Sunday, August 5, 2007

On the Cusp of Two (or more) Cultures



There's a relic on the shelves of my workplace: C. M. Bowra's Oxford Book of Greek Verse. I take it down from time to time, just to look at it fondly. I don't know when it was last checked out. I call it a relic because the title is literally true: the poetry is all in Ancient Greek--no translations. It was published in 1930, at a time when one could reasonably assume that many people (mostly men) had learned Greek and Latin in the course of their education. I wistfully imagine some old gent who walked the same sidewalks I do taking that book home to read Pindar or Hesiod in the original.

I don't know Greek or Latin--a fact I used to regret very much but no longer do. Nevertheless I still think it a little sad that a classical education has largely gone the way of the mastodon. Partly because I can identify just a little with the people who had that education, or at least with a feeling some of them must have had as they saw the generations after them growing up ignorant of learning they considered essential. In college my teacher for a course in Shakespeare's tragedies was an old Oxonian steeped in the classics. I remember him fondly because he was such a kindly man. But I also remember his visible distress on discovering I hadn't read Aeschylus. He told me to go home and read The Oresteia: "Without a working knowledge of those plays you simply aren't an educated person." A number of my friends to whom I've told that story are appalled by the bigotry of the comment, by the Dead White Male world view it expresses, but I can laugh sadly about it in some small way, because I know that feeling: I experience it with teenage library patrons all the time. A girl has to read a biography of a famous woman and when I suggest names I discover she has no idea who Susan B. Anthony or Dorothy Day are. A boy needs a "classic novel" to read for school and I tell him about The Red Badge of Courage and 1984 as if they were personal secrets of mine.

I have similar experiences with friends and co-workers as well. At work one day I sardonically quoted a passage of the King James Bible that I thought particularly apt to the situation. I got a blank look instead of a smile of recognition.

Of course, there's much more to all this besides changing conceptions of what an education is. In the case of my teenage patrons it's a result of a sharp decline in educational standards, and (probably) people who aren't readers raising their children to be non-readers. And that classical education I can feel so wistful about was part of a rigidly stratified society culturally dominated by white males. And my prized knowledge of the King James Bible is product of an oppressive cultural environment that I am still recovering from. But still....

Addendum: Critic Gail Caldwell wrote an essay that covered similar issues with much more depth (and a somewhat different take) in yesterday's Globe. Unfortunately it's only available to subscribers at the moment. Hopefully it will soon be available in its entirety elsewhere on the web.

1 comment:

Angela said...

I really enjoyed the Oresteia, though admittedly what I remember most is Clytaemnestra's (sp?) thrilling speech about signal beacons lit in succession, mountain to mountain, across the sea. And it sticks with me now mostly because Peter Jackson stole that scene for Return of the King.

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