On the Role of the Classics in a Digital Age Education

I recently spent the day in Concord, Massachusetts. We visited Walden Pond, Old North Bridge, The Old Manse, The Wayside, as well as Louisa May Alcott’s house. American intellectual history is one of my deep and persistent interests. I am inspired and challenged by reading great American works that fueled movements and moved people to action. As such, visiting physical spaces where Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott wrote undeniable American classics triggered musing about their ideas as well.

In one location, I came across a quote by Thoreau about the role of the classics in one’s reading. I included an extended version of that quote below.

“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.

Sometimes people mistake me as a champion of progressive education, but if you pay close attention to the “why” behind what I write, you are likely to see some significant differences. For example, even as I am a champion for nurturing agency, project-based learning, and learning by experience; much of what led me to value such practices did not come from progressive influences. It actually comes from a study of how people learned throughout history. I study and learn from education in Greek and Roman eras. I look at education in the rabbinic tradition. I learn from the modes of learning in the early Christian church, the simulation learning in Sparta, the apprenticeship models that span Western Europe, Native American education, African education in the context of community life as well as myriad of experiential learning also influence my thinking.

I look around the world and find that there are rich and fascinating lessons that we can learn from diverse education practices throughout history. At the same time, I am not neutral. Each practice in education has benefits and limitations, it amplifies certain beliefs and values over others. I proudly champion those approaches to education that best align with my core convictions, even as others champion very different approaches the basis of their beliefs and convictions.

For me, even amid my argument that we consider how to best prepare people to thrive and survive in this connected age, I value classic literature from around the world. Classics persist over time. They outlive eras, ages, and sometimes even civilizations. They represent ideas that influenced countless people and nations. Sometimes they brought about war, other times peace, still other times they brought about both. They help people imagine new possibilities, escape the demons and blind spots of a generation, influence people’s sense of right and wrong, and move people to action. They added depth and nuance to our thinking about the life, death, peace, war, love, humanity, culture, purpose, the sacred, and more.

In many circles, it is hard to speak about the value of the classics without a question of bias. Whose classics? This is a good and important question. I value classics from around the world, even as I am certainly more well read in western classics. Others point out that important voices of the past were suppressed, never reaching the category of classic. This too is a valid point, and worthy of our exploration and consideration. Yet, we do not throw out a great meal because other equally good foods were excluded from the table. We can still learn about those other foods and appreciate them in a future meal.

Still others argue that reading is passe. We are in a digital age and books are fading. There is some evidence to suggest as much. Media in many forms occupies people’s time more than at any time in history. There many be a time when books are a rarity, but we are not there yet.

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