Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why do we read classics?

I've expressed skepticism in the past that reading "classic" works should be an important part of education.

There are several reasons to be doubtful. First, today we have a much larger talent base than has ever existed in the past. It seems unlikely that many of the best philosophers were ancient Greeks when today we have literally a million times more people with the education and leisure to do philosophy. Second, regardless of the intergenerational distribution of talent, the human knowledge base tends to improve over time. Each generation of thinkers builds upon the insights of its predecessors, refining arguments and clarifying our understanding of the issues. Given this (almost) continual process of improvement, the chances that the best introduction to any topic was written centuries ago strike me as slim. Finally, even if the ideas in classic works are as good as those in any modern competitor, the style and approachability of modern works are almost always superior. Krugman on Ricardo is a far more pleasant read than Ricardo himself.

So why are the classics, at least in many subjects, still a mainstay of our educational system? I can think of several possible explanations, some charitable and others less so.

The Positive
  1. Even if some newer works have great ideas, centuries of deliberation have made us more confident about which specific older works contain good material. In general, we're bound not by a shortage of clever ideas but by a lack of time in which to assimilate them, and thus we want to concentrate our limited attention on books whose merit is clear.
  2. Older thinkers built up their ideas from first principles in a way that modern ones (for whom the first principles are second nature) almost never do. The attempts of an intelligent person—lacking knowledge of future developments—to lay out the core issues in a field provides a useful sense of perspective to all of us.
  3. Even if the classics are inferior at conveying specific knowledge or ideas, wrestling with them is a productive intellectual exercise in its own right. It's often more important that we develop abstract verbal and analytical skills than that we actually "learn" something, and classics that are bad at providing the latter may nevertheless be good at promoting the former.
  4. In certain fields, the seemingly overwhelming numerical advantage of the modern world may not really be so compelling. Even if we have 1000 times as many educated people as were alive several centuries ago, today our intellectual elites pursue a much broader set of fields, while in the past they concentrated in a few specific areas like philosophy.
  5. Classics carry inherently valuable historical or cultural context.
The Not-so-Positive
  1. We need a certain canon of material to provide a basis for common discussion, and classics are simply the current equilibrium in this coordination game. Classics may be inferior, but they offer a Schelling-style focal point that is not easily changed. This may explain why classics are so much more common in non-scientific fields; in science, there is an objective set of core material that provides a foundation for more advanced work, but in fuzzier subjects the lack of any objective core forces us to use personalities and books instead.
  2. Classics are a possibly wasteful signalling equilibrium, where budding intellectuals demonstrate their devotion to a field of study by combing through dense and unrewarding texts. (This argument is the evil twin of #3 above.)
  3. Focus on classics is a symptom of educational inertia. People who have been successful within a certain system are loath to change that system, and we're often stuck with whatever framework seemed optimal centuries ago.
In the end, there are definitely several good reasons to read classics—they should have some presence in our intellectual portfolio. I'm not convinced, however, that a move away from classics heralds irrevocably declining standards in the academy. In a world where many educated people don't understand basic statistics, spending hours trapped in the library with Aristotle doesn't strike me as a particularly useful pursuit.


John Blanchard said...

As another argument for classics, it seems to me that - especially in science - there are only a handful of basic questions that are ever asked, and these questions were posed most simply and eloquently in the Classical era precisely because there were far fewer intellectuals working on them. Modern physics is still fundamentally divided between Platonic (hypothetical, though logically consistent science, such as string theory) and Aristotelian (science based on observable reality) approaches. If we ignore the classics, we run the risk of ignoring these foundations and wasting a great deal of time trying to come up with the same ideas that were formulated 2300 years ago.

John Blanchard said...

If we're talking about the classics in a field, rather than Classics as a field, maybe it boils down better to just paying heed to the older influential works that cemented current ideas. In this case, I'd still argue that it's only wise to read classics that haven't been totally disproven or otherwise shown to be worthless, but many old/discarded theories still have value. I'll agree with your older post when you say that Freud and Marx are no longer worth reading outside of literature and history, but now that I'm gearing up to deal with teaching chemistry to younger students, I can't help but think that the phlogiston theory of energy transfer actually does a surprisingly good job of communicating some of the basic concepts. In the same way, we know that the "orbitals" taught in high school and freshman chemistry are invalid for anything aside from atomic hydrogen in a flat vacuum, but they're a damn good tool for chemists who aren't already doing graduate-level math and computer science. Einstein was also awesomely wrong about a lot of things - shouldn't we still read him as one of the classics of relativity?
In closing, I pose a potentially interesting question: Using a fair algorithm, what would Aristotle's impact factor be?

Ned Resnikoff said...

Speaking as someone who recently earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy, I found the works of Plato and Aristotle as enlightening and valuable as just about anything else I read for school. The texts in Western philosophy that become classics are almost invariably classics for a very good reason.

Norman said...

I'll add that "classics" in a given field tend to be written by generalists: they cover a much broader spectrum of ideas and topics than can be done by modern practitioners. As such, they would be most valuable in an introductory sense, enabling students to better narrow down their chosen fields of specialization.

At least in econ, of course, modern researchers rarely cite anyone after they've died, and if you want to convince people you are working on an interesting problem, you need citations from good journals from the last five years. But even very modern work still references Adam Smith and Hayek, and some of the clearest thinking still comes from Marshall and Samuelson.