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But the self-contained pleasures of literature — and indeed learning — are the most profound. There are few greater thrills than challenging the mind without having to ask why. Why, indeed, should every aspect of a university degree — especially in the humanities — have relevance in the contemporary world? If some eyes roll or eyebrows rise at such a question, which only reveals my ivory-tower other-worldliness, just consider life outside academia. Who would stop a fellow passenger on the train to ask why they’re reading a novel? Who would prod someone entering a museum or art gallery to demand what their business is? No one of sound mind would or should. For the thrill of discovering fresh knowledge need not be followed by the grim words “so what?”. Scope should exist for researchers, at any level of academic inquiry, to delve into scholarly rabbit-holes in remote corners of far-flung subdisciplines, whether to solve long-standing puzzles, to tidy up loose ends, or just to revel in humanity’s insoluble complexities.

The newly-formed Office for Students may have other ideas. Its assessment of degree courses is informed by the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). It has — naturally — no means of assessing what is challenging, thrilling, unsettling, inexpressible, or open-ended. But a third of its “core metrics” come from the notorious National Student Survey, which surveys some 300,000 final-year students in the UK. These questions concern undergraduate perceptions of teaching quality, feedback value, and academic support. These data are then combined with statistics about student dropout rates, future employment rates, and future earnings. All of interest and import, perhaps — but hardly the route to establishing and comparing “teaching excellence”. The humanities, it must be said, weren’t built for this.

For the time being, though, tuition fees — which realise themselves later in the day as a tax on employed graduates — price the teaching of UK university degree courses towards £30,000. Whatever the merits of that precise figure for the Arts and Humanities, it’s heartening that thousands of young people still find themselves so fascinated by the ancient world, and so rapt by the difficult questions it poses, to pay for wholesale engagement in the Classics. Very probably, their success in that degree will repay its cost through additional future financial earnings. But the humanities — least of all the Classics — don’t owe anyone a job.

The many centuries of successive scholarly toil and research upon the Classics are not an act of piety or a gesture of subservience to an idealised ancient world. It is both a worthy and pleasurable undertaking to reignite and reilluminate the brilliant lights that shone in antiquity. Since societal progress correlates so imperfectly with time, the Classics provide eloquent evidence that the human condition is less mutable than modern ideologues may suppose. Amidst a fug of supposedly “progressive” ideas about what contemporary communities should do and dictate others to do, looking backwards at the Classics can only sharpen the eye and the mind for how individuals and societies may wish to step forwards. Such lessons — whatever university bureaucrats and cynical philistines may cry — are in every sense of the term priceless.
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Daniel Bamford.
January 12th, 2019
3:01 PM
David Butterfield suggests that ‘the unpoliced resources afforded by the Classics offer a thrilling liberation from some of the intractable impasses of 21st-century cultural politics’ (‘How the Ancients can help the Moderns’, December 2018 / January 2019). This immediately reminded me of a footnote to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944): ‘I believe it was the author of Leviathan who first suggested that the teaching of the Classics should be suppressed, because it instilled a dangerous spirit of liberty!’ (ch. 13, p. 141, n. 2). Thomas Hobbes did not actually propose the outright suppression of the Classics, but insisted that the reading of Classical politics and history should be subject to ‘the correctives of discreet Masters’. This was because the Classics provide justifications and precedents for the overthrow of monarchs and their replacement with forms of ‘Popular Government’ (Leviathan (1651), Part II, ch. 29, p. 170.f). Apparently, there is no shortage of contemporary ‘discreet Masters’ committed to applying the necessary ‘correctives’ in order to force the study of the Classics to conform to the ‘supposedly “progressive” ideas’ that now demand our universal and unquestioning endorsement. Dr. Butterfield mentions attempts to reconstruct a more socially diverse ancient world in order to satisfy identity politics and a shift of focus to the reception of Classical culture in modern times in order to satisfy the demand for contemporary relevance. Such politically correct Classics now find their personification in Donna ‘Eidolon’ Zuckerberg, whose big brother Mark is also ‘Big Brother’ to all FaceBook users. While Zuckerberg tinkers with his algorithms, British universities are now expected to assess the quality of ‘teaching excellence’ through the quantifications of ‘core metrics’. As Dr. Butterfield remarks, ‘the humanities […] weren’t built for this’. Indeed, the Classics must be reconstructed, precisely because they ‘provide eloquent evidence that the human condition is less mutable than modern ideologues may suppose’. It will be easy enough to suppress notions of human liberty, since the Classics have also provided ample resources for totalitarian determinists, as Karl Popper demonstrated in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Any humane defence of the Classics must therefore call on support from elsewhere. With this in mind, it is important to remember that the Classics were first categorised as ‘humanities’ in order to distinguish them from the study of ‘divinities’ and Dr. Butterfield acknowledges that the Classical tradition ‘has long since become impossibly implicated in the threads of lofty Christian morality’. It is this context of Christian ‘cultural appropriation’ that ensured both the survival of the Classical tradition and the sanctification of individual human liberty. Yet, by the same token, the Classics also influenced Christianity, so that the dehumanising determinism of the neo-Platonists, Manicheans and Gnostics found voice in Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Having long harboured inherently anti-Christian ideologies, the Christian influence on the study of the Classics is now much weakened, openly despised and deliberately discarded. The fate of the humanities thus depends on the fate of the divinities: if our human existence as sentiment individuals is no longer validated by a sentient personal creator, then the ultimate consequence is what C. S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man (1943). Having cited three books published in the 1940s, I should conclude by recalling the context in which Hayek thought of Hobbes’s attitude towards the Classics: ‘… perhaps no country provides a better illustration of the effects on a nation of a general and thorough shift of the greater part of its education system from the “humanities” to the “realities” than Germany between 1840 and 1940.’ Sincerely, Daniel Bamford, Derbyshire.

ian coville
December 9th, 2018
4:12 AM
yes and "what is a classic book?" at says 'classic' really just means appropriate.

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