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Humanities, classic literature courses never outdated
by Jake Highton
Jan 16, 2014 | 783 views | 0 0 comments | 0 0 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“I have taken all knowledge to be my province.” -Francis Bacon in a letter, 1592

Bacon’s wisdom is an essential intellectual pursuit.

I have immersed myself in literature: novelists, playwrights, short story writers and poets. I have gazed at some of the great art, including sculpture, in American and European galleries. I love classical music, including opera. I know U.S. and world history.

Great movies, mostly those of yesteryear, fascinate me. I admire the work of history’s best photographers. I even admire the genius of architects.

I am not an expert in any of these areas. I am just an amateur, a lover of knowledge and culture. I mention all of this because of the desecration of many humanities programs at universities across the country.

A UCLA case is typical. Until 2011 English majors there had to take one course in Chaucer, one in Milton and two in Shakespeare. But Young Turks of the junior faculty killed all that, calling Chaucer and Milton obsolete and Shakespeare an outdated remnant of empire.

Instead, English majors were required to take courses in the “rubrics of gender, sexuality, race and class.” One of the best English departments in the country, enrolling 1,400 undergrads a semester, became a disgrace.

The past was pronounced dead, the humanist tradition slain. Feminism, victimhood, queer theory, disability study, critical theory and creative writing replaced UCLA’s curriculum.

At another school, a black student complained bitterly about studying the humanities. “Why do I have this Mozart?” she asked.

W.E.B. Du Bois, great black intellectual, had an answer for her more than 100 years ago, citing his affinity with Western civilization: “I sit with Shakespeare across the color line. I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. I summon Aristotle.”

Heather Mac Donald, in a Wall Street Journal essay, had an answer too: “Humanistic study is the loving duty we owe those artists and thinkers who transform us.”

Pursuing Bacon’s precept requires constant reading: for enlightenment, understanding, insight and epiphany. It requires at the very least reading the Great Books.

Start with the New Testament and the ethical principles of Jesus. Contrast the King James Bible with Paine’s “The Age of Reason.” Read “The Communist Manifesto” and dip into Freud.

A few of the many superior books: “Moby Dick” by Melville and Huck Finn by Twain, “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky and “Les Misérables” by Hugo. Orwell’s 1984 and Joyce’s “Dubliners,” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.” Walden (Thoreau), “The Red Badge of Courage”(Crane), “The Stranger” (Camus), “Silent Spring” (Rachel Carson), “Germinal” (Zola) and “Candide” (Voltaire).

Great short-story writers: Maupassant, Balzac, Poe and Jack London. So many great artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Manet, Monet and van Gogh.

Great playwrights: Shakespeare, Ibsen, Molière, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Great composers: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Handel. Great opera composers: Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Rossini and Wagner.

So many great movies: “Citizen Kane,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “La Dolce Vita,” “Grand Hotel” and “Grand Illusion.” And Bergman movies too. Essential history books: “A People’s History of the United States” by Zinn, “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by Loewen, “The American Political Tradition” by Hofstadter and “The Populist Movement” by Goodwyn.

All knowledge is my province too.
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