Ignorance of the past makes us impotent before the present
By Anthony O'Hear
According to the higher education minister, a Mr Bill Rammell, it is "not necessarily a bad thing" that there have been sharp falls in the number of students applying to study history and the classics at university. At the same time, he welcomes the considerable increases in those choosing what he calls "more vocationally beneficial subjects", such as nursing, social work and pharmacology.
Certainly we need nurses, chemists and even social workers, but a civilisation needs much more than that. One wonders whether Mr Rammell has ever thought about the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were precisely those centuries in which classical learning was lost in the West, except in a few monasteries geographically on the very limits of the known world. It was kept alive only in Byzantium and, remarkably, in parts of the Islamic world.
And what does Mr Rammell think the Renaissance was about? It was precisely the rediscovery of classical antiquity in western Europe and a new sense of its riches and beauty.
For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the Renaissance was a 15th-century phenomenon, although of course its roots were earlier, in the poetry of Dante, in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and in the art of Giotto.
In Europe, in every century since the 15th, there had been rediscoveries and re-evaluations of the classics: the humanism of Erasmus, the painting of Titian, Rubens and Poussin, the poetry of Milton, Dryden and Pope, the plays of Corneille and Racine, the architecture of the baroque, the archaeological researches of Wincklemann, the art of David and the poetry of Goethe - Goethe, who, on seeing ancient Greek coins from Sicily, said that it gave him new hope for mankind that so utilitarian an object could be so beautiful; and then on in the 19th century, to the Greek revival in architecture, to the painting of Ingres and the music of Berlioz, and the very different rediscoveries of what the classics actually meant by Matthew Arnold, by the great German philologists and by the philosopher Nietzsche.
It would be no exaggeration to say that European culture from the 14th century onwards has been defined by the way each age and each artistic movement has gone to the wells of ancient Greece and Rome, has drunk deep and has arisen refreshed and invigorated - every age, that is, until our own.
Nowadays, the study of classical Greek in our schools has declined to such an extent that, out of 5.7 million GCSE papers taken by 675,000 pupils, fewer than a thousand are in classical Greek and entries for Latin and Classical Civilisation number only a few thousand.
The artistic and cultural giants of eight or nine European centuries were not wrong. In Homer and Greek tragedy and in Greek sculpture, we find, as Nietzsche pointed out, a beauty and a drama that is sublime because it gazes into the abyss, without either illusion or despair.
Classical Greek architecture, as everyone who sees it recognises, is an astonishing balance of proportion and detail, luminous in its stone and marble, and never since surpassed. Western philosophy is, essentially, just the legacy of Plato and Aristotle. The poetry of Virgil, marmoreal in its splendour, lapidary in its language, has, along with that of Ovid, furnished the European imagination for centuries.
And the history of Rome is the source of the history of Europe, and the cradle both of Christianity and of the notion of the rule of law.
We are depriving our children of knowledge of all of this in our futile efforts to be modern and focused on the instrumental. We are forging a new dark age, in which the decline of the study of history is also to be welcomed.
Mr Rammell would apparently have us rejoice in the fact that we have no sense of the past; but a person with no sense of the past is a person who is a stranger both to his or her own roots and to the human condition more generally. For human beings are not creatures of nature; we are inheritors of the history that has made us what we are. Not to know our history is not to know ourselves, and that is the condition not of human beings, but of animals.
And even from a practical point of view, to be ignorant of the past is to make us impotent and unprepared before the present. How can someone without a sense of medieval history have the slightest inkling of the meaning of the current impasse the West finds itself in in its dealings with Islam?
The Crusades were not, as is often implied by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a unique moment of anti-Islamic aggression. They were actually but one blip in the astonishing growth of Islamic empires in Europe and elsewhere, from the time of Mohammed onwards, right up to 1683 when the Turks were turned back from the gates of Vienna and 1686 when they were expelled from Budapest.
But who now remembers any of this, or ponders its consequences? It is not, needless to say, taught in National Curriculum history, which prefers to dwell on the Aztecs, about whom we have only the vaguest knowledge in comparison, and (endlessly) on the rise of Fascism (not communism) in Europe, studied by pupils who know nothing of the history of Italy and Germany before the 20th century.
Is it any wonder that, with no sense of our past or identity - as, in other moods, politicians increasingly complain - we are a culture obsessed with celebrity, football, and reality television? Most of our population know nothing else, and they have no yardstick from either history or culture with which to judge. As long ago as the 1920s, the great (classicist) poet T S Eliot stared at what he saw as the collapse of European culture: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin." Most of us have no knowledge now even of the fragments. We, or our children, will have only a desolate sense of loss, but we won't know what it is we have lost. Welcome to Rammell's world.
Anthony O'Hear is professor of philosophy at Buckingham University. His book Plato's Children (2006) is published by Gibson Square Books
I agree. We've lost something along the way. People assume ancients were dumber or are not relevant to modern society. Years ago, Latin and Greek used to be considered one of the foundations of education. How many people do you know that are fluent in them, or even have knowledge of them, today? How many people have a solid foundation in logic or math? It used to be that being educated meant being well-rounded, not trained in one specific field to the exclusion of all else.
+1 however my theory is there is a bit of a backlash as there has been a hard push for years at promoting liberal arts and theory without a nuts and bolts understanding of hard science
students then get graduate with a high end arts degree and realize they don't know shit that is practical or marketable
I think the pendlum swings both ways
Well-rounded is the key. You'll never catch me claiming that a liberal arts degree is worth pursuing if you want to be employed afterwards.
And therein lies the problem. Colleges and universities are now seen as glorified vocational schools, turning out office-bound functionaries in much the same way one turns out bricklayers and electricians.
Universities weren't originally meant to do this, but instead to educate the individual with what the culture had to offer, in order to round out the man and make him more aware of his world and to help him understand life much better.
These people educating and receiving education already had positions of wealth and power in society, so a vocation was not the purpose, it was more like that of a finishing school.
That was the point of universities- to raise up the man through exposure to new as well as traditional ideas, not to provide him with a guaranteed placement in a trade once he finished his studies.