Mon, June 06, 2011 | Rubin Reports | By Barry Rubin
When I was getting a great education — and at a public American school no less — they made us read Shakespeare and Dickens; Wordsworth and Keats; Hemmingway and Faulkner. I found it boring at the time and often didn’t understand the material.
But today it is in my head still.
At the time, I understood they were doing this because these were deemed timeless classics. I also knew that the idea was to make us well-rounded people, not just narrow technocrats, so that we would have richer lives.
Now I understand three other things as well.
First, this study connected us with the civilization’s and country’s past so that we would appreciate what had been accomplished and how that success had been achieved. One key factor in that success had been pluralism, the opposite of what’s now called multiculturalism. The idea was to build a strong common foundation and then let people have different sub-cultures as they wished on the upper stories of the structure. That works. The Tower of Babel didn’t and won’t.
Second, that these works are classics precisely because they provide timeless life lessons. The basic things we have to do in life on a daily and individual basis: dealing with other people, acting morally, coping with success and failure, love and hate, has not changed so dramatically in centuries. The experiences of Shakespeare’s characters or those of Dickens can really teach us a lot about how to behave — and not to behave.
I should add, that even in the twenty-first century religion is the only institution that systematically teaches us how to be a moral person. With all of its faults, religion has many centuries of accumulated wisdom that has been tried and tested. That’s why even atheists should study religion and get a lot from it even if they believe that this knowledge is wholly human generated. And that’s why fads and cults don’t work.
Of course, too, a lot of education has to take place at home and through the young person’s own efforts outside of school. When one sees all the highly educated people in America who never do anything to develop their kid’s intellectual growth it is truly astounding.
Third, that any kind of learning contributes to every other kind of learning or understanding. Knowing Shakespeare, Dickens, or Keats helps me understand contemporary politics, including Middle East politics, much better. The best piece of political analysis I’ve ever read is Shakepeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
Scientists need to understand the concepts of liberty and search for truth that underpin their methods. Every field and type of person benefits in different ways from understanding that heritage.
When I think about the contemporary educational system, I shudder to think what the next generations of indoctrinated and deprived students will produce. BUT precisely because I received such a good education I know that similar fears have been voiced by almost every previous generation in history.
About the author,
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/ His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org. His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.