Change vs. classics

Teaching civic engagement and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity is a high priority for college professors, concludes a new UCLA report, The American College Teacher.

While 57.8 percent of  professors want to encourage students to be “agents of social change,” only 34.7 percent said teaching the classics is very important,  notes Chronicle of Higher Education:

Sylvia Hurtado, a professor of education at UCLA who directs the research institute, said the gap between those who value teaching Western civilization and those who value teaching students to be social activists reflects a shift in emphasis from the abstract to the practical. “The notion of a liberal education as a set of essential intellectual skills is in transition,” she says. “It’s also about social and personal responsibility, thinking about one’s role in society, and creating change.”

In transition? Or just going to hell?  I suspect the agents of change in the world will be people who’ve developed their intellectual skills.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says he believes faculty members should teach the classics. “I teach American literature all the time, that’s what I do,” says Mr. Nelson, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But he says that to many professors, teaching the classics has become part of a “conservative agenda” that they don’t want to be part of. Conservative critics of academe, he says, “have poisoned the well for these subjects because they’ve gotten politicized and become symbols of a reaction against the progressive academy.”

Change vs. the classics is a false dichotomy, points out Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass.

The classics are works about social change, in one way or another. That’s true of Greek tragedy, of Chaucer, of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Defoe, of enlightenment philosophers, of romantic poets, of Victorian novelists, of modernist writers. Some register upheaval in their form, some in their content, some do both. Some try to provoke change, some try to register and reflect on it, some try to resist it. But great literature is always hooked into the great tensions of its time — even as it is also hooked into a longer tradition.

Intellectuals should decide what to teach based on reason, not emotion, O’Connor argues.

In other words: If professors can’t teach Antigone (loyalty to family and religion vs. patriotism) for fear of making a conservative smile, that’s just stupid. And stupid is not supposed to be the strong suit of academia.

About Joanne


  1. thaprof says:

    The simple fact is that many of these “progressive” teachers have not read much classic literature. Much of it is simply beyond their reading levels. The ludicrous Sylvia Hurtado has zero background in literature and no qualifications whatsoever to pronounce on a debate over what should be taught.

  2. Parent2 says:

    Only 22.8% of respondents taught in the humanities, 8.3% in fine arts. I can’t blame college professors in engineering, business, health, technical, biological science, and physical science, over 40% of the total, for not assigning a high value to teaching the classics of western civilization. Social science, education, and “other” may not see themselves as part of the liberal arts. I’d call education a professional track, myself.

    So, if you look at the powerpoint presentation, the breakdown of respondents helps to explain the results. It’s not as alarming as presented.

  3. Joanne, I am a little confused by your piece. You clearly believe learning the classics is an essential part of a solid education, but you do not state why. Is it that they are important to our shared cultural background? That time has done the work of evaluating which books are worth reading?

    I like O’Connor’s argument that the ideas of the classics can be read into the social dilemmas of today. Students should be reading what gets them excited, challenges their assumptions and opinions, and is relevant to their lives. If a professor can do that with the classics, that is excellent. Sadly, most of my teachers who taught the classics did so because they were on the syllabus, not out of a passion for the subject. For untrained students, many of the classics are a thousand times harder to relate to than recent literature. Without a truly excellent teacher to guide students through these works, you get students who believe the classics are boring, irrelevant, and not worth the effort. Slavish devotion to the cannon of western literature deprives (some) teachers of the ability to teach what they love, and deprives students of the opportunity to be engaged in literature. I think it is more valuable to have a recent work taught well than a classic one taught poorly.

    Your reference to Antigone at the end made me smile. My exposure to the story (through formal instruction anyway) was through the Jean Anouilh play, a revision of the original that was written to protest the Nazi occupation of France in a guise the censors wouldn’t object to, using classics as sheep’s clothing for the wolf. In the end, I come down on the side of social change being the more important goal of education. If that can be accomplished through the classics, great, but I don’t believe they should be taught just for the sake of “teaching the classics.”

  4. Is it all from the profs? We’re being told “from above” that we have to increase “civic engagement” (and document same; I’m waiting for them to require assessment tests of it). I am in the life sciences, FWIW.

