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Rigorous classical education in the arts?

  1. Feb 13, 2012 #1
    The above is from another thread and I was rather intrigued as to what the posted spoke about. My schooling focused more on "how should my answers be for me to get maximum marks?" and as such, the phrase "rigorous classical education in the arts" seems quite vague to me.

    Would you guys be so kind as to elaborate on that? What does such an education consist of?

    This sounds interesting to me and if I were to start working on this, what would be an advisable starting point? I am guessing that European History* is a good place to start? What about philosophy? Literature? American, English, Greek, Russian or French? Sociology? Economics?

    *found a few such books but most seem to require prior exposure to the subject
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 13, 2012 #2


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  4. Feb 13, 2012 #3
    There are a lot of different approaches, but one approach that I like (because it fits well with the internet and self-learning) is the Great Books approach. Here is a list of books, read them....


    You might also start here....

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts (you'll note that astronomy/astrology was considered a liberal art).

    This is classical education in the Western tradition. The Islamic, Indian, and Chinese worlds also have their own set of classical works. In the case of the Chinese tradition, someone in the 10th century, collected the four books into a "start here" primer.
  5. Feb 14, 2012 #4
    Vol. 1 has a very American bias! Were Woolman and Penn his pals?
  6. Feb 14, 2012 #5
    I understand you're recommending this list based on obtaining a "classical education" in the arts. I'm curious, though, if you think these works are as relevant to people today as some modern works are.

    I haven't read all of those in the list, but I've read quite a few. Some I would certainly say are essential reading, even for people today. Others, not as much. For example, I read Dana, Jr's Two Years Before the Mast. It's a great book, no doubt. Sometimes we wash out the very personal and real nature of history with the big picture of what was happening overall, so his personal account is great.

    That being said, to me, it was not as affecting as 'modern classics', like Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy, or Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, just to name a few.

    I'm all for education by reading. I just think the list may need to be updated.
  7. Feb 14, 2012 #6
    The problem with modern works is that if I read something from 1990, and I get some insight from it, I don't know if it is a 1990-thing or a "universal thing." If I read something from the Roman Empire, then I can see what is same or different in 10 BC and 2012, which is something I can't get from reading something in 1990.

    If something happens to be true in 440 B.C., 1780, and 2012, then you'll have some reason to think that it will still be true in 2020. One problem that I've seen with current education is that it was designed specifically for the world of 2001, and the world of 2010 is quite different from 2001.

    But if you read both stuff from 40 B.C. and 2012, then you start seeing the connections (or lack of connections).

    One has to remember what the purpose of the list is. It's just a core set of things that get you started. Also, if someone comes out with a new novel or new movie (Inception for example, Doctor Who, or the Batman mythos) everyone talks about it, so there's no need to add those on the list (and personally I think that Batman comics and Roadrunner cartoons qualify as great literature).

    The point of having a list of classics is so that you know what the "hot books" of 440 B.C. were.
  8. Feb 14, 2012 #7
    It's also massively "dead white male" biased. However, even biases are interesting. One thing about the list of books that Charles William Eliot thought were important is that it tells you a lot about Charles William Eliot and the intellectual environment of the late-19th/early-20th century in the United States. One reason *that* interests me is that there are a lot of similarities between the United States circa 1870 and China today.

    Something that would be interesting is to have an Islamic scholar put together a list of works in the Islamic tradition. I'm sure that 80% of the stuff are things that I've never heard of.
  9. Feb 14, 2012 #8


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    Absolutely. I'm increasingly convinced the real reason why many people don't make as much progress (in whatever field) as they want is because they don't realize that the root cause of the obstacles are not lack of money or technology, but people. You can learn how to win at politics from Sun Tzu and Machiavelli (or Shakespeare), better than from whatever pop-psychology-and-management books Amazon are pushing this week.

    I take it the Harvard Classics collection are all English translations - which raises the issue of the translators' mindsets, of course. For a really rigorous classiical education, you would probably have been able to read most of them in the original language by age 20, except for the Chinese are Oriental languages.

