A defense of reading classic literature like the one Leland Ryken offers in his “Reading the Classics for All They’re Worth” is perhaps more necessary now than ever. Over the past several decades, there has been a tangible decline in the number of people who read the classics on their own as well as the number of schools which require such reading. This decline is, of course, closely linked to the significant decline in cultural literacy, including familiarity with basic idioms and once common tales, which has been documented by cultural commentators like Jacques Barzun and E.D. Hirsch. Just this past summer, there has been a rash of articles on all sides of the debate over the future of the humanities in academia in response to published statistics which indicate a decline in enrollment in humanities degree programs throughout American universities. Even voices as prominent as Christina H. Paxson, the president of Brown University, have chimed in to add their view to the debate. Clearly, this is a time in which defending the humanities, including literature, is a necessity.
Where Ryken goes wrong, however, is in the focus of his concern. Ryken writes in order to justify the classics to a Christian audience. It seems that this is, for the most part, a case of preaching to the choir. While there may be pockets of Christians who, on some principle derived from their faith, oppose certain pieces or elements of classical literature, it is more often the case that Christians are those advocating a return to the classics. The classical education movement that has spread throughout schools and homeschools in America is largely a movement by and among Christians. Similarly, it is Christian universities like Faulkner University that have been at the vanguard of those universities maintaining or reviving classical liberal arts education. It seems, then, that Ryken’s defense might have been better placed had he instead addressed himself to the real culprits behind the decline.
Foremost among these culprits have been the proponents of secular and progressive approaches to education. Religion in public school education has become such a controversial issue that teachers must now actively avoid any mention of it. This not only makes it impossible to, as schools in the United States once did, teach the Bible as literature and history, but also makes it necessary to avoid some of the most important pieces of Western literature and events and themes in history. The result is an increasing number of high school and college graduates who have never read the foundational literature of Western Civilization and so are unfamiliar with its origins and basic ideas. Ryken would have been addressing a much larger audience, and an audience which needs to be convinced in order for change to happen, had he framed his arguments to fit better within this debate.
Given that context of current trends in education and culture, when we engage in reading and discussing the great books we are doing something radical and countercultural. While reading a book and discussing it may seem banal at first appearance, these kinds of activities might, in the wider scope of history and without exaggeration, be compared to the work of the Christian monks who preserved the Greco-Roman heritage of the West during the Dark Age of Early Medieval Europe. It is an act of retaining and redeeming against the forces of barbarism.