Tuesday Links, 4/13/21

  1. Howard University is considering getting rid of its Classics department.
  2. Tell Me Aristotle, Why Do We Have Butts?
  3. Relevant to this project: the blog Anne with a Book asks: are classic books inherently better than modern books? (To me, “inherently” is doing a lot of work in that question.)
  4. Two excellent “By the Book” features from the NY Times… Ai Weiwei and Bill Gates.
  5. “Here are 12 great books investigative journalists might want to pick up in 2021, including guides to mobile and data journalism…”
  6. Interview with Amber Taylor, who wants to teach classics to kids.
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What I’ve Been Reading

Having already borrowed the linked post, it made sense to borrow “What I’ve Been Reading” as well. So without further ado…

  • Jonathan Marks, Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education. A line I use a lot at Lambda is that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity isn’t. Marks, who strikes me as a Charles Krauthammer type, makes the point that the capacity to reason well is equally distributed, it just needs to be cultivated. Marks isn’t a polemicist, and tips his hat to several points that someone who wanted to be incendiary would not. He goes through the arguments against treating students as consumers, and I share his concern for colleges downsizing or doing away with Classics departments because some students don’t want to study ancient Greek. He asks, rightly, on whose terms students come to college — the students’, or the college’s? One thing I’m unclear on from the book is how widespread the problems he describes are — are they a small-but-vocal minority, or is there a real danger to what is traditionally thought of as a liberal arts university?
  • Beowulf. I read this for our upcoming InterIntellect salon on Sunday, and I enjoyed it. I learned, for instance, that the difficulty one associates with Beowulf is almost entirely with the translation, and not the content. Rendered into English by our own Seamus Heaney, it’s a relatively straightforward tale, especially when you catch the Christian imagery. (It’s somewhat difficult not to, when Grendel is referred to as the son of Cain.) I expect to have more intelligent thoughts on it after the discussion on Sunday (and the following one in May with the second group), but in the meantime, I’m checking out the secondary materials that the good folks of Twitter were kind enough to recommend. See the replies to this tweet.
  • Elizabeth Samet, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. An interesting mix of memoir and non-fiction discussion of the value of reading classic works. Samet started teaching at West Point in 1997, and so saw first-hand what changed after 9/11. My dad, who read his own share of classic works when he was younger, had just told me the plot of Lord Jim, which came up as a book that officers continually come back to. (Can’t imagine why.)
  • Leon Kass, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times. Kass, happily, was recommended by my graduate advisor at St. John’s. I’ve already written about Kass’ take on classic education, and I actually didn’t read the whole book start-to-finish. While I’m still figuring out this whole being-an-adult thing, I feel less unmoored than I did in my early 20s. I do wish I’d discovered Kass and David Brooks earlier, though.
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Tuesday Links 3/30/21

  1. Thoughts on Fiction, Real Life, and Escapism.
  2. A tribute to many madmen. “Once upon a time, G. K. Chesterton wrote a story about a madman who was really the sanest man of all. Actually, now that I think about it, G. K. Chesterton wrote many stories about a madman who was really the sanest man of all; but the story I am thinking of was Manalive.”
  3. “When studying this all those years ago at secondary school, Animal Farm bored me to tears. So did everything, back then, though. Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby are books to be shunted in alongside the work of George Orwell as ‘pieces of literature I have yet to re-visit, away from the iron grip of hellish education institutions.'”
  4. The purpose of novels, via Anwar AlKandari.
  5. How museums are making classic literature more attractive to young readers.
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Leon Katz on the value of a liberal education

I’m a big fan of the idea of having personal boards of directors: people who care enough about what you’re up to that you keep up-to-date via email or the occasional lunch date. They can offer feedback, advice, intros, whatever — the most important thing is that you, the person with the board, gets used to reporting to them. It’s a form of managing up: taking advantage of what you can learn from people older, smarter, and/or more experienced than you.

My solo great books project has a couple of people on the “board of directors,” but none of them are aware of their role. Maybe a better way is to refer to them as the intellectual ancestors of the project.

Leon R. Katz is one such person. A professor and public intellectual with a long academic career (including at St. John’s College!), he’s a big fan of education by great books alone. I just read a piece that makes the case for liberal education. I wrote at the beginning of “Why Read Classic Books?” that I expected to come back to this question a lot. Here, then, is a summary of his argument. Readers interested in going deeper can check out Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times.

