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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Classics carry inherently valuable historical or cultural context.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.