Somebody Doesn’t Know Squat About a Classical Education: An Elitist Jerk Fisk (Part Two)

And so, here we are again, ladies and gentlemen, with more from somebody spending several thousand words telling us why the Classical education system is a bad idea.

So, as a reminder, our Fisking Subject this week is Naomi Kanakia, with The Myth of the Classically Educated Elite.

Once again, the original is in italics, with commentary in bold.

When I attended an MFA program, about halfway through this self-education project, I realized that I had done far more work than was common. All of my classmates had majored in English in college (I had majored in Economics), and almost none of them had read the books I’d been told an educated person “must” read. Forget about reading Homer, most hadn’t read Middlemarch or David Copperfield. To the extent that they were influenced by literature, it was by recent American literature: Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson were popular influences. Virginia Woolf, at least, had some adherents, but even the modernists weren’t terribly popular, though most had some familiarity at least with Faulkner and Hemingway.

Sounds like their schools sucked. Next problem.

According to the Classical model, this is essentially the same as being uneducated. To the educator of 100 years ago, novels would not be a fit subject for study. The highest educational attainments of my classmates — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf — would be popular entertainment. The sort of works that shouldn’t need to be taught because young readers ought to seek them out on their own.

Okay. Had the same problem in my college. The novel was almost ignored, despite the fact that it is now a respectable form of literature, and not the “trash” it was considered in Jane Austen’s time (we writers can all thank Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities for making the novel respectable). But the idea that society once expected people to just go and read things like that sounds like something to emulate, not criticize.

As I’ve grown older and gotten to know the literary world better, I’ve seen little interest among even literary elites in Classic literature.

This is not a good thing.

To the extent that people are excited by literature, it’s by comparatively recent writers: Žižek, Barthes, Naomi Wolf, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Toni Morrison.

Never heard of them. Moving on.

Among “Classic” writers, only Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Shakespeare retain any hold on the imagination of the average writer, while the influence of the Italian Renaissance, Middle Ages, and Greek and Roman antiquity is virtually nil. And this is among people who make the written word their business.

Shakespeare is the epitome of “Classical literature.” It’s not like anybody would expect high schoolers or even most college students to read Beowulf or excerpts of Middle English poetry (I was an English major, so I was required to do both). But the Bronte sisters, Austen, and Shakespeare are very, very basic.

I had apparently bought into a lie. I had thought I needed to read all this stuff in order to be a great writer.

Who said it was a lie? It sounds like a wonderful standard to hold yourself to. Why are you bemoaning being BETTER EDUCATED than your peers?

It was a beautiful lie! I love the books I’ve read, and they’ve contributed immeasurably to my development as a person, but the course of reading I undertook is relatively rare among … well … anyone.

So, give yourself a round of applause for your good taste and dedication to the Classics, and let’s move on.

And those who do engage in it tend to be reactionaries.

Indeed, the one area where Classical education continues to be in vogue is among neoconservatives: that group of former Trotskyists who turned to the Republican Party in the late 20th century and became a huge (albeit now waning) influence on conservative politics.

Trotsky was a Marxist revolutionary, you ignorant hack. He was a member of the very first Bolshevik Politburo in 1919, and even has an “ism” named after him. You know, “Trotskyism”? And you’re really going to try and tell me that people like that are in the Republican party now?

This isn’t a political blog; otherwise I’d stop this whole thing just to explain how wrong you are. But you wouldn’t listen, anyway, so what’s the point? Typical elitist leftist strategy: accuse the other side of what you’re actually guilty of, and hope it sticks.

Moving on.

One of the Great Books podcasts I sometimes see when scouring the internet is hosted by The National Review (a neoconservative magazine), and when Allan Bloom’s book was published, it was enthusiastically taken up, throughout the conservative intellectual world, as an indictment of a left-wing educational system that had lost its way.

Good for it and him. Somebody needs to indict the left-wing educational system, and fast.

And this makes sense: reading the Classics is fundamentally backward-looking.

Seriously? Seriously!? I guess you don’t like reading the news from last week, either.

