One of the striking features of the Edina list is how recent the titles are. Many of the selections were published in the 21st century. In fact, only four of the selections are more than 20 years old. In comparison, over half of the titles on the first list were at least 20 years old in 1908, with many of them averaging between 50 to 100 years old.
Older is not necessarily better, but the books on the first list suggest that schools of the past were more likely to give their students time-tested, classic literature, rather than books whose popularity may happen to be a passing fad…
A second striking difference between the two book lists are the themes they explore. The first is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish). Through highly recognized authors such as Longfellow, Stevenson, Kipling, and Dickens, these titles introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built…
It’s good for children to understand the world in which they live, but as with any area in life, you can have too much of a good thing. A continual focus on modern literature narrows the lens through which children can view and interpret the world. Would it not be better to broaden their horizons and expose them to a balance of both old and new literature?
“If,” by Rudyard Kipling – one of the best-known, and arguably best, poets in the English language, aside from Shakespeare – has been a favorite of mine since childhood. My mother, an English major and sometime teacher, had a great love of poetry which she shared with me, and furthermore this poem hung on the wall of the room in which I slept when we visited her parents, my grandparents, in my boyhood days. It has been an inspiration to me for the greater part of a half-century.
But now it appears that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is drawing fire for posting it on his Instagram and Twitter feeds, due to claims that its author was “racist” (and, somewhat self-righteously, that Brady did not credit it to Kipling… although he did put it in quotes, and undoubtedly assumed – rightly, as it turned out – that everyone would recognize it and know who the author was).
For the record, I am no fan of Brady or the Patriots, but that really ticks me off.
Kipling was a man of his time and place. When he wrote “If,” Great Britain was at the height of its colonial power, an Empire on which the sun never set. The concept of “the white man’s burden” may be outdated and vilified now, but at the time it was a commonplace, and rooted in the same sensibility as “noblesse oblige” – the idea that those who were viewed (whether rightly or wrongly) as being at a higher level, had an obligation to care for and assist those viewed as inferior. That is to say, it was kindly meant, even if it was also mixed up with ideas of Empire and dominance, and even if it made assumptions which a more contemporary view understands as false.
Furthermore, the poem “If” has absolutely nothing even remotely related to race, class, colonialism, or Empire about it! It is about self-mastery, perseverance, determination to succeed against all odds, and to pick oneself back up, after failure, and try again. The idea that this is somehow “racist” is patently absurd; it’s ridiculous on every possible level.
And the use of this term as a tool with which to bludgeon anyone you don’t like or agree with is also absurd. We need to get off this kick, and soon – both with respect to contemporary political opponents, and even more so, with regard to towering giants of literature, history, philosophy, etc. – before we fatally undermine the foundations of Western Civilization itself.
Here is the poem in question. Read it for yourself, and see if it seems “racist” to you!
by Rudyard Kipling (1898)
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
“In a petition to the English department, Yale undergraduates declare that a required two-semester seminar on Major English Poets is a danger to their well-being. Never mind that the offending poets – Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, et al. – are the foundational writers in the English language. It’s as if chemistry students objected to learning the periodic table or math students rose up against the teaching of differential calculus.”
A cogent comparison. These are the very authors and poets whose works have formed the English language, and shaped Anglophone Western culture in ways too numerous to count. These pusillanimous petitioners – who owe what little ability to express themselves coherently which they may possess to the masters of literary expression they would, ironically, dispossess – may as well complain that the very oxygen in the air they breathe burns their lungs.
“The petition whines that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.”
It does, eh? Strange that it is only since the kulturkampf of the late 1960s that this alleged “harm” has existed.
Has it occurred to any of these arrogant, ignorant, sniveling idiots that America’s greatest years occurred during a time when the great works of the Western Canon wrought by the towering creative intellects now dismissed as mere “dead white males” were the only works – save for a few from other cultures that had similarly stood the test of time, and achieved like stature – that were seriously studied?
And that the beginning of America’s loss of motivation, drive, and standing in the world (mirrored, sadly, by the rest of the West) can be dated with some precision to the time period, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the kind of tripe represented by this petition first started to gain traction?
And yes, I know that correlation does not equal causation. But I also know that if there’s enough smoke, there’s bound to be some fire somewhere. And I know, further, that a tree cut off from its roots is bound to wither and die; the same can be said of a culture or society. Absent some sort of drastic and successful intervention, Western culture is dying; this petition is both another ax-blow to the roots, and also symptomatic of its death-throes.
As the article further notes,
“The petition’s implicit contention is that the major poets are too circumscribed by their race and gender to speak to today’s socially aware students, when, in point of fact, it is the students who are too blinkered by race and gender to marvel at great works of art.”
