Victory in “Battle of Classics” Could Save Civilization, Book Says

The battle of the classics: how a 19e The debate of the century can save the humanities today
by Eric Adler
Oxford University Press, 2020, $ 35; 256 pages.

As reviewed by Matthew Levey

America’s educational and political dysfunction is largely the result of a 100-year-old debate about what Harvard students should learn, according to Eric Adler, associate professor of classics at the University of Maryland.

Adler’s hero is Irving Babbitt, a classics student, Harvard professor of comparative literature, and humanist. “Humanists,” Adler said, “either believe that their subjects can help shape the souls of students or that they are not humanists. If we heed Babbitt’s call to place the humanities at the heart of the academic experience and avoid the tactical mistakes he made, Adler argues, our civilization could still be saved.

Babbitt, a brilliant but impoverished native of Ohio, arrived in Cambridge in 1885 as an undergraduate student, just as Harvard President Charles Eliot, a chemist by training, eliminated compulsory classes and grading characters. “In education, as elsewhere, the strongest survives,” said Eliot. “Classics, like other studies, must stand on their own merits because it is not the role of universities to impose particular subjects of study or particular types of mental discipline on reluctant generations. “

Irving Babbitt, left, and Charles Eliot.

Before Eliot’s ascension, teaching young people right from wrong was a major concern of philosophers and teachers. But reformist scholars like John Dewey, channeling Rousseau and Darwin, said the students were inherently good. Encouraged to follow their natural instincts, they would engage more effectively in their education. The teaching of ethics was not necessary; given the freedom to choose, rather than dusty examples from ancient history, students’ natural self-control and autonomy would flourish. Pedantic lectures on truth, beauty, and goodness were unnecessary.

Wealthy industrialists (and potential donors) like Andrew Carnegie shared Eliot’s thinking. Carnegie, who left school at age 12, warned Curry Commercial College graduates:

Men have sent their sons to colleges to waste their energies on acquiring a knowledge of languages ​​such as Greek and Latin, which are no more useful to them than Choctaw… and learned to extol a bunch of thugs into heroes; and we called them “educated”.

Despite modern trends, Babbitt studied the classics, graduated magna. He aspired to teach at Harvard, but his “old-fashioned views … and his academic specialization gave him a more eventful career than he had hoped.” Adler suspects that Babbitt’s professors remembered his “turbulent undergraduate days” and “didn’t want anything to do with him.”

But, in 1894, when a French instructor was brutally dismissed for plagiarism, Babbitt returned to Cambridge, where he became a “popular and influential teacher” whose students included TS Eliot, Walter Lippmann and a future president of Harvard, Nathan Pusey.

Babbitt’s prospects were broad. “In keeping with what he saw as a large part of classical Christian and Buddhist thought,” writes Adler, “Babbitt emphasized the duality of human nature” – the tension between good and evil. His “new humanism” recognized this friction and argued that by studying proven works, students would develop self-control and a healthy philosophy of life.

Book cover by "The battle of the classics"At the same time, Adler notes, Babbitt did not put “ancient writers on metaphorical pedestals, as purveyors of timeless wisdom whose ideas could not be improved upon.” Regarding practical skills, “a constant process of hard and clear thinking,” developed verbal dexterity and analytical chops. Babbitt’s “powerful personality and powerful opinions” have earned him the nickname “Harvard Warring Buddha”.

In Rousseau and romanticism (1919) Babbitt criticized scientific naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism as corrosive to ethical standards. Long before the impact of Hitler and Lenin was clear, he wrote: “The man who does not curb his will to power and at the same time is very active according to natural law is on the way to becoming a megalomaniac. effective.

Because he “linked his philosophy to his political vision, [Babbitt] open[ed] his opinions to criticism and to limit[ed] their call. Adler says Babbitt was not a conservative, but his critics have successfully described him as such.

Adler makes Eliot Babbitt’s nemesis, but the Harvard president correctly judged that science can improve society. Work on atomic fission and radar at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and MIT helped secure the Allied defeat of fascism in World War II, while Katalin Karikó’s relentless mRNA research at the The University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s laid the groundwork for Covid-19 vaccines.

Even in a world of bottom-up science, however, morality still plays a vital role, establishing safeguards for the ethical use of technology and informing the causes for which weapons and drugs are used. Adler suggests that university leaders give soul craftsmanship back its rightful place. College programs can and should support “the will to improve the material conditions of the world. and to improve.

Adler insists that whatever the demand, colleges should “encourage students to tackle the issues that drive them” and “use the classroom to focus on issues that are important to all who wish to lead. a serious life ”. Such a shift towards the humanities is necessary to avoid the “abyss of tribalism and warmongering” in which we find ourselves.

Columbia requires courses, largely focused on Western canon, for all undergraduates. The University of Chicago retains a core, albeit slightly vague, in the humanities and the physical sciences. Even when not required, alumni attract some students, especially when offered in the company of social sciences: Adler notes that a course in Plato and Psychology is one of Yale’s most popular courses. and that Donald Kagan’s Greek history classes were also popular before his 2013 retirement. More elite schools could take Adler’s advice and force their undergraduates to take a set of humanities courses. Students would not be asked to decline Latin names, but they would learn how Aristotle and Plato agreed (and differed). This could help today’s students better understand that the first generation is not grappling with issues of identity and inclusion, individualism and universality, or struggling for eudaimonia—A fulfilled human life — acquired through the struggle to be virtuous.

Matthew Levey founded the International Charter School in Brooklyn in 2014.

About Mark A. Tomlin

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