.) and yet all these works are considered to be classics because they state the basic position of man in Western Civilization. The term classical has been expanded then to include any statement of reality in a recognized legitimate art form.

To be continued…

Nota bene:—In order to give adequate coverage of the material that was presented in the speech it will be necessary to continue this discussion in the next issue in which I present material for “Critique.”