The Myth of the Classically Educated Elite

November 15, 2021   •   By Naomi Kanakia

I’M AN IMMENSE FAN of books that bewail the state of the humanities and plead for a return to the educational system of yesteryear, when the average undergrad could, we are told, quote Homer in the original Greek, and when the US Senate was filled with philosopher kings who slept with Marcus Aurelius under their pillows.

Mostly I like these books because they flatter me. I’ve spent the last 12 years giving myself an ad-hoc version of a “Classical education.” I undertook this education because I thought it was what you did: I thought all writers read Tolstoy and Euripides and Chaucer — that a writer would be laughed out of town if they weren’t familiar with the “the canon.” But after I came into contact with the literary world, I realized that I’d been operating from a very mistaken — and hopelessly bourgeois — set of beliefs. I’ve only rarely met other writers who care about the Classics. When one National Book Award–winning author asked me my favorite authors, I responded, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Henry James, and he chided me, saying I should read more contemporary books (I read plenty of contemporary books, but I’d think it strange if someone’s favorite author of all time was still alive).

I’ve accepted that my course of education was unusual and maybe a bit misguided, but I’m proud of it, and proud of the benefits it’s given me: the wisdom, knowledge, and insight. None of that is up for debate.

But what interests me the most is the fact that I was so fully in the grip of this illusion. In my mind, long before I started reading the Classics, I was certain, dead certain, that this is what everybody in the elite was doing. Where did this idea come from? How could I have been so incorrect?

Of course, most books about the humanities take it as a given that we exist in a fallen time, that the golden age of the Classical education is in the past, but lately I’ve started to wonder if that time ever existed. In recollecting my own education, I’ve started to wonder if the contemporary notion of a “Classical education” is largely the product of a series of popular books that began with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and continued through Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve (1989), Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy (2009), William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep (2014), and others. Like me, these writers were usually outsiders, many of them Jewish (which is to say, they were not themselves part of any notional WASP aristocracy), and they had in their youths at some point bought into the idea of a Classical education. They had pursued this ideal and now found the reality — the position of the Classics in our culture and our educational system — to be somewhat lacking.

But what they’re mourning is not the education that kids used to get at Harvard or Oxford — schools where famously dense elites learned and forgot rudimentary Latin. What they yearn for is the brief, exciting spirit of middle-class autodidacticism — a short period of time, at the end of the 19th and into the beginning of the 20th centuries, when a certain number of intellectuals came of age. This was a time when the barriers between the higher bourgeois and the lesser aristocracy were particularly permeable, and when the middle class in part sought to ascend by excelling in scholarship. This was only possible, however, because the aristocratic elite has traditionally only paid lip service to learning and culture — which means that in many ways the notion of a Classical education is more mirage than reality.

Of course, it’s undeniable that there have been periods of time when the elite placed a high value on being cultured, but there have also been periods when the opposite was true: when paying too much attention to books was considered ungentlemanly. And there’s substantial evidence that the latter periods have tended to predominate, especially in the last 300 years of British and American history.

Buying Into the Illusion

My own education was thoroughly middle class. I went to a modestly priced Catholic school in DC, took seven years of Latin, and was influenced by mandatory Art Appreciation and optional Art History courses that inculcated me with the idea that Classical knowledge wasn’t just desirable but necessary. You could not be considered educated if you didn’t understand the grand sweep of Western thought (with a few dabs of the Eastern, for color).

I went to Stanford and quickly discovered I had much more in the way of education than almost all of my classmates, who seemed more or less unmoored from the Western tradition and certainly hadn’t read any more of the Great Books than I had. I commenced a life of active alcoholism and didn’t attend class for four years. For me, college involved absolutely no learning, so I cannot speak to what is taught there.

In some ways, this ignorance served me well. When I sobered up, the year after college, I had acquired the idea that all the people who had done college the right way — gone to class, completed the reading, engaged in the discussion — had filled in the outlines of the broad Classical education I’d received. I knew the names of the books an educated person ought to read — my Catholic education had been good for that — but I hadn’t read the books themselves.