Conservatives value tradition, so they value the teachings of old books. For a progressive like myself, reading the Classics requires a bit more rationalization.

Some ideas never change, especially because people never change. We’re still the same fallible human beings we were a hundred, and two hundred, and three hundred, and a thousand years ago. That’s why “Classics” like Shakespeare are still studied, because the feelings and ideas and faults and heroisms of those characters are still the same as they were five hundred years ago when he wrote them. The language might have changed a little, but people are still people.

Indeed, if you were to ask about the decline of the Classical education as an ideal, the number-one thing people on the left would likely say is that the attitudes of Classical writers are distasteful to modern audiences.

That explains why our society is falling apart. Attitudes like basic morality, decency, honesty, and the like are all denigrated by you progressives.

I don’t disagree that this is the case. Most cultures prior to the end of the 19th century had extreme social hierarchies; many practiced slavery.

Let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater; older cultures practiced slavery, so therefore they must be wrong about absolutely everything, right?

All of them, almost without exception, subordinated women.

Oh, please. Women in western civilization, thanks to Christianity, were honored, respected, and protected. Chivalry might have been an extreme expression of that honor and respect, but women weren’t bought and sold like slaves. The customs (like dowries for marriages, or a girl being under the protection of first her father and then her husband) were meant to protect women, not subjugate them. A woman was the complete master (or, more accurately, mistress) of her household. Go watch The Quiet Man, and look at the difference between Mary Kate in her brother’s house (a servant with nothing that belonged to her), to Mary Kate married to Sean Thornton: she was queen in that house, because it belonged to her. She could order her brother around, and all he could say was “thank you, mum” instead of threatening her or ordering her around like he used to do. The whole point of the dowry was so that she could enter the marriage as her husband’s equal, not his servant.

You want to talk about women being enslaved? Let’s talk about human trafficking and the sex trade in good old 21st century America.

I thought so.

Many modern writers and thinkers would claim that the achievements of Classical civilization, whether in ancient Athens or Imperial China, would have been impossible without the exploitation of other people.

Uh-huh. Sure. Quote somebody who thinks that. I’ll wait.

Moreover, any proponent of cultural literacy will inevitably need to acknowledge the fact that, with startlingly few exceptions (Heian-era courtly ladies, the writings of Greek subjects of the Roman Empire, and the long history of Jewish Diasporic literature being three that come to mind), there are no sustained bodies of written work by people who were marginalized or subaltern within their own societies.

So . . . because no servants in the Roman Empire wrote anything worth saving (maybe because they didn’t freaking read or write), that must mean that the entire body of literature from that age is worthless? Did I hear you right?

There is a lot of stuff from the Roman Empire that hasn’t survived so that we can study it . . . maybe because it was TWO THOUSAND FREAKING YEARS AGO, and records get fragmented and lost in that amount of time. The stuff that was saved (like Julius Caesar, Cicero, Aristotle, etc.) was the stuff that was different or superior to all the other stuff. People saved it, passed it along. The ordinary, the transitory, that stuff was left behind, so we don’t have it to compare to those great minds. That doesn’t mean it never existed.

If an evangelizer for culture finds these facts to be distasteful, they tend to react in one of two ways.


The first is to highlight the solitary exceptions — the few marginalized individuals within the overall literary tradition. This person will inevitably mention Sappho — the only female poet from all of antiquity whose works are available in any quantity.

Oh, so they do exist? Imagine that.

They might mention Christine de Pizan or Marie de France — medieval writers who often worked in isolation from other woman writers, without a sustained tradition either ahead of or behind them. And they will certainly note that much of women’s writing was informal — letters and diaries — without noting that these letters have only been retained if they were addressed to important men. Almost no letters exclusively between women are extant, although these probably constituted the majority of every woman’s correspondence.

Yeah . . . because there was another thing about letters. They were intended for the recipient. They were private. Nobody else with good manners would read a letter addressed to another. So, most letters got discarded with the death of the recipient. The only ones that were saved were the ones that contained something amazing, something that had to be passed on because it was important, or the ones that were written to a large group and meant to be promulgated. Like, gee, maybe ALMOST ALL OF THE FREAKING NEW TESTAMENT. They’re LETTERS.

