Monday, December 26, 2011

The Classics in Crisis

Randall Stephens

Over at the NYRB Mary Beard worries that when it comes to the future of the classics "the basic message is a gloomy one." ("Do the Classics Have a Future?" January 12, 2012.) With some horror she writes that "Literally hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and Op-Ed pieces have appeared over the last ten years or so, with titles like 'The Classics in Crisis,' 'Can the Classics Survive?,' 'Who Killed Homer?,' 'Why America Needs the Classical Tradition,' and 'Saving the Classics from Conservatives.'" It all sounds like similar lamentations about the humanities in general, which we have covered here, here, and here.

Beard turns turns questions about decline back on themselves. "What drives us so insistently to examine the 'state' of the classics," she wonders, "and to buy books that lament their decline?" In Beard's view, notes about decline tell us as much about what people think about the classics and what they think about their own era. Reports "on the decline of the classics are not commentaries upon it, they are debates within it: they are in part the expressions of the loss and longing and the nostalgia that have always tinged classical studies." We see our own predicament and the direction of history in the study of the ancients.

In the end, she offers a good defense for the humanities by way of the classics. (Her argument is not unlike those made by Anthony Grafton and others in the NYRB.) "The important cultural point is that some people should have read Virgil and Dante," concludes Beard. "To put it another way, the overall strength of the classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know Latin and Greek from high school or university. It is better measured by asking how many believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and Greek, how many people think that there is an expertise in that worth taking seriously—and ultimately paying for."

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