Tensions and questions over the “classics” – the great books of Western civilisation – have been brewing for some time now. Literature that was once the staple of a great education has come under the ruthless gaze of contemporary ideology, and if the situation is right has had the misfortune of being “cancelled”.

Whether it’s Dr Seuss or Harper Lee, J.K. Rowling or Shakespeare himself, there are people that agitate for the removal of certain books from our curriculums in the belief that they teach harmful ideas and bigotries of one kind or another. In 2021, Howard University, in Washington D.C., even went so far as to dissolve its classics department altogether as part of an educational ‘prioritization’.

In response to this, Professor Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, founder of the Classical Learning Test (CLT), wrote an op-ed together in which they decried the move as a ‘spiritual catastrophe’:

The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in.’

They went on to say that the ‘removal of the classics is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education.’

At the root of these attempts to dissolve classical education, they said, was an inability to draw certain distinctions, like that between the crimes of a civilisation on the one hand, and its art and philosophies on the other: ‘Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West . . . The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.’

Peter Craven: the urgency of classical education

On Friday 22 April, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, an institution that promotes classical education through partnership with universities and other communities, hosted Peter Craven for its third Ramsay Lecture of the year. Craven is one of Australia's best-known literary critics, a leading public intellectual, founder of several literary journals, and a regular contributor to Murdoch and Nine press. His lecture was on ‘Classics and why we must keep them alive.

The lecture was a defence of the classics and an encouragement to use even the world of new media – such as audiobook or film adaptation – to bring them alive for young people. Craven said that it was paramount for young people be acquainted with the classics as best and early as possible.

‘It would be nice if the youth of today could quote and translate at least bits of the ancient famous lines,’ he said, referencing as an example Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘The tears in things, that touch the mortal heart . . .

‘Why should we strive to teach them?’ Craven asked.

The simplest answer to this is to say in the manner of Henry James: it’s because of the depth of life they represent, the moral aspect of literature by which we recognise it as a symbolic form of truth, or in the case of philosophy, an explicit engagement with human understanding via the practice of argument.

When we conceive of ideas such as “Western civilisation” or the “Western canon”, we should not conceive of ideas that are fixed or stone-like in their quality. On the contrary, cultural traditions bleed into one another, and many of the greatest books in the canon are engagements with or reflections of those different cultures. In this way, the classics are a ‘point of entry,’ Craven said, into a wider and deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

A truly classical education does not turn a blind eye to the sins of past, either:

. . . the history of civilisation is at the same time, as Walter Benjamin reminded us, the history of barbarism: Athens executed Socrates and Rome executed Christ, and both of these events should be central to the story we tell.’

Keeping our wits about us

There are many great works being “cancelled” for one reason or another, and most of the time for no good reason, Craven suggested. The people who take part in the cancelling of classics are ‘misinformed’ and ‘literally don’t know what they’re talking about,’ he said. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has found trouble ever since its publication, and Craven said ‘the reasons for cancelling him are inane: Huck’s “Alright, I’ll go to hell” is a supreme act of moral courage.’

He even pointed to the recent controversy surrounding J.K Rowling. ‘That young woman is credited, rightly, with getting millions of young people to read,’ he said, and yet, after expressing doubts about certain ideas associated with transgenderism, she was met by ‘lunacy’.

‘I think young people encouraged to have their wits about them will be able to see through this,’ he said. Our hopes lie with the common readers who, unlike academic elites and English departments, have not become ‘irritated by the quest for greatness.’ On the subject of those who push for the removal of certain classics from the curriculum, Craven said:

And I think all one can hope, pray, and I suppose trust, is that they’ll wake up.’

Professor Simon Haines, CEO of the Ramsay Centre, described Craven’s lecture as a ‘tour de force.’

Indeed, the lecture contains a call to greatness for Australia, for schools and universities, and for individuals everywhere; a call to renew our devotion to the best of what has been thought and said in the world: 'We need to be constantly aware that literature can be a difficult pleasure,' Craven concluded.

We need to be our own library of Alexandria and resist the flames flickering all around us.’

Peter Craven's Ramsay Lecture can be watched at the Ramsay Centre's website, either in video or podcast form.