To start, Kass delineates education from professional training. The medical and legal fields are the classic examples here, but Lambda School, my day job, stands out. We do vocational training — we don’t grant a degree and we don’t claim to provide an education in the traditional sense: we teach programming and data science and then help you get hired.

He also separates education from mere familiarity with the history of ideas. Knowing Plato, Shakespeare, or Darwin is necessary but not enough. If, as the cliche goes, liberal arts teaches you how to think, the history of thought should not be mistaken for thinking. This both explains the usefulness of the Great Books (I’ve said before that, taken together, they’re an unparalleled telling of human imagining and inventing) and showcases their limitations. They can be a catalyst, but they won’t think for you.

Finally, Kass says, education is not critical thinking. Sharpening one’s intellect is all well and good, but critical thinking is an instrument. Tools must be used.
So — if all of that is what liberal education is not, what exactly is it?

Kass defines a liberal education as what I call “applied thoughtfulness,” which is exactly the sort of pithy summation that lends itself to being misunderstood. Kass describes it as encountering a contradiction and seeking to understand it. “Thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns,” he writes, is unlikely to always be clear and straightforward, but we ought to be always “in quest of what is simply true and good.”

He encourages us to be less concerned with removing the uncertainty quickly and more concerned with understanding and engaging with it. Trying to explain away the contradiction, or coming up with a perspective that explains away the contradiction is, Kass says, the easy way out. Sitting with that discomfort, that contradiction, is where you discover interesting things. Human affairs, for better or worse, usually involve judgements on what’s good and bad, or what’s good and better.

In a pleasantly action-oriented sense, that goes against the stereotype of the ivory tower academic, Kass describes a liberal education as that which encourages a habit of thoughtfulness. If people do logic puzzles to prepare for the LSAT, liberally educated folks find themselves in situations where they can be thoughtful. Kass doesn’t seem to think that a liberal education is something downloaded into students’ brains, but rather a muscle that can be strengthened or neglected. The choice, he might say, is ours.

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Thursday Links, 3/25/21

I’m working my way through Heaney’s translation of Beowulf now, and I’ll post more thoughts shortly, but I wanted to do a quick roundup as I explore more of the Classic Books part of the internet…

[U]nder the direction of Professor Douglas Greenfield, senior associate director of the program, the goal is manifold: to bring life and context to the words on the page and to think intentionally and inclusively about whose stories get to be told, whose intellectual heritage gets to be studied.

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Wednesday Links, 3/17/21

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As you might have seen on Twitter, I’ve been going deep on the Classic Books-internet rabbit hole. It goes to show that reports of blogging’s death have been greatly exaggerated: there are a ton of great blogs on books that, by all accounts, are doing it in the Hitz-ian sense of leisure — not for profit or career advancement, but just because they enjoy it.

With that, here are some recent links from the blogosphere, which is a word I’ve not used in around a decade.

  1. Tips for reading Pride and Prejudice. I started reading this over Winter Break a few years ago and didn’t finish it. It’s in the third year of the great books project, but I suspect I’ll try it again before then.
  2. There’s a new translation of Beowolf out. I started reading the Heaney translation the other night, and I’m excited to check this one out. I’m reminded of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey and how important it is to update translations. Amy, on the new Beowolf: “It’s clearly the translation of a twenty-first-century woman who is interpreting this ancient tale in her own way. She hasn’t rewritten this poem but she has reimagined it for herself and for a new generation of readers.”
  3. An analysis of Antigone that includes a defense of Creon.
  4. Tyler Cowen has been reflecting on his early career, which has been fascinating to read. Tyler, on what he learned from his early successes: “Try things, and make people tell you no. Just keep on trying, in the most naive “Reader’s Digest” sense.  Most people simply won’t be doing that, so it can be a huge comparative advantage.”
  5. Some good old-fashioned naval-gazing: a list of non-fiction books about the reading life.
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Antigone, Redux

I’m co-hosting a discussion series on the great books over on the Interintellect, and we have two “sessions.” We do the same 15-book syllabus, but we have two groups staggered across a month: we discussed The Iliad with Group 1 in January, and then with Group 2 in February, and so on.

What this means, practically, is that my cohost and I discuss a book with one group, and then, after a month, with the other group. We’re a couple of books into the syllabus now, and I’m starting to observe a pattern: in the month between discussions, I find myself thinking about the book in the back of my mind, and making new connections.

