The first day of a humanities class at a university is quite special compared to other courses. Sure, all courses share common occurrences: meeting both old and new classmates, marking your territory in an unassigned seat, enduring the recycled classroom icebreakers led by the professor. But in a humanities class, there’s really only one thing occupying the minds of students: that lengthy syllabus.
Whether it is Homer’s Odyssey or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the freshmen of the class stare in terror at the vast amount of classical literature they will have to read for a whole semester. Some students will bury their heads in their hands, realizing they have not escaped highschool English class yet. Others will clutch their debit cards, pondering the small fortune they will have to spend to get all those books. But some will continue to glare at the syllabus, asking a question that the whole class might be subconsciously thinking: “Why these books?”
After all, we live in an age where all types of literature are made available to us. Surely, the themes and content of those classical works can be found in more contemporary works? Why discuss the political themes of Hamlet when we can just read Game of Thrones? Odysseus’ journey far, far away from Ithaca? Why not just watch Star Wars? Why read Beowulf when we can learn about kinship from comic books?
Our society has been privileged with such a large array of contemporary literature, so much that our value of the classics has become lessened. In fact, there has been a growing movement in universities to reject the notion of a curriculum altogether, instead recommending works outside the canon. In doing so, there is a belief that students will be exposed to more ideas and thus adapt a more critical mind.
However, there is also another argument made by this movement. They believe that the value of literature, specifically classical literature, is inherently political. That the worth of classical literature is solely determined by Western cultural and historical tradition. In other words, without cultural approval, literature has no value at all.
This, of course, is a very narrow-minded way to view classical literature. If literature is solely regarded in a political way, then this contemporist argument would hold some merit. However, literature offers so much more insight than politics.
Poetry can bring tangibility and emotion to unspoken experiences. Prose can capture the best aspects of a culture.
But relevant to our society, classical canon exposes the foundational, fundamental, and universal trappings of Western civilization.
The literature of the humanities shows us what it means to be human. Sure, battle, adventure, and romance are themes to get excited about. But the humanities uses those themes to show profound aspects of not only our human nature, but our culture as a whole. That is exactly what the classical canon does.
Beowulf idealizes the concept of loyalty and familial bonds in our society. Hamlet shows us the importance of being decisive, especially in our increasing critical world. Julius Caesar reveals the significance of following our own convictions, in the face of our culture’s growing animosity towards individual beliefs. The classical canon is relevant to our culture because it is our culture. The themes of classical literature are a reflection of the cultural traditions that have shaped our society for centuries.
That is why replacing the classical canon with contemporary selections is a grave disservice. Contemporary works only capture inklets of the fundamental insights that classical works offer. The readings of classical canon should not be limited, because they are one of the best ways of understanding our culture itself.
So before groaning at the syllabus on the first day of your humanities course, just remember—the books you will read are part of the reason why our culture exists today.