    I’d be happy if some of my students stopped acting like the universe revolved around them. How’s that for improving civic engagement?

    I may be unusual but I’d value a solid grounding in the classics over some touchy-feely “social change” curriculum. It’s my job to provide the skills and abilities; it’s not my job to tell students what they should believe.

  5. What puzzles me about the whole diversity thing is that I’ve never seen any reasons as to why diversity is a *good* thing. Everyone assumes it is, and presents all sorts of conclusions as to why it’s good, but I’ve never seen any *factual* evidence or reasoning.

    For example, people say that it’s better for children to be taught by someone of their own color, and minorities therefore need to have minority teachers. That’s an opinion and conclusion, not a fact.

    I know that diversity means that we get exposed to different opinions, but again, why is that “good” in a cosmic sense? I can certainly think of specific examples where diversity would be desireable, e.g., in a committee charged with a specific goal that cuts across racial and/or ethnic lines, but in general, why is diversity “good”?

  6. So colleges and universities truly expect people to shell out tens of thousands of dollars per year so that a majority of professors can train students to be “agents of social change”? No, thank you. (Anyone can protest something or gather signatures for a petition.) That’s quite the con job they’re pulling–people think they’re receiving an education, but mostly they’re paying to be proselytized.

  7. If diversity is such an absolute good, why are the historically black colleges (HCBUs) and the womens’ colleges allowed to exist? How does their existence – and success – square with the idea that learning can’t happen in an environment lacking the proper percentages of underrepresented minorities/women/gays/etc.?

  8. deirdremundy says:

    It is only acceptable to teach Antigone when “the powers that be” are Republicans so that the brave girl following her conscience is a Democrat.

    Now that the ‘Good’ party controls the executive and legislative branches, works that encourage rebellion ought to be discouraged as they may cause improper thoughts.

    However, perhaps works arguing for ‘divine right’ monarchy may enjoy a new popularity!


  9. Why can’t we teach the greatest masterpieces from ALL traditions? Not ditching the traditional Western Canon but adding to it the best examples from non-Western civilizations. Students should read the Bible AND Confucius’ Analects, Gilgamesh AND the Ramayana, Shakespeare AND Li Bai, etc.

  10. To not understand why studying the classics is necessary for a good education is to not understand the point of a good education. And by classics I also mean the highest intellectual masterpieces from all traditions.

    There’s a growing divide btwn the well-educated and those who just think they’re well-educated.

  11. Quoth Rex:

    What puzzles me about the whole diversity thing is that I’ve never seen any reasons as to why diversity is a *good* thing. Everyone assumes it is, and presents all sorts of conclusions as to why it’s good, but I’ve never seen any *factual* evidence or reasoning.

    It’s a good thing for the power elites so they can practice divide-and-conquer; for everyone else, diversity destroys social capital.

    You will notice that the USA has unrestricted legal and illegal immigration despite widespread popular discontent, because the power elites want it to continue.  Even as employment crashes, the USA is admitting over 100,000 immigrants per month.  That should tell you something.

  12. Andy Freeman says:

    One interesting thing that seems to fly under the radar is that the folks who are actually doing significant social change are engineers and scientists.

    FWIW, there’s a suggestion that they’re starting to abandon universities…. That’s unlikely to become a huge trend, but it could very well become disproportionally influential.

  13. @emily:

    Slavish devotion to the cannon of western literature deprives (some) teachers of the ability to teach what they love, and deprives students of the opportunity to be engaged in literature.

    And therein lies the rub: what do these instructors “love to teach?” Academic content? Mastery of the discipline’s skills and body of knowledge? Loosely-defined processes? How to think like a “progressive?”

    As with all else in education, the answer can be found in the essential learning outcomes for the course. What, precisely, are students to learn in the humanities courses where these texts are used? If the instructor can’t instantly provide an answer, then s/he isn’t really a teacher. If the answer is filled with processes (e.g., “learn to read critically”) or academia-speak for liberal progressivism (e.g., “become agents of social justice”), then s/he is something much worse than a teacher: a propagandist.