Amen. I would like to think that Yale – that highly esteemed Ivy League institution of higher learning – would laugh them out of the Dean’s office, if not expel them from its ranks. But I’m not going to hold my breath. I fear that Yale’s faculty, like most contemporary academics, having largely come of age during or after the aforementioned 1960s and 70s, is already too deeply in the thrall of the same disease as that infecting the petitioners. God help us!
J.R.R. Tolkien despised politics. It is, however, a natural question for someone to ask about his views here, as we live in a highly politicized age. So, what do we know about the great man’s politics? (essay by Bradley Birzer)
Resolutely apolitical in his personal habits, there are nonetheless things that can be said about Tolkien’s political philosophy. Some particular points of interest, with respect to this blog:
“Tolkien referred to himself in his letters as an anarchist of the non-violent variety. Almost certainly, Tolkien’s anarchism is neither [modern anarcho-capitalism nor anarcho-socialism]. Given his writings on the Shire, in particular, Tolkien almost certainly meant this in the sense that he was a Catholic and, therefore, that he believed in subsidiarity – that is the principle that power should reside at the most immediate level possible.
“… in the same letter that Tolkien called himself an anarchist, philosophically understood, he also argued that he would support an unconstitutional monarchy. Puzzling, to be sure. But, again, given Tolkien’s writings regarding Middle-earth, and especially on Aragorn, Tolkien almost certainly meant that a king should be bound by his oath to his people and, especially to Christ. Philosophically, Tolkien would have identified with St. Thomas Aquinas, especially in the great saint’s letter On Kingship. For Aquinas, the only true king was the king who behaved as would Christ, willing to sacrifice himself for love.”
Being somewhat of a philosophical anarcho-monarchist, myself, this makes perfect sense to me! As the great man put it, in “Fellowship of the Ring,” the section on “The Ordering of the Shire”:
“There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king at Fornost, or Norbury as they called it, away north of the Shire. But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years, and even the ruins of Kings’ Norbury were covered with grass. Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king. For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.”
I especially love this concluding quote, by Tolkien himself:
“I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron. But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”
A very interesting treatment of the political philosophy of a fascinating group of writers and thinkers — the Inklings, whose number included both J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend and sometimes foil or rival, C.S. Lewis. The pendulum has swung again, of course, and Romanticism has for many today a sort of “airy-fairy,” unrealistic air to it. But as this essay points out,
“To begin with, just what is Romanticism, anyway? There do seem to be as many definitions as there are writers; but it is as accurate a one as any might be to call it Europe’s artistic and philosophical reaction to the arid rationalism of the Enlightenment, the horrors of the French Revolutionary Wars, and the centralising hand of Napoleon Bonaparte.”
It’s important to note that Romanticism is a reaction against, and response to, rationalism — not rationality, that is to say reason, properly understood and exercised. The Romantics, and certainly the Inklings who were among their heirs, understood and valued reason as one of the faculties with which humans have been gifted by a loving Creator. But like everything else, it was to occupy its appropriate sphere, not either more or less.
One of the definitions of a “heresy” is a truth which is carried to such an extreme that it becomes no longer true. By that standard, the rationalist heresy is the idea that unaided reason is the only way one can, or should, understand the world, and everything must be subjected to the test of reason. If you cannot reason (or experiment, as empiricism is part of this) your way to a conclusion, it is suspect at best, or to be rejected absolutely. This is a view common to both Modernist and, to a very significant extent, post-modernist thought as well.
Romantics, and the Inklings, would have argued for Mystery, and the possibility of, not the irrational, but the trans-rational, the supra-rational: that which is beyond all that our minds can grasp. “My ways are not your ways, nor your thoughts, my thoughts,” as the prophet Isaiah expresses the Divine message. Reason can only take us so far; as St. Thomas Aquinas said of his exquisitely researched and argued “Summa Theologica,” following a mystical experience at the Eucharist, “It is all straw.”
The fruits of reason are not to be despised, then, but merely understood within their own context, and neither expected to take us beyond reason’s proper sphere, nor to be meekly accepted when they attempt to do so. The deification of Reason, the assumption that it is the be-all and end-all of existence, was for the Romantics and the Inklings, and is for me, to be rejected: it is like the wings of Icarus, that take us too high, too close to the sun, so that we fall to our doom. It is the very definition of hubris, of arrogant over-reach: the pride that goeth before the fall, the creature seeking to pass judgement on the Creator.
But these are just my own meanderings on one piece of the puzzle. The whole article is fascinating, and only touches on the rationalist heresy as it applies to the Inklings’ political philosophy. Read and enjoy!
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period… The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can only be done by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” ~ C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”