Do you know what happened to most of Jane Austen’s letters? Her sister burned them after her death, because she was afraid her crazy sister’s ideas would embarrass the rest of the family.

Most women had better things to do, like raising children and tending to their household, to sit around and write bad poetry or study philosophy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most women don’t have the time to to that NOW, either. So tell me again how they were all so repressed and we’re not.

Written any philosophy lately, hon?

The other reaction is to willfully obfuscate the literary history we’re discussing.

Hold on, I’m going to go dig up a tree to beat you with.

The rise of the novel in the early 1700s marked the first time, especially in English, that women were writing in large numbers and, more importantly, writing for an audience of other women.

And this is a bad thing . . . how? Times change. That’s fine. Get over it.

During the last 300 years, there’s also been an effort to record works by other marginalized people: folktales, children’s nursery rhymes, and oral history.

So . . . those “marginalized people” only ever had folktales, nursery rhymes, and oral history? Are you kidding me? And you’re accusing the conservatives of being elitist?

And with the rise in literacy in the 20th century, people born into the working class and into marginalized racial and ethnic groups have been able to write and publish in some numbers.

Yeah, it was called the widespread use and availability of the printing press, as well as formalized education for the poor. Gee. Why would anyone write something if their target audience WAS NOT ABLE TO READ IT?! That’s why there was such a thing as ORAL HISTORY. Because IF YOU CAN’T READ, THERE IS NO OTHER KIND AVAILABLE TO YOU.

In the Roman Empire, you had to speak Latin. The truly educated spoke Greek. So, the Greek works (like Aristotle) were still in . . . you guessed it, GREEK. Because the poor folks didn’t have time to care about the creation of the world, or about Poetics, or the different kinds of Love, or the political structure of Athens in the 4th century BC. They were too busy trying to eat. So, the works that remain were written by your “elite” for other “elite” because THAT WAS WHO COULD READ. That might be tragic, but it’s not an excuse to condemn the entire culture.

The bulk of serious literature is still made up of power talking to power, but the exceptions are sufficiently numerous, especially with the posthumous reclamation of reputations, to provide enough of a corpus that someone could say that the study of Classic literature is not inherently the study of powerful and wealthy men.

So . . . what are you complaining about?

But anyone who is intellectually honest can see that this is merely a gloss.

Holy . . .

Nothing can change the fact that the foundational works in a Classical education are simply not very representative of the people who have existed throughout history.

Oh, you did not.

You did? Okay, fine.

Let’s take Shakespeare as an example. His works included those “marginalized” people you were just complaining about. The grave-digger in Hamlet? Poor guy. Othello? Black guy. Shylock? Jewish guy. Beatrice? His version of a modern feminist woman. Hell, he even included literal fairies. Women even disguised themselves as men to pull off some shenanigans (like Portia).

Certainly, no writer in history has looked like me, a brown-skinned trans woman.

That explains a lot. You’re seriously trying to reduce the ideas of Shakespeare (and others) to nothing, based on their skin color and sexual orientation or whatever. Which makes you the racist bigot, not them. The whole point is that even though the physical descriptions of the characters might not be “representative of the people who have existed throughout history,” the ideas are. Because once again, people don’t change. They’re still people, no matter what color they are, where they live, how rich they are, or how educated they are. We still love, hate, weep, laugh, envy, and rejoice, just like they did five hundred or five thousand years ago.

Sounds like you’re the one with the bigotry, not them.

And to ask people to study that culture is to ask them to study the writings of men who were generally at or near the seats of power.

Once again, that’s because THAT’S WHAT SURVIVED THE RAVAGES OF TIME.

In fact, literature is intimately connected with the exercise of power.

Throughout history, literature has generally been the province of people insecurely seated within the political elite.


So, Shakespeare was actually insecure? Cicero? Aristotle? Emerson? Byron? Okay, maybe Byron was, but still. Are you really trying to make that blanket statement apply to EVERY CLASSICAL WORK EVER WRITTEN?