When I decided to commit myself to writing fiction as a career, I thought, It’s absurd to do this thing without reading the best that literature has to offer. I purchased a book that Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda had recommended during a panel at a sci-fi convention I’d attended: The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature by Clifton Fadiman, originally published in 1960 — a book explicitly intended for middle-class strivers. And over roughly 12 years, I read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch, the Bhagavad Gita, Defoe, Gibbon, Fielding, Richardson, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Voltaire, Cervantes, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Gogol, Chekhov, Pushkin, Cather, Faulkner, Woolf, Waugh, Nabokov, and others. (As a note, all non-English language authors were read in translation. Recently, I’ve been making my way through Chaucer in Middle English, and I’ve been learning a little Old English and trying to relearn Latin. But my language skills aren’t great. So, I fall far short of the ideal of the educated person who speaks Latin and Greek in addition to their vernacular language.)

When I attended an MFA program, about halfway through this self-education project, I realized that I had done far more work than was common. All of my classmates had majored in English in college (I had majored in Economics), and almost none of them had read the books I’d been told an educated person “must” read. Forget about reading Homer, most hadn’t read Middlemarch or David Copperfield. To the extent that they were influenced by literature, it was by recent American literature: Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson were popular influences. Virginia Woolf, at least, had some adherents, but even the modernists weren’t terribly popular, though most had some familiarity at least with Faulkner and Hemingway.

According to the Classical model, this is essentially the same as being uneducated. To the educator of 100 years ago, novels would not be a fit subject for study. The highest educational attainments of my classmates — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf — would be popular entertainment. The sort of works that shouldn’t need to be taught because young readers ought to seek them out on their own.

As I’ve grown older and gotten to know the literary world better, I’ve seen little interest among even literary elites in Classic literature. To the extent that people are excited by literature, it’s by comparatively recent writers: Žižek, Barthes, Naomi Wolf, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Toni Morrison. Among “Classic” writers, only Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Shakespeare retain any hold on the imagination of the average writer, while the influence of the Italian Renaissance, Middle Ages, and Greek and Roman antiquity is virtually nil. And this is among people who make the written word their business.

I had apparently bought into a lie. I had thought I needed to read all this stuff in order to be a great writer. It was a beautiful lie! I love the books I’ve read, and they’ve contributed immeasurably to my development as a person, but the course of reading I undertook is relatively rare among … well … anyone. And those who do engage in it tend to be reactionaries.

Indeed, the one area where Classical education continues to be in vogue is among neoconservatives: that group of former Trotskyists who turned to the Republican Party in the late 20th century and became a huge (albeit now waning) influence on conservative politics. One of the Great Books podcasts I sometimes see when scouring the internet is hosted by The National Review (a neoconservative magazine), and when Allan Bloom’s book was published, it was enthusiastically taken up, throughout the conservative intellectual world, as an indictment of a left-wing educational system that had lost its way. And this makes sense: reading the Classics is fundamentally backward-looking. Conservatives value tradition, so they value the teachings of old books. For a progressive like myself, reading the Classics requires a bit more rationalization.

Indeed, if you were to ask about the decline of the Classical education as an ideal, the number-one thing people on the left would likely say is that the attitudes of Classical writers are distasteful to modern audiences. I don’t disagree that this is the case. Most cultures prior to the end of the 19th century had extreme social hierarchies; many practiced slavery. All of them, almost without exception, subordinated women. Many modern writers and thinkers would claim that the achievements of Classical civilization, whether in ancient Athens or Imperial China, would have been impossible without the exploitation of other people. Moreover, any proponent of cultural literacy will inevitably need to acknowledge the fact that, with startlingly few exceptions (Heian-era courtly ladies, the writings of Greek subjects of the Roman Empire, and the long history of Jewish Diasporic literature being three that come to mind), there are no sustained bodies of written work by people who were marginalized or subaltern within their own societies.

