“I am appalled… horrified… I almost puked.” The words are excerpted from a letter sent more than 60 years ago by the father of the young Ted Turner to his undergraduate son. The younger Turner had just decided, in the wisdom of his youth, to embark on a course of study in Classics, having selected the subject as his Major at Brown University. A very sensible decision, you might think, but one which had not gone down well with his father. And, having received his father’s letter of objection, which contains a string of scolds and uncompromising barbs, but which is delivered with a thin coating of ‘reasonable’ argumentation and tongue-in-cheek humour, the son abandoned his intention to major in Classics. His father’s matter-of fact case won out – and Economics became his major instead.
This unfortunate decision didn’t do too much damage to Turner’s subsequent career trajectory: now 83, he is a well-known media tycoon, entrepreneur and philanthropist. But the counterfactual naturally poses itself: would Turner have brought a little more truth, beauty and light into the world, had he defied the recommendation of his father’s letter? A life with a little less time championing and marketing the virtues of WCW pro wrestling, and a little more time spent extolling the virtues of Homer and Tacitus might have been no bad thing for the world at large.
I hadn’t previously encountered Turner senior’s letter until a couple of weeks ago, when it popped up on social media. You can read it here. The letter had been generating some mirth among Classicists online – but to me it served more as an odd kind of goad. The tone and content of the letter seemed to encapsulate several things: a deeply unpleasant style of parenting, to be sure; an astonishing sense of entitlement and hauteur, without question; but also – a grimly utilitarian and pragmatic dismissal of the significance and value of studying Classics, here delivered with such brio, such wry confidence, such lordly force of conviction, that it stopped me in my tracks.
I was immediately put in mind of all those discussions I have had with youngsters in the classroom, where the ‘use’ or ‘point’ or ‘practical application’ of studying Greco-Roman antiquity comes into question. What hope is there in such discussions if a parent like Turner Senior is ready to take a child to task at home? Of course the young like to rebel, so hope is never completely out of the question in such a situation. But I’d like to think that the ‘muscular’ reasoning of Turner’s Dad can be overturned without the aid of surly teenage defiance.
To readers of Antigone, the case for the study of Classical subjects may already seem clear enough, but the present article is written partly with the evangelical objective of addressing the unconvinced, perhaps the sort of person who might smile at – or at least feel some slight sympathy with – the sorts of ideas ventured by Turner Senior