Nothing that is beautiful will harm the workers
January 29, 2005 2:08 PM   Subscribe

"Greek art will never keep the workers from claiming their world; in fact, it will help them to realise what a stunted life they have hitherto led." wrote one of the supporters of the Workers Educational Association. The WEA was started to provide a college level education to workers. It's rival, the Pleb League, accused them of selling out to capitalists. The classics have inspired people, and continue to do so today.
posted by QIbHom (12 comments total)
First link courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily.
posted by QIbHom at 2:16 PM on January 29, 2005

I think the idea that classic art and literature can "emancipate the worker" is just about as silly as the idea that classic art and literature are completely dead with nothing to say to a contemporary audience. What keeps "classics" "alive" is the running commentary on them -- the way people constantly reinterpret them and find new insights about the contemporary world. But, doing this is almost necessarily the product of specialized academic work. Note how the cooper Rose quotes goes to the Iliad as escapism:

"Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece"

rather than as applicable to an era rife with foreign colonial wars -- as many people are finding today.

An interesting nexus of the applicability of a classic to contemporary life and the power of escapist entertainment: the Socialist Worker commenting on the applicability of the Iliad story in a reveiw of the recent movie Troy:
posted by AtDuskGreg at 2:26 PM on January 29, 2005

AtDuskGreg, it is interesting to me that you suggest that escapism and emancipation are incompatible. I would suggest that escapism might be a necessary step on the way to emancipation, rather than emancipation's opposite. It seems clear to me that you must be able to imagine a world different from the one you inhabit in order to be emancipated. What I mean is, if all you see are the signs of the existing power structure, the one that oppresses you, it is very difficult to imagine a life different from the one you have. Literature, whether classical or other, can provide an image of a life separate from the now, or can serve to cut through the tyranny of the real.
posted by mokujin at 2:56 PM on January 29, 2005

I'm with mokujin. Well said. And that first link is very good. I wonder if working class people (and people in general) are less likely to read when they get home in modern America because there are other means of entertainment that actively campaign to dominate leisure time.
posted by bingo at 3:16 PM on January 29, 2005

The "value" of the classics is that they enable the reader to "feel smart". While reading them, after reading them, and so on. I don't think the desire to feel smart has much of a dependance on actual education.

To say that this class of liturature has any more absolute value then any other class (once we normalize for quality) is silly.

Notice that I said normalize for quality. Of course, the classics are so because they are good, I'm sure there were plenty of hacks in Shakespear and Homer's day, but there are plenty of modern authors who I'm sure "the poor" would enjoy reading just as much as "the rich" the prolitariate as much as elites and the berguose(I know I spelled this wrong).

Anyway, whatever. People regardless of class should be exposed to good liturature, but most of them (rich and poor) are going to end up watching Jerry Springer and The Apprentice anyway.

Social freedom means money, and in order to make money people need money making skills. If you want people to be free teach them this. If you want the world filled with people who you can relate too then teach them about things that intrest you
posted by delmoi at 4:45 PM on January 29, 2005

But, doing this is almost necessarily the product of specialized academic work.

I strongly disagree. Any literate person can find relevance in literary works simply by reading them. They won't necessarily do so in everything that they read, but the potential is there.

The "value" of the classics is that they enable the reader to "feel smart".

Again, I disagree. Pretense has next to nothing to do with real value.
posted by rushmc at 4:48 PM on January 29, 2005

mokujin, thank you for that Harper's article. That meshes with my experience, that of my mother (a teacher) and that of my partner (another former teacher). And it answers very well why the classics are useful.

AtDuskGreg, I disagree strongly that one needs training to read the classics. I adore Homer's Iliad, and have since I first read it at 9, despite no training in Greek lit. I will admit that I get a lot more out of Beowulf now that I can read Anglo-Saxon than I did the first time I read it. But, that first reading was enough for me to fall in love with Anglo-Saxon lit and culture.

There are 3 important things one gets from the classics, I believe. First, the freeing of imagination that AtDuskGreg mentions. Second, the ability to lead the self-reflective life that the Harper's article mentions. And, third, the ability to use critical thinking skills that the first article I linked talks about (and a few of the others) and that the Harper's article strongly implies.

Obviously, since my career is in public libraries, I love this kind of stuff. If you choose, there is the world waiting for you in your local public library. But, it is your choice.
posted by QIbHom at 6:29 PM on January 29, 2005

As a johnnie, I hear a lot about, um, "classics outreach" programs and the people involved with them. A lot of those folks are johnnies.

I'm deeply ambivalent about it.

The supposed great words are great, I think, and more rewarding than lesser works. Also, most of them are well within the grasp of a literate person; no specialized knowledge necessary. So, all things being equal, I'm quite in favor of anyone and everyone reading these works.

However, I fear there's a lot of condescension and patronization in these programs and the people behind them. And I'm not very happy with the idea that these works are so powerful and transformative that they are the answer to the wide host of ills as supposed. I can think of twenty other kinds of programs that would be more beneficial to, say, prison inmates.

The "things that one gets from the classics" that QlbHom describe come far more from being part of a community that values such things than from reading a few great books.

I greatly value the content of the program at St. John's. As I said, I believe the great books really are great. They have inherent value. But I've long been of the opinion that the larger benefit of the education there comes from the pedagogy. The assumption is that everyone is an intelligent, well-intentioned adult who, through reflection, discussion, and hard word can arrive at some comprehension of the ideas with which they grapple.

I disagree with Aristotle and I don't think that intellectualism is the best life for everyone. But taking people and their ideas seriously and treating them with respect: that does everyone a lot of good. In this respect, these sorts of programs and practices that are the subject of this post are a double-edged sword. Wielded correctly, they affirm that the difficult and deep stuff isn't just for the hoity-toity folks in the ivory tower, that your utility meter-reader might just understand Plato better than you. Wielded incorrectly, it's slumming, it's condescension that only reinforces the social barriers that it claims to oppose.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:24 PM on January 29, 2005

Without fail, at my university the people who found it fashionable to denigrate the classics were invariably the least qualified to hold a significant opinion on the subject; they were just regurgitating someone else's opinion based on a fluffy essay from (yet) another trendy wanker.

Maybe in the end, it's like jazz. If you have to ask "what's the significance?", you'll never know.
posted by RavinDave at 8:30 PM on January 29, 2005

I'll bet I don't always agree with the reading list -- Plato and Aristotle, for pete's sake -- but I'm totally down with the basic idea. I should be, that's what I do.
posted by davy at 12:33 AM on January 30, 2005

The "things that one gets from the classics" that QlbHom describe come far more from being part of a community that values such things than from reading a few great books.

And yet, many people manage to thrive without participating in such a community. Great books are a community of their own which neither have to coincide with nor supplant any other.
posted by rushmc at 7:40 AM on January 30, 2005

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