If an evangelizer for culture finds these facts to be distasteful, they tend to react in one of two ways. The first is to highlight the solitary exceptions — the few marginalized individuals within the overall literary tradition. This person will inevitably mention Sappho — the only female poet from all of antiquity whose works are available in any quantity. They might mention Christine de Pizan or Marie de France — medieval writers who often worked in isolation from other woman writers, without a sustained tradition either ahead of or behind them. And they will certainly note that much of women’s writing was informal — letters and diaries — without noting that these letters have only been retained if they were addressed to important men. Almost no letters exclusively between women are extant, although these probably constituted the majority of every woman’s correspondence.

The other reaction is to willfully obfuscate the literary history we’re discussing. The rise of the novel in the early 1700s marked the first time, especially in English, that women were writing in large numbers and, more importantly, writing for an audience of other women. During the last 300 years, there’s also been an effort to record works by other marginalized people: folktales, children’s nursery rhymes, and oral history. And with the rise in literacy in the 20th century, people born into the working class and into marginalized racial and ethnic groups have been able to write and publish in some numbers. The bulk of serious literature is still made up of power talking to power, but the exceptions are sufficiently numerous, especially with the posthumous reclamation of reputations, to provide enough of a corpus that someone could say that the study of Classic literature is not inherently the study of powerful and wealthy men.

But anyone who is intellectually honest can see that this is merely a gloss. Nothing can change the fact that the foundational works in a Classical education are simply not very representative of the people who have existed throughout history. Certainly, no writer in history has looked like me, a brown-skinned trans woman. And to ask people to study that culture is to ask them to study the writings of men who were generally at or near the seats of power.

The Connection between Literature and the Elite

In fact, literature is intimately connected with the exercise of power. Throughout history, literature has generally been the province of people insecurely seated within the political elite. Literature, with a few famous exceptions (the work of Marcus Aurelius and Queen Liliʻuokalani, among a few others) is not written by actual rulers. Nor is it written by the landed elite. It’s usually written within societies that have grown large and complex enough that they need a body of learned administrators — people who depend for their livelihood on service to the state, in whatever form it might exist. And literature arises almost as an accidental byproduct of the creation of this class.

If there can be any defense made of literature, it’s that the ruling class usually doesn’t find it particularly useful, other than as an example of how to write good prose. Some of the literature we now read originally had some sacramental place in society: the plays of ancient Greece were performed in a yearly festival sponsored by a wealthy citizen. But more often, literature yearned for more importance than it had: Virgil tried to flatter Augustus with the Aeneid, but it had no effect on the governing of Rome (its effect was, if anything, more pronounced almost 1,300 years later, during the Renaissance, when it provided the seeds for an Italian national identity). Literature has an effect on future generations, if at all, when it is baked into a people’s conception of itself: as Petrarch, who died in exile, influenced the men who would someday exert so much influence in the republics of Italy.

Generally speaking, though, the most powerful people in history had little use for learning. The aristocracy throughout the Middle Ages was illiterate; with a few exceptions (Augustus, Claudius, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian), the Roman emperors were not patrons of the high arts; scholars have tried and failed to find any evidence in Alexander the Great’s life of the influence of his supposed tutor, Aristotle. The Roman elite during the Republican period was famously disdainful of civilization as a Greek import: the only arts they cared for were war and rhetoric.

Nevertheless, it’s true that writers have tended to come from the very highest rungs of society. It’s rare in the extreme, at least before the Italian Renaissance, to see a writer with a background in the trades or in the merchant class, although literacy must have been common among these classes at various points in antiquity.

Writers tended to proliferate around centers of government, and many writers held major roles in government. The philosopher Seneca ruled Rome for a time under Nero; Cicero played a key role in the late Republican period; Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli all held positions in government; so did Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt, and a whole run of English poets, right up until the emergence of Elizabethan theater provided a popular outlet for literature. Churchmen were responsible for most medieval literary production, but even here, literature was not a common vocation amongst ecclesiastics, and literary (as opposed to religious) writers tended to be either papal legates or court chaplains — people connected to government. Nor was the situation particularly different in the Islamic world or in the East. Averroes and Avicenna both served in royal courts. Confucius famously sought and failed to receive a governmental sinecure, and many famous Chinese poets held government posts.

