Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Importance of Old Books

CS Lewis once suggested that for every modern book one reads, one should read three old books. What an antiquarian and archaic point of view. The current destruction of traditional Western culture may indicate that modern society (this includes the convenient moniker of "post-modernism") is not following Lewis' suggestion. In fact, the elite doorkeepers of contemporary culture in the academy and the media are working overtime to accelerate the destruction of the cultural artifacts and monuments of Western Civilisation (note that I use the older spelling with "s" as opposed to "z"). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the so-called "AP English" courses in our contemporary high schools.

Now, there are different forms of destruction, some passive, some active. It would seem that our current high school teachers, filled with the latest fads from departments of education in our colleges and universities (my college is no exception) seems engaged in the destruction of Western literature, not so much by active means; who can realistically call for the destruction of Shakespeare as a cultural icon and whose work has been so clearly a part of the "canon" of the Western literary tradition for so long? No. Rather, the destruction of great literature, as literature, is occurring by passive means; namely, neglect. In Fargo there is, currently, controversy surrounding the teaching of a particular modern novel in an Advance Placement English class. Certain parents believe the novel to be too graphic and adult for high school students. Of course, the typical calls for censorship are flying and the parents in question are being branded as narrow bigots, etc. ad nauseum. Moreover, the educational experts assert that the novel in question makes an important contribution to the discussion of racial tensions in communities. A worthy topic for examination, to be sure.

My observation is simply this. Given CS Lewis' suggestion, is the particular class in question required to read an additional three "old" books, after reading a modern book? Since I don't know the answer to the question, I shall have to refrain from final judgement. My experience, however, suggests that such a formula for reading is not being followed, and that the majority of the traditional canon of Western literature is being neglected. Think of the implications. If an entire generation of young people are fed modern books with no reference to the great books of the past, there is no possibility for the preservation of cultural memory, and the neglect leads to the destruction of culture. The key word, much maligned and despised, is "tradition."

I spoke with a very bright and intelligent student about her experience in high school regarding literature. She had not heard of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. She had, however, attended a high school whose curriculum was centered on "environmental studies." I am sorry for her, not because she isn't curious, bright, or motivated to learn; she demonstrates that to me each week in my work with her as a teacher. Rather, I am sorry that she has been fed a curriculum based upon a sociological paradigm that is extraordinarily fragile and thin, namely that the most important knowledge gained by a student is not that which enhances, enriches, and expands the life of the mind in appreciation of that which is good, true, and beautiful (there's that "old" Platonic idea again), but that such a student should be given knowledge that is going to help her think and act a particular way in modern society. If this is not indoctrination, then the word has no meaning. To base a high school curriculum on specific desired sociological paradigms, which change so drastically from decade to decade, seems the heighth of imprudence and foolishness. Of course, this student may discover for herself that she has been lied to, and in so doing, will be saved from supporting the cycle of fads and lies that often accompany new curricula. Perhaps she will yet encounter the delight, and eucatastrophic and numinous sense that Beowulf, Shakespeare, Milton, and company create in their readers. Once bitten, she, like all students thus bitten, will never be the same. One can only hope.