Saturday, 6 August 2011

Why bother with Classical Civilisations?

I've turned my daughter into an Ancient Greek.

The first penny dropped when wandering the hallowed portals of Hereford Cathedral trying to explain a few tiny things like, er... what God was and why people prayed. In the end I resorted (not for the first time) to, "It's like in [Disney's] Hercules..."

"Ohhhh," said she. "Is this where Zeus lives?"

The second penny dropped when looking at the Mappa Mundi. "Can you see the Sphinx?" I asked. "And look there's the minotaur!"

"Yeay! Where's his maze?" She looked up at me, her curls bouncing with enthusiasm. Pride swelled in my bosom and I pointed out the labyrinth.

"And look in the middle." I pointed at the map. "There's Jesus."

"Who's Jesus?"

My pride dissipated and I explained that Jesus was the baby in the nativity story. She frowned with the sort of gravity that only a three year old can convey. "Is that the one the king tried to kill?"

Sigh. You would imagine, perhaps, that it would be the angels, the donkey and the three wise men that stood out in her mind. But no. Baby murder wins every time (Roald Dahl's enduring popularity is testament to children's fascination with the Dark Side of Life).

Anyway, back to the main subject (with a picture of a monstrous murder just to break things up).

Ok. Perhaps it's not a super idea, when living in a largely christian country, for your child to know more about the Ancient Greek pantheon than the monotheistic religion that is the basis for our entire culture. It isn't deliberate. She's read bible stories and visited churches. We've talked about prayer and God. It's just that she's been affected by my own unbounded enthusiasm for classics. It's caught fire in her imagination.

I'm glad about that.

I grew up in an extremely religious household and I want her to have choice, to explore her own beliefs and to understand how religions work. That's one gift classics can give to you.

**Disclaimer: I understand that my Dad believed and still believes he was doing his absolute best for us. I understand that he was fighting to make sure we all entered the Kingdom of Heaven. I understand that my Mum wants to pass on something she saw as a precious pearl. I love and respect them for that. I respect other people that do the same. But I'm choosing to do things a different way.**

I don't want my daughter to be groomed to hate any religion, or to mindlessly accept any faith. I don't mind if she finds that religious belief is core to her life, or if she becomes an atheist or anywhere in between. What I want her to do is have the capacity to observe, learn to make her own judgements about religion, society and culture.
And classical civilisations is an excellent way to start.

What's the point in that?

I've posted before about my love affair with classics, its humble roots. I've mentioned that it flowered into academic study at degree level and postgraduate level. I've had to defend my choice to study it all my life: "Classics? Dead civilisations. What's the point in that?"

Recently I came across an organisation that really excited me: Classics for All. It's all about promoting the teaching of classics in state schools (state schools being government-funded, non-fee paying schools in the UK).

Again I ask, what's the point in that?
Oh yes, back to the main point. Let the rant commence!

  • Classics helps you to understand the ingredients that make up a culture. It is holistic. A classicist is able to understand the interplay between religion, politics, popular culture and gender dynamics. She is able to see how each affects and reinforces the other. She understands how cultures are built - and sees how they can fall.

  • Classics encourages you to challenge narrow-mindedness. It's difficult to believe the people who say, for example, that homosexuality is despicable or against natural law, when you know of successful, educated societies where a man's love for another man was seen as purer than man's love for a woman. Where it wasn't about man on man or man on woman, but about power. About the penetrated and the penetrator. Ok, you might not think that is desirable - but it shows you that other cultures had a very different approach. It helps you to understand that taboos and beliefs are constructs of the society in which they are promoted, not written in stone for all humanity

  • Classics helps you to understand the consequences of your - and your nation's - choices. Anyone familiar with the process of 'romanization' which was the foundation stone for the sweeping reach of the roman empire, will look on in interest at so-called 'americanization' - and understand it's purpose and impact, regardless of your opinion of its rightness.

  • Classics gives you a long view - and challenges complacency. Classicists have seen empires rise and fall. They have seen the birth and adoption of religions, and the strands of old religions that weave through the modern faiths that have supplanted them. I will never forget standing in a catholic mass, when in the midst of studying Dionysiac ritual, and hearing echoes of the inscriptions found on Dionysiac gold leaves ringing in the modern words of the mass.

  • Classics helps you to understand literature, art, music and theatre as expressions of the beliefs, fears and questions running through each society. It helps us to understand ourselves.

And that I suppose, is the fundamental point.

Classics helps us to understand ourselves.

It helps us to stand back from our own world and equips us with the tools we need to comprehend it, to make our own judgements about its politics, religions and taboos. And if we understand we can endorse - or challenge. It's no coincidence that Karl Marx was a classicist.

So dust off your Iliad. Stick Clash of the Titans on the box. Buy a ticket for Euripides' Medea. Or stand back from what you're doing and look at what it really means. Each scrap of text, each pot and pan has a story to tell you about our world.

For some ideas on introducing your kids to classics read my next post on Classics for pre-schoolers.

Be a classicist. Start listening.


P said...

I enjoy the classics, but only in the same way that I enjoy classical music, once in a while, and even then I don't feel that I have to like all of it.
On the whole I prefer to keep with times both in reading and music, delving back when the mood suits so I can appreciate the differences. All the classics were new and exciting when they were first written, and I'd imagine most were different than the stories that preceeded it. I'd like to be able to read and listen to today's classics as they are written BEFORE everyone else catches on!

Meg McNulty said...

Funnily enough I feel the same way about classical music! When I'm talking about classics though, I'm talking shorthand for classical civilisations e.g. the whole culture, myth, history, politics, religion - not just the texts. One of the super cool things about myth is that it gets reinvented for every generation!

Unknown said...

Nice to see kudos to Classical Civilizations. (FYI Classical music is that which was written approx in the 18th and Early 19th Century)

Just wished to make a comment about this:
Monotheism does not necessarily exclude study and appreciation of classical civilizations. Catholics treasure them and hold them on a pedestal as containing 'truth written on the human heart.' At my Catholic school the students read the literature from classical civilizations in the original Greek and Latin (though a lot in English) and have to take an art history class that includes all civilizations, starting with early humans.

Meg McNulty said...

As one who studied Classical Civilisations at a catholic school - I agree!