The value of the classics
When I was in junior high school, there were two things guaranteed to set my eyes to rolling: doing gymnastics in gym class and doing mythology in English. Mostly the gymnastics involved being relatively high with nothing below you. When you have vertigo, doing flips on the rings isn’t exciting, especially when they’re so high up you have to watch for passing plane traffic. And mythology was just…boring.
So sayeth the eight-grade genius Chris Hamilton. Now, the middle-aged Chris Hamilton regrets his junior high outlook on life. (Not the gymnastics part–that’s forever.) I didn’t really seriously consider writing as something to do professionally until I was in my mid-twenties. One of the advantages of knowing early is that when Mrs. Male starts talking about the stories of the gods, you pay attention to the literary lessons.
That was true of a lot of the works we studied in junior high and high school. The only piece I really paid attention to was our study of Huckleberry Finn in my English AP class in twelfth grade. I really did myself a disservice. About my only other memory is of the poor schmucks mostly submerged in the river Styx, yelling ”Don’t make waves!” (according to my teacher’s joke). I also remember that my eighth-grade English teacher was incredibly hot.
So when British education secretary Michael Gove announced a deeper emphasis on English, poetry, and foreign languages in a recent directive, I approved. After all, that’s what you do when you’re my age and you look back at your misspent youth.
It’s also what you do in a world where math, science, and the ability to create computer-generated simulations of people shooting each other and blowing each other up are valued. As much as pictures are easier than words, especially in an increasingly multi-lingual society, words can produce nuanced, lasting impressions by allowing the consumers to make the pictures in their minds. In other words, reading has value.
And understanding the timeless classics can add further value. They’re timeless and classic because they resonate centuries later. Technology and lifestyles may change, but emotional charge remains the same. You can’t make West Side Story unless you understand Romeo and Juliet, and you can’t create Moonlighting’s Atomic Shakespeare (among others) if you don’t understand The Taming of the Shrew.