Family movie night arrived, and my vote was for The Sound of Music. Alas, I was outvoted by my three teenage brothers in favor of Marvel’s Black Panther. I protested on the grounds that they had already watched it six times. Besides, The Sound of Music is a classic! However, I was immediately shot down. Who cares about a “classic?” If the release year begins with 19–, it’s immediately judged unworthy. My brothers’ distaste for “classics” even extends to literature. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables doesn’t hold their interest, much less Homer’s Odyssey.
So, why should I advocate for Aquinas or devote my attention to Aristotle? I propose that students can benefit from classic literature because it provides a release from the cage of contemporary assumptions. They speak to the human experience with timeless relevance.
Increasingly, public high schools—including my brothers’—assign more modern texts. Yet, my grandfather’s list of “Books Every High-Schooler Should Read” is almost entirely composed of classics. As American culture is shifting away from older literature, younger generations are growing up more narrow-minded and depleted in their understanding of the universal human condition.
Reading classic works frees one to ponder a plurality of perspectives. Culture has ingrained within us patterns of thought that we often unconsciously accept. As Leland Ryken asserts in Realms of Gold, “we need the literature of the past in order to be introduced to alternate possibilities and to be liberated from bondage to the contemporary.” This is not a nostalgic lament or call for a return to “the old ways.” Rather, it is a reminder that every era of literature plays a significant role in the pursuit of truth. People have been reading certain books for centuries, which suggests that these texts are more likely to contain truths relevant across the ages.
Specifically, classic literature speaks to the human condition. While the ideas within old books may contrast with modernity, they can help us understand ourselves through their depiction of the human experience. As Ryken says, “[The classics] overwhelmingly tell us the truth about human fears and longings and about what values are important in human experience. They put us in touch with bedrock humanity.”
Aristotle asks the same questions I am asking day after day as I struggle through my to-do list, interact with friends, and make plans: what is life about? Am I living well? What is right? “Let us examine closely,” is Aristotle’s constraint refrain. Other works speak not only to morality but the depth of human emotion. For example, reading about the Monster in Frankenstein and his longing for love and acceptance reminds me that I’m not the only one that gets lonely at times.
Classics are timeless because they are relatable. So, delve a little deeper into the assigned Plato reading for class, realizing that perhaps it might hold some answers. Pick up that abandoned copy of Pride and Prejudice and see how pride blinds us to love. Life is complicated, but perhaps reading classics can help you understand yourself and the world a little more clearly.