Japan is a rare exception to these prevailing norms. For a time in Heian Japan, literature appears to have been dominated by courtly ladies: Sei Shonagon, Lady Murasaki, and other women composed famous novels and diaries that are still read today. But even these were women ensconced at court, serving as priestesses, wives, and ladies in waiting. This is one reason why I treasure this body of work: it’s the one time in antiquity when women seem to have been allowed to speak for themselves, and these writers have an unrivaled understanding of power and moral ambiguity, especially as it relates to relations between the sexes.

Which brings us back to the notion of a Classical education and its purported role as the foundation of a civilized and humane populace. The ideal that haunts America is the notion of an educated elite: a political class that is also well versed in Classical literature and history. But it’s clear, at least to me, that whether such an elite ever existed in the United States is debatable. If it did, it was only at two moments: in late 18th-century Virginia and early 20th-century New England. The Virginian planters — the children and grandchildren of adventurers — used their wealth and leisure to study. In many cases, they were the first generation of their family to be formally educated. And the early 20th-century WASP elite, finally freed from the religious shackles their ancestors had worn, tried belatedly to catch up to the continental attainments that their great-grandparents had fled from. Yet the extent to which even these classes were, as a whole, particularly well educated or well versed in culture is debatable. What is not debatable is that the founding fathers were highly educated and well versed in Classical culture, as was the run of patrician presidents early in the 20th century: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt.

During the in-between periods, however, America was not particularly noted for the high learning, or even for the decorum, of its politicians. As Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, the first generation of politicians in America were the very best our country had to offer. Subsequent generations tended to be much more mediocre in their intellects and attainments. Tocqueville’s theory was that the hurly-burly and sheer crassness of electoral politics discouraged cultivated people from participating.

Moreover, when intellectuals, particularly academics, bewail the cheapening of elite education, there’s an almost comical element to their complaint. For most of their histories, neither the Ivy Leagues nor the Oxbridge colleges were particularly known for the difficulty of their education. It’s impossible to overstate how easy it was to get into Harvard in the 19th century. If you were of the right background and had gone to the right secondary school, you would get in. The Greek and Latin requirements were merely class markers. No intimate understanding of the texts or dedication to scholarship was needed to enter.

As Richard Karabel documented in his monumental work The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (2005), the general raising of academic standards at elite universities is almost entirely due to the entrance of Jewish students at the beginning of the 20th century. Because Jewish kids took all this stuff seriously: they actually studied Latin and Greek; they actually studied and absorbed the Classics. In this devotion, they were continuing a process that’s occurred repeatedly throughout history: the children of the bourgeois exploiting brief periods when a Classical education might gain them an advantage in a changing world. They’re similar to the Florentine notaries who studied the secular Classics to improve their Latin and rise in the civil service. Or to the educated laymen of the 14th and 15th centuries in England, scions of gentle families impoverished by the Black Death or merchant families enriched by it, who turned their knowledge of Latin into influential positions at a court that had traditionally been the preserve of the priesthood. Or to Cicero, a fiery orator and novus homo (his family had never held a consulship) who put his talents in the service of an aristocratic party that needed a “man of the people” who could bear its standard and oppose the rising tide of populism.

In some ways, these Jewish students killed Classical education, because Harvard and Princeton and Yale realized that, if they were only to admit students on the basis of their knowledge of Greek and Latin, their entering class would be entirely Jewish.

The simple truth is that, by and large, Americans elites have not been particularly cultured. Neither, despite the hype, were the English gentry. In this, we see a common phenomenon: after 1700, when the supply of literate people expanded, the political class stopped producing nearly so many writers, and writers now tended to come either from the gentry, who were so minor that they were nowhere near the halls of power, or from the upper echelons of tradespeople. For the former, see Henry Fielding or Samuel Johnson; for the latter, see Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson.

