There are many reasons why I do not teach Classic literature, so why bother talking about them? There is no point in discussing the enhanced vocabulary of someone who reads Cicero and Shakespeare. Likewise, there is little purpose in pointing out the countless references that even contemporary literature and culture make to the foundational stories of the Greeks and Romans. For the same reason, I will not talk about turns of a phrase that have passed into our vernacular from the giants of British literature and the value of understanding them in their original contexts. I am certainly not going to comment on the fact that the previous three sentences form a tricolon crescens, a grouping of three ideas, each of which is expressed with greater complexity. There is also the fact that this entire paragraph is an example of praeteritio, a device by which an author draws attention to something by claiming to do no such thing, despite that both devices have their origins in the literature of Classical antiquity and continue to be powerful literary and rhetorical tools today. I do, however, teach Classic, specifically Classical, literature, and if these benefits and their like are not the reasons, then what is?
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Reality itself can be spoken into existence, and the mechanism is words, and when they are the words of an inspired artist, they are right glorious to behold. The human soul is lifted above its mortal coil by the complex, beautiful, and challenging words of people, and when those words are complex, beautiful, and challenging in both form and content, in both syntax and message, we experience very nearly the apex of human achievement.
So what has all this to do with the high school classroom? This above all else has something to do with the high school classroom or indeed nothing does, for a room full of teenagers taking their first mature steps into the artistic and intellectual heritage that is their birthright as human beings is a place of fascination and discovery.
Consider this. After struggling to climb the mountain, you stand on its peak, eager to survey what lies ahead. You look up and out and discover…a strip mall. How crushing would be your disappointment. How pointless would seem the climb. Yet if upon attaining the summit you saw in Pope’s words “Alps on Alps arise,” if a raw, wild, and wonder-filled vista confronted you, you would be inspired to rush off and explore, even as you knew you could never see it all but that the attempt itself would a goal worthy of life.
And now we get to the real reason we teach Classic literature. Life. From Euripides to Marlowe, from Homer and Horace to Milton and Keats, we continue not just to read Classic literature but to savor it, to find connections between our own lives and those who lived centuries and half a world away, and to realize truly the words of a famous cinematic literature teacher that “the powerful play goes on and we may contribute a verse.”