Why Read the Classics

Oliver DeMille
Portions taken from: Seven Reasons to Study theClassics 
by Oliver DeMille, July 2000 
Oliver Van DeMille is an American author and educator. He is known for his writings on education as it relates to freedom, including A Thomas Jefferson Education, and as a founder and previous president of George Wythe University. 

Study the Classics

This is the first reason for studying the classics:

We need a national book to maintain our morality and civilization; and a nation that doesn't regularly read good books, think about important ideas, or consider the big picture, is not capable of adopting or following a national book.

National books must be carefully studied, pondered, discussed and talked about by a large portion of the population, or they lose their value and impact. Our freedoms can be lost, and it is only in a post-Declaration of Independence America that we doubt it.

In addition to maintaining our freedom and our civilization, there are at least six other.

1. The Classics Teach us Human Nature

A knowledge of human nature is the key to leadership. There are four basic instincts
which all humans have:

A. Survival and security.

B. Social mobility, power, relationships.

C. Adventure, excitement.

D. To gain meaning, to know self, truth and God.

The classics give us a glimpse into each of these basic human instincts. In fact, the thing which makes a classic great is glaring insight into basic human nature.

Ultimately, as you study the classics, you learn about your own personal nature. Learning through experience is good, but it is often better to learn from someone else's experiences and build on them. 

Classics allow us to experience, in an intimate way, the greatest mistakes and successful choices of human history. If we learn from these mistakes and successes, we will make fewer mistakes and have more successes.

And at a deeper level, knowing how others think, feel and act allows us to predict behavior and lead accordingly. We can develop empathy, compassion, wisdom and self discipline without subjecting our relationships to the learning curve. 

2. The Classics Bring us Face-to-Face with Greatness

The purpose of studying literature is to become better.

As we read we experience despair, heartache, tragedy-and we learn to recognize what causes them and avoid it in our own lives. As we study the characters, real or fictional, in the classics, we are inspired by greatness, which is the first step to becoming great ourselves.

In the classics we come face-to-face with Moses on Sinai, Buddha leaving the castle, Christ at Gethsemane, Mohammed's cave (and Plato's), Paul on Mars Hill, Adam's finger outstretched on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Washington at Valley Forge, Hamlet, Lear, Shylock, Othello, Macbeth, MacDuff, Hector, Penelope and Jane Eyre.

Who we are changes as we set higher and higher standards of what life is about and what we are here to accomplish.

3. The Classics Take us to the Frontier to be Conquered

All generations before this one have had geographical frontiers to conquer. We don't. And without a frontier we cannot become what the founders, the explorers and the pioneers became in their extremities. Our challenges define us, our reactions to them mold and shape us.

The classics deal with the real questions of life, our deepest concerns: joy, pain, fear, love, hate, courage, anger, death, faith.  Classics help us connect with individuals whatever their race, creed, age, culture and even place in history.

4. The Classics Force us to Think

First we are caused to think about the characters in the story, then about ourselves, then about people we know and finally about humanity in general. 

At first reading the classics can be a chore, an assignment. If we persist, it eventually becomes entertainment. Then one day all the exposure to greatness reaches critical mass. And you, the reader, awaken. Your exposure to greatness changes you: Your ideas are bigger, your dreams wilder, your plans more challenging, your faith more powerful.

The classics can be hard work, and that is exactly what is needed to learn to think.
Thinking is hard; deep thinking is not entertaining or easy.  The classics make us struggle, search, ponder, seek, analyze, discover, decide, and reconsider. 

5. The Classics Connect Us to Those Who Share the Stories

Each culture is different because it has different shared stories. Different stories define each family, each religion, each nation. And members of each connect themselves with the stories-they make the stories part of their personal story.

Can you imagine the Jews without the stories of Moses, the Maccabees, or the Holocaust? Or Americans without stories of Paul Revere, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln? Learn the stories of a culture, and you will come to understand that culture. 

6. Our Canon Becomes our Plot

There are four types of stories: bent, broken, whole, and healing.

A. Bent stories portray evil as good, and good as evil. Such stories are meant to enhance the evil tendencies of the reader, such as pornography and many horror books and movies. The best decision regarding Bent stories is to avoid them like the plague.

B. Broken stories portray evil as evil and good as good, but evil wins. Something is
broken, not right, in need of fixing. Such books are not uplifting, but can be very
inspiring. Broken stories can be very good for the reader if they motivate him or her to heal them, to fix them. The Communist Manifesto is a broken classic; so are The Lord of the Flies and 1984. In each of these, evil wins; but they have been very motivating to me because I have felt a real need to help reverse their messages in the real world.

C. Whole stories are where good is good and good wins. Most of the classics are in this category, and readers should spend most of their time in such works.

D. Healing stories can be either Whole or Broken stories where the reader is profoundly moved, changed, significantly improved by his reading experience.

I recommend three rules in coming face-to-face with greatness through the classics:

1. Avoid Bent stories.
2. Develop a personal canon of Healing stories.

3. Spend the majority of your studies in Whole works, but don't neglect broken stories that you ought to be fixing.

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