A class can be literate even if it doesn’t produce notable writers, but the English and American elites also became renowned for their disdain for learning. Although a stint at Cambridge and Oxford continued to be seen as de rigueur for the English gentry, just as acceptance at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton was for their American counterparts, neither set was famed for their commitment to learning. Even among the well-off, fashionable set, it would be quite rare to find someone who remembered their schoolboy Latin or who could discourse with any sense of authority on the work of the ancients. Edith Wharton claimed that, although her childhood home was full of books, nobody ever read them — that in fact, to her knowledge, nobody in her extended family had ever read her own books. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust describes a high society that grudgingly allows entrance to literary figures, so long as they are witty and entertaining, but pays no attention to their works. Indeed, Marcel is shocked by how distant many writers are from the heights of the fashionable society they write about, and by how quickly a writer is dropped by high society if he starts to talk of intellectual matters.

Educated elites do exist and have existed — we can see this throughout history. Authors in Athens were intimately connected with public life: Thucydides, the world’s first historian, only wrote his work because he was exiled from Athens after losing a battle. In Imperial China, a familiarity with the Four Classics was required for preferment within the civil service. And in the classic Story of the Stone (1760), the tale of a prototypical Manchu noble family, we see that the young members of the family were intimately familiar with ancient poetry and frequently challenged each other to poetry competitions (although there is evidence that this is not considered an entirely serious occupation, especially when compared with the study of the Confucian Classics the hero of the novel is always neglecting).

But the truth is that, as much as cultural evangelizers would like to claim that they are tapping into a long history of America’s educated, cultured elite, that history is largely illusory: it’s a product of our illustrious founding generation — a generation that stands out precisely because its educational attainments were so singular.

Historically, education was more a byproduct of social position than a cause of it. There were times and places in which education in the Classics could improve one’s standing and be put to good use in the world, but those times were a relative rarity. Generally speaking, the more powerful a member of the political elite tended to be, the less cultured he would be. When the political elite was relatively small, thinkers and politicians would exist within the same family, or even the same individual. But as the elite expanded, the intellectual and the political halves grew so far apart that they no longer touched. The English squires who ran the country were not the ones writing and reading the books. Similarly, in today’s world, both our nation’s greatest future scholars and our future Jared Kushners will attend Harvard, but the latter make a point of learning nothing while they’re there.

Is There Still a Place for a Classical Education?

What goes unstated in discussions about cultural literacy is that a person’s education is only a matter of public concern if that person will exercise some public function. To the extent that we are good citizens, and that we have a role as citizens, our education matters. If we will grow up and exercise some form of power, then our education matters correspondingly more.

When critics of Classic literature emphasize its relationship to power, they are getting at the heart of the issue. Literature tended to be composed, in ancient times, by those who were within spitting distance of power but not currently wielding it themselves. Literature was a tool for influencing society and their own position in the world. Generally, the tool was ineffective, but it usually bore some relationship to the problems faced by powerful people.

Historically, in America, the true strength of the Classics and of a Classical education has not been among the elite but among the rising middle class.

Although this is now seen as a flaw, America has an extremely decentralized system of government (comparable only to Switzerland among the major democracies in terms of powers delegated to local and state governments). The average middle-class American could expect to wield some influence over some organization, whether it was a civic club, church, school board, or city council. Even women partook of much of this authority, and they have often driven major political changes (the temperance movement, for example).

With a broad middle class fighting for a large, but finite, number of positions of authority, the idea of a Classical education took hold. Americans bought encyclopedias and Great Books collections by the boatload. They signed up for lecture groups and read learned periodicals. Of course, their understanding of Classical culture was usually shallow, ill-informed, and incomplete, as Sinclair Lewis memorably satirizes in Main Street (1920). But when evangelists harken back to some golden age of cultural literacy, to the extent it ever existed, this is what they are remembering: a time when a Classical education seemed both desirable and attainable by the masses.

