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Musings on the Decline of Classical Learning

An unfortunate trend that I have noticed in the United States, the West in general really, is the precipitous decline of both classical learning and the respect it engenders. If one was to explain to their parents that they were going off to school to study Latin and Greek, their parents would almost certainly be dismayed. Yes, they might console themselves that their child could be preparing to become a lawyer, but that’s nearly their only solace. Few would rejoice in the idea that they would be perpetuating a three thousand year tradition. The same can be said for Art History, Music, and the like. In the English speaking world there has even been a great drop in the so-called ‘practical languages,’ when all of Europe speaks passable English (or at least the parts one might want to actually visit), why bother?

One could argue, quite reasonably, that the literature of France, Italy, and Germany ought to be more than enough reason. Translations only suffice at the barest level. Reading prose in translation is like watching a movie through a distorted window pane, poetry in translation in more similar to watching a silent movie through wax paper. It’s hopeless. However this matters less and less to the hoi polloi, and I use that term in its most benign sense, they’d just rather be watching television or football. The percentage of people in both the US and the UK that manage to read one measly book per year is obscene. Imagine how low the number would be in regard to reading a book in a foreign language?

It is little wonder that the respect that a classical education engenders has fallen into such destitution. One can hardly engage the public in reading their own language, much less thinking about those ghastly ‘dead’ languages. The decline in attendance and interest at major cultural venues such as theatre, opera, and music has been, while not equally precipitous, quite sharp. Musical forms that have managed to hold the public’s attention since the 16th century are in sharp decline. Thankfully, the decline in the aural arts has not been nearly so bad in Europe as it has been in the United States.

So what is the cause of this? Perhaps the greatest contributor to this decline was the abhorrent attitude of the 1960s. That unfortunate decade where the Western World, in the throws of recovery from it’s folly 20 and 30 years earlier, faced a new threat: its children. This was a rare time wherein a younger generation held a great deal of power in comparison to its elders. This advantage was primarily one of numbers. It was the teenage years of the Baby Boom after all, it was never going to be pretty. This was an era where students took over campuses and made demands of their teachers insofar as what they ought to be taught. What folly! A generation that has the freedom to run around chanting ‘Hi Hi Ho Ho Western Civ Has Got to Go!’ has no idea whence this freedom came.

Here was a time when the establishment was hated, a time when the patients ran the clinic – anti-intellectualism abounded. Tenured radicals, as they have been called, became the norm and universities took their modern form as being monolithically liberal. This was a time when University became a place of ‘self-discovery’ and not formation. The classical education was actively detested at this time for being too western, nowadays it is looked down upon because the great composers, authors, painters, and poets are all ‘old, dead, white men.’

It is my hope that in time tradition can take hold again, for it is such a sinewy thing. A few generations of ignorance will hardly destroys thousands of years of learning.

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