Literature, with a few famous exceptions (the work of Marcus Aurelius and Queen Liliʻuokalani, among a few others) is not written by actual rulers.

Maybe . . . because they had actual important stuff to do?

Nor is it written by the landed elite. It’s usually written within societies that have grown large and complex enough that they need a body of learned administrators — people who depend for their livelihood on service to the state, in whatever form it might exist. And literature arises almost as an accidental byproduct of the creation of this class.

I think you take the prize for Stupidity of the Week. Maybe even of the month, and that’s saying something.

Other than the fact that Shakespeare was the son of an alderman, this is complete crap. Cicero was a member of the Roman senate, not some idiotic hanger-on. Aristotle was a student, and later a tutor (famously tutored Alexander the Great). His father was a physician to King Amyntas of Macedon. Charles Dickens left school at age twelve to work in a boot-blackening factory when his father was in debtor’s prison, and then became a journalist. Jane Austen’s father was the local rector. William Faulkner’s father was the business manager for the University of Mississippi, and Faulkner never actually graduated high school.

I could go on, but this is getting to be another seriously long fisk. In other words, you’re full of it. Famous authors come from everywhere, and all kinds of backgrounds.

If there can be any defense made of literature, it’s that the ruling class usually doesn’t find it particularly useful, other than as an example of how to write good prose.

Literature shapes culture. It shapes thought and imagination. Literature forms the people that build up societies and cultures. Given the greatness of Western civilization up to this point, the literature that helped create it must have been pretty damn good.

Oh, wait. That’s right. You don’t think it was good at all, do you? Because not enough brown people were in it, or did anything to your liking.

Some of the literature we now read originally had some sacramental place in society:

I’m sorry, “sacramental”? Do you even own a dictionary?

the plays of ancient Greece were performed in a yearly festival sponsored by a wealthy citizen.

Not a sacrament. Just popular culture.

But more often, literature yearned for more importance than it had:

Right, because most authors that we now know as great and wonderful creators of “Classical” literature used to be just some poor John Doe living down the street from a grocer. Nobody is appreciated in their own time.

Virgil tried to flatter Augustus with the Aeneid, but it had no effect on the governing of Rome

So what? People trying to play politics in Rome gave speeches like Cicero, they didn’t write epic poetry, like Virgil.

(its effect was, if anything, more pronounced almost 1,300 years later, during the Renaissance, when it provided the seeds for an Italian national identity).

Okay, I’m not Italian and I’m insulted. You think the only thing that founded the “national identity” of those Italians was . . . the Aeneid? Not, you know, all those Renaissance artists? Michelangelo? Raphael? How about musicians like Palestrina? Nope?

Literature has an effect on future generations,

Yes, it does. Look at that, you said something accurate. But wait, there’s a comma there, so let’s go on to see if you shoot yourself in the foot again.

if at all, when it is baked into a people’s conception of itself: as Petrarch, who died in exile, influenced the men who would someday exert so much influence in the republics of Italy.

As I previously stated, literature influences culture because it shapes thought and imagination, not just politics.

Generally speaking, though, the most powerful people in history had little use for learning.

So . . . what the hell are you talking about? I thought your point was about how people in power were the only ones with any use for literature. Make up your mind, already.

The aristocracy throughout the Middle Ages was illiterate;

Oh, here we go again with this tired old myth.

with a few exceptions (Augustus, Claudius, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian), the Roman emperors were not patrons of the high arts;

That’s quite a few exceptions there.

scholars have tried and failed to find any evidence in Alexander the Great’s life of the influence of his supposed tutor, Aristotle.

Are you kidding me? Just go to frigging Wikipedia. They’ve got a whole bunch in there.

Aristotle didn’t just teach Alexander the Great. He also taught Ptolemy and Cassander. He FOUNDED THE FRIGGING LYCEUM.

He is quoted as encouraging Alexander to be “a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as after friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants.” Gee, I wonder if stuff like that encouraged Alexander to, you know, go and conquer Western Asia and Egypt?