That time is over. To a certain extent, it’s a victim of widespread college enrollment. The middle class is largely defined now, as it wasn’t in the 19th century, by college attendance. By the time people in the middle class graduate, they are ready to put learning aside. The growth in and prestige of scientific knowledge has also taken its toll: people are more likely to read works of popular science or psychology now than they are the Classics.

To a large extent, it’s simply not possible to give a Classical education to an unwilling student. Although 10 years of steady reading will get you through most of the canon, it’s impossible to compress that decade into a four-year college career. I’m not sure that Allan Bloom et al. have really thought through the mechanics of how they might impart a Classical education to a college student without it taking over their entire university experience.

What I hadn’t realized when I was in school was that a degree only takes maybe 12 courses. If, for each course, you read only 10 books (Stanford is on the quarter system, so each class was only 12 weeks long), then you get a degree by reading 120 books. Of these, most, if you’re an English major, will be comparatively recent modern novels. Others will be much too long to teach in a single course. That’s how you can graduate from a Russian Literature program (as my ex-boyfriend did) without reading Anna Karenina or War and Peace or from an English Department without reading Moby-Dick. The truth is that if one is to be truly given a Classic education, there is no room for fat in the curriculum. One of your 12 courses must be devoted to Plato and Aristotle, another to the Greek playwrights, a third to Shakespeare, and so on. In the bygone era of the WASP or Victorian British gentry, students had to start this education in secondary school, and even then, most graduated college without knowing much of anything.

The impossible ideal of a collegiate Classical education — an idea so beloved of so many university professors — has killed the spirit of autodidacticism that allowed many 19th- and 20th-century Americans to achieve the same result. 

But even if college didn’t stunt people’s desire to learn on their own, it’s highly unclear whether knowing the Classics confers any social or professional advantage. What proponents of the Classical education misunderstand is that people never learned Latin and Greek merely because it would “make you a better thinker” or “give you access to the world’s knowledge.” They learned those languages because, at certain times and places, it offered a concrete way of getting ahead. Generally, those were times and places when there was strong growth in a nation’s management responsibilities and when the traditional aristocracy was unable to meet those responsibilities. The middle class, to prove itself, would adopt the culture of the aristocrats, and do it better than they ever could. At most other times, the Classics would languish: they would either be actively disdained, as in early medieval Britain or high Republican Rome, or they would be given mere lip service, as during most of American history. It’s only the active engagement of the middle class that has ever renewed knowledge of the Classics.

Notice, I leave aside the question of whether knowledge of the Classics makes you a better thinker or more capable leader. I would argue that it probably does but that, in most eras, the wisdom conferred by the Classics is more likely, as Tocqueville noted, to discourage you from pursuing paths to power. As we can see in our own culture, nuance and wisdom are nowhere particularly desired. This is a time for anger, action, and black-and-white thinking.

Moreover, during this time, power is increasingly wielded only by the few, and they wield it due to their birth rather than their merits. It’s obvious in the biographies of our politicians, our business leaders, our actors, singers, biographers, and academics. Increasingly, only the extremely well off and well connected are achieving prominence and wielding power. In this environment, only the education of those few can be a matter of public interest. For the bulk of Americans, who are destined to be employees rather than bosses, and whose public role, even as citizens, has been increasingly devalued by the slipping-away of our democracy, there is little need to concern oneself with their education, nor do I think it will be possible to get them to ignore the fact that the wisdom conferred by a Classical education will be useless to them in the life of precarity and drudgery to come.

The Classics can’t save us. They can’t generate wealth and opportunity from nothing. If we ever emerge from our current civilizational rut, they’ll be there waiting for us. If there is anything we can learn from history, it’s that the Classics do not need defending: at the moments when they are most useful, the moments when ordinary people once more have a role to play in public life, they inevitably emerge to guide the way.

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Naomi Kanakia is the author of three novels, out and forthcoming from Little, Brown and Harper, and of a guide to the publishing industry.