I think this is what Harold Bloom et al. are talking about when they say that The Classics are enough books for a lifetime. A close reading of the 150-or-so books that make up the bulk of most of the “great books” lists would, in fact, take most of a lifetime. Mortimer Adler said that these books would “grow with you,” and this was what he meant: the books change between readings, and you change between readings, and the books say different things to different people at different times. Obviously, all books say different things, and nobody is the same person they were before, but I’d argue that a lot of books just don’t have all that much to say to us.

In any event, returning to Antigone for a second. On first reading, it’s obvious that the characters of Creon and Antigone are in conflict, but I don’t think I realized the extent to which they’re diametrically opposed, and that their loyalties (Creon to the state, Antigone to the gods) are precisely inverted. In between the first and second group discussions, I read Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster maintains that we can only hold space for so many characters in our brains, and that secondary characters (I think he specifically cites Patroclus as an example) often exist mostly for plot purposes — to push the main character and the story along.

I don’t know if I buy that entirely (I’ve also written a little bit about why I’m skeptical of Foster’s book), but it makes sense in the context of Antigone. The play is, as I’ve said elsewhere, one of the strongest examples of civil disobedience that I’m aware of, but I wonder if both Creon and Antigone are one-dimensional characters. The counterargument here would be that Creon changes his mind, but a counterargument there would be that he has to, to fulfill the tragedy.

Putting a pin in that question (I’ll continue noodling on it, and may write more), we also had a lively discussion on what I’m terming the “Antigone problem” — when what’s perceived to be the right thing to do is at odds with the law. Examples cited include Les Mis and the Snowden episode!

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I talked to Agnes Callard on Clubhouse last night…

Thanks to everyone who turned out to listen in — it was a lot of fun and I was pleased with how it turned out. At one stage, we had north of 250 people listening in. Professor Callard is a great speaker, and shared a lot about teaching Plato’s Phaedo to 21st-century college students.

I thought the Clubhouse format was good, if athe little bit difficult to feel natural, just because I couldn’t see the audience. I wonder if it would be better with people you know better. On Zoom, you also have that split-second bit of feedback you see someone reach forward and unmute, which reduces the chances of people speaking over each other.

The other thing is obviously that Clubhouse is etherial in the sense that there are no notes, no copy saved, no playback. You say things and they’re gone. I think what they’re doing with the app is interesting precisely because most social networks have such long memories. “Unfettered conversations” has become a bit of a meme, but I do wonder if there’s a benefit to the default behavior of another social network to not be saving things forever. Snapchat obviously pioneered this, and there does seem to be an appetite for it.

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Friday Links 3/12/21

  1. Someone read 100 classic books and shared their tips, including why to engage in book polyamory.
  2. I’m always slightly skeptical when people share lists of books recommended by x person or on y podcast (because of the benefits of reading things that other people aren’t), but I still think they have value. Here’s a list of every book recommended on the Tim Ferriss show.
  3. I also make an exception for MostRecommendedBooks.com, which was started by a Lambda School grad.
  4. Classics for quarantine: Reading in Michel de Montaigne’s ‘Essays.’
  5. I don’t speak French, but here’s a discussion of the Classics in Le Figaro.
  6. Not specifically related to the Classics, but Bari Weiss’s latest dispatch is worth reading.
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Thursday Links 3/11/21

Our articles will dust down the Ancient Greeks and Romans and bring them into fresh conversation with modern-day readers of all ages. […] To be sure, not every idea from Classical antiquity deserves to be defended, and we enthusiastically invite critical analysis of those that may be wrong. On the whole, however, our writers do seek to uphold and promote ideals that held sway thousands of years ago: open enquiry, robust debate and the unfettered exploration of ideas.

  • New (to me) blog: “Inclusive pedagogy and diverse book reviews by a queer classicist of colour.”
  • Emily Wilson (for whose translation of The Iliad I am very excited) on the current conversation. “To sum up: it’s not about cancelling Homer. It’s about thinking hard about how and why we study ancient cultures, and taking seriously the intellectual and ethical problems in the modern field of “classics”. History is questions, not monuments.”
  • Wake Forest University has a class on “Classics Beyond Whiteness,” which (as far as I can tell) is required to graduate with a Classics degree. (Via Sententiae Antiquae, another blog that’s new to me!)

Studies misconceptions that ancient Greeks and Romans were white; race in Graeco-Roman societies; the role of Classics in modern racial politics; and non-white approaches to Classics. Considers race as social construct; white supremacy, fragility, and privilege; and critical-race-theoretical study of ancient cultures. 

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