    It's certainly interesting how the idea of "education" has changed in one lifetime. When I was at a fairly standard state-funded school in the UK (in a town with a population of less than 3000) there were a couple of specialist Latin teachers on the staff for about 300 pupils. And passing an exam in Latin (to the level of reading some of the books on the Harvard list) was a compulsory requirement to start a first degree in any subject, arts or science, at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Today you can read Classics at Cambridge without any prior knowlege of Latin at all. O tempora, o mores...
  10. Feb 15, 2012 #9
    Aleph, to read Classics at Cambridge, there is are two tracks. One for those who know Latin and one for those who don't. I believe Greek is taught from scratch in Part I but I may be wrong. I was only looking at the website a few days ago.

    Up until a few days ago, I thought I knew how the next year would pan out but I'm starting to think I should delay going to uni for another year or two...:S
    Maybe learn Latin, Greek and another language. Get well acquainted with all of this before jumping into a degree.

    Thank you for the resources. Shame none of the sellers on Amazon don't ship here. I'll buy the Kindle edition which sells at 0.99 USD per volume. Not that I have an actual Kindle but I don't mind reading on a laptop. :-)
  11. Feb 15, 2012 #10
    I think there is some doubt about Dana! He's not recognized in Britain at all... He's also a Harvard man. So, again, this may be an example of boosterism. More lists here:


    I've read Updike and Kesey, and found them worthwhile, but I think there are far better older, classical novelists who undoubtedly make everyone's canon - Dickens, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe, Dostoevsky, Zola, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Poe. I find these book just as relevant as any modern novels, and usually better reads in all dimensions but those dependent on modernity.

    Going even further back I find Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius more relevant to me than most modern writers... it helps that they haven't been tainted by Christianity, their 'philosophy of life' is very relevant to me...
  12. Feb 15, 2012 #11
    The list in "Fadiman, Clifton and John S. Major. New Lifetime Reading Plan. 4th ed., 1997." tries to get away from that, not sure it succeeds completely, though... still tarred by the bias in earlier editions.

    So which list should one follow? I'm really most tempted by Borges' list. Borges himself is one of my favourite writers. I haven't read most of his list, but the ones I have read are really fascinating, very unusual, works. Many of them are short stories, and amongst the best things I have read from the writers he mentions:

    Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener
    H. G. Wells, The Door in the Wall
    Kipling, The House of Desires
    Franz Kafka, complete Short Stories

    He actually doesn't mention any writers I know I don't like! There are quite a few "classics" I don't like - Proust, Joyce (Ulysses), T.S. Eliot, Pound, ...
  13. Feb 15, 2012 #12
    I've taken a closer look at the lists and I've taken a stronger interest in how universities have incorporated the "great books" philosophy to their curriculum. One the one hand, there are institutions like St John's College, who's bachelor's degree is completely based around this concept, and on the other, there's UChicago, where if one chooses that option, one can end up with a BA or BS degree, where only one third of the degree consists of the "great books" course work.

    There is also Princeton, who have a year-long sequence for freshman, called "humanistic studies". It's the one I liked most, of the 4-5 variants I looked into. It's somewhat less bulky, can be used to get some gen ed. requirements out of the way and as such, one can really focus on their major (whether that's another arts/humanities or a science) while still benefiting from such a course! Really cool, imo. (not that in matters too much...most people who buy the 75-dollar lottery ticket don't win!)

    mal4mac, since you mention a few writers you don't like, I figured I might do the same. I can appreciate how the works of Jane Austen and Chalotte Bronte could have had some significance back in the day, but I just can't comprehend how anyone in their right mind could subject themselves to such torture. Reading through Jane Eyre was just painful and after a while, I just couldn't take it and gave up. I looked at this year's A-Level English Lit syllabus and it looks like Jane Eyre has been replaced by Mansfield Park. Oh the joys...
  14. Feb 15, 2012 #13
    You might also want to examine the Core Curriculum for Columbia University. There are a couple of components to the curriculum, and optional texts that may be used but aren't required, and there's been some changes to what gets read over the years, but it's a fairly interesting mix. While heavy on the Dead White Males, it's not *all* DWMs in the curriculum. ;)
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