One of my students wrote this sentence in a blog post for our weekly class assignment (the subject of which is specifically about whether we can learn anything from Shakespeare’s portrayal of republican Rome). In the post, (s)he also offers a critique of everything we’ve read throughout the semester; the central problem, the student writes, is that it’s all “antiquated”:
Nothing we have read was written by anyone in our generation or even century for that matter. We are writing about heroism and justice but our background and preface to the subject comes from people so far gone that many people do not care about the authors.
The subject matter of the class, of course, is ancient political philosophy. Everything on the syllabus was written in or about Greece and Rome. The authors “many people do not care about” include Homer, Plato, and Aristotle.
From the first day I’ve argued that the themes on which we focus — justice, heroism, and the best way of life — are enduring ones and that the questions posted by ancient philosophers and statesmen are well worth pondering today. I maintain that this is true of all great literature, that it offers insights into some of the thorniest puzzles about the human condition and that, irrespective of the time period in which it’s crafted, we can learn about ourselves based on how we answer the questions it poses to us.
It’s not clear whether the student disagrees that topics like justice or heroism remain important to us today or simply wants to argue that an ancient perspective is unhelpful. Either way, the central problem stems from a misunderstanding of the whole purpose of the course. The student seems ready to agree with what I said on the first day of class, namely that reading these texts and thinking critically about them “might help us be better people.” But that’s apparently not enough.
The student writes, in the sentence immediately preceding the one I quoted above:
I believe that our education should be a means to something greater and I cannot see that end through the disentanglement of Coriolanus’ reasons for leaving Rome.
What the student means by “Something greater” is never specified, but apparently it isn’t the same thing as learning to “be better people.” In other words, the central complaint the student has about the course is, “These books might help me to become a better person, but if that’s all they can do for me, I don’t see how reading them will have done me any good.”