So . . . how again is any of this “supposed”?

The Roman elite during the Republican period was famously disdainful of civilization as a Greek import: the only arts they cared for were war and rhetoric.

Hold the phone, there. They were disdainful of the Greek part of civilization. They thought that the Roman version was better. That’s not the same thing as them disdaining civilization in general.

Nevertheless, it’s true that writers have tended to come from the very highest rungs of society.

See the above list for how wrong you are.

It’s rare in the extreme, at least before the Italian Renaissance, to see a writer with a background in the trades or in the merchant class, although literacy must have been common among these classes at various points in antiquity.

Which means that it’s true all the time, and we can condemn everything classical because most people couldn’t read before the Italian Renaissance? Sure.

Oh my gosh, make it stop.

Writers tended to proliferate around centers of government, and many writers held major roles in government.

You just got done complaining about how nobody could read. Well, if you want anything other than oral history, somebody who can read has to write it down, which means the most likely place for lots of literate people thrown together would be . . . yeah, in big cities, which were (duh) the centers of government.

The philosopher Seneca ruled Rome for a time under Nero; Cicero played a key role in the late Republican period; Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli all held positions in government; so did Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt, and a whole run of English poets, right up until the emergence of Elizabethan theater provided a popular outlet for literature.

Okay, fine. But that doesn’t mean they were the only people who produced anything worth reading. I’ll bet the farm that the Beowulf poet wasn’t a government official.

Churchmen were responsible for most medieval literary production, but even here, literature was not a common vocation amongst ecclesiastics, and literary (as opposed to religious) writers tended to be either papal legates or court chaplains — people connected to government.

And connected to . . . what’s that thing called, again? The CHURCH? Oh, right. Of course. Those people who made it their business to educate both themselves and others, free of charge. The Church invented written sheet music, because Pope Gregory the Great didn’t want the music of the past ages to be lost to time, so he ordered the monks to figure out a way to write it down. Maybe they wrote down a lot of other stuff, too. Like works of literature and stories about other people’s oral history, maybe?

Nor was the situation particularly different in the Islamic world or in the East.

Well, at least you’re spreading the blame around a bit.

Averroes and Avicenna both served in royal courts. Confucius famously sought and failed to receive a governmental sinecure, and many famous Chinese poets held government posts.

Yay, more examples. It doesn’t make you right about every classical author ever.

Japan is a rare exception to these prevailing norms.

Say it ain’t so!

For a time in Heian Japan, literature appears to have been dominated by courtly ladies: Sei Shonagon, Lady Murasaki, and other women composed famous novels and diaries that are still read today.

Good for them.


I knew that was coming. You’re never satisfied, are you?

even these were women ensconced at court, serving as priestesses, wives, and ladies in waiting.

Maybe . . . because the educated women were the ones at court? HOW IS THIS SO DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND?

This is one reason why I treasure this body of work: it’s the one time in antiquity when women seem to have been allowed to speak for themselves, and these writers have an unrivaled understanding of power and moral ambiguity, especially as it relates to relations between the sexes.

Allowed . . . to . . . wha–?

Once again, just because it didn’t survive the ravages of time doesn’t mean it never existed. Maybe the women in Europe like those Japanese women couldn’t read, so they used that thing you mentioned earlier, oh, what was it? ORAL HISTORY. Yeah. That thing. They passed down their wisdom to their daughters, and granddaughters, and so forth and so on. An “old wives’ tale” didn’t used to be an insult.

Women everywhere understood “moral ambiguity” and “relations between the sexes,” even if they didn’t write it down, and even if it didn’t survive so that we can read it if they did.

Which brings us back to the notion of a Classical education and its purported role as the foundation of a civilized and humane populace.

Really? Finally.

Okay, I can’t take it anymore. I’ll have to finish the rest in Part Three of this Epic Fisk. Because too much stupid makes me want to smash my computer. Tune in next time for the exciting–maybe?–conclusion of this ridiculous nonsense.

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