21 September 2008

The Fight Before Us and Teaching the Classics

Originally posted at American Thinker.

Two articles have come out at the end of this week. I would like to characterize them, but I’m not sure how to do it without sounding overly partisan or, perhaps, rapidly anti-something. Then again, I suppose that isn’t possible, nor would it be true. Both are anti-Left, and decisively so. One is “The Undefended City” by Bill Whittle at National Review, the other is “The Drumbeat” by William Staneski at American Thinker. One is more optimistic than the other, but both focus on the culture war in the US, indicating that it is more decisive than any other war our country is involved in.

As a teacher, the thoughts of these two writers in turn make me think about my classroom. As a high school teacher, my classroom is a place where students are physically dethached (some more than others) from the trappings of pop culture and media, but still bearing their baggage, sometimes literally. But it’s also a place where students can stop, slow down, and take a long look into other worlds. I choose to make the worlds that they look into ones from Western culture and tradition. I do that for a specific reason.

I tell my students, just as my teachers told me, that all roads in fiction lead to theme. Big questions need to be put forward; hypotheses need to be tried out, beaten up, reformed, and finally tossed out or adopted as is appropriate. The classics are perfect material for these mental exercises. Their themes, those big ideas in literature, are timeless and infinitely relevant. Sometimes the more distant in the past a piece of literature is helps with its relevance; analyzing the results of the revenge ethic in Agamemnon has not lost its relevance despite the millennia that have passed since its creation. In fact, the theme may be more accessible because it doesn’t have all of the cultural baggage of modernity. Through Aeschylus’ looking glass, students can evaluate their own motives, and perhaps change their own worlds. The same goes for Oedipus and Antigone, as well as for the lessons of Achilles and Odysseus.

Perhaps I take a bit of liberty by focusing so much on the classics. Too often it seems that popular culture and media look back into the past for only two reasons: to cast blame or to rhapsodize wildly about more heady days. I see no benefit in either in the classroom. We look back to learn valid lessons, meaningful lessons, lessons with which we can make better lives for ourselves. Mine is a “bottom-up” approach; make a more agile, better thinking (not “correct” thinking) part – the individual – and the whole – the community – will gradually get better. In that way, I believe we can defend the city and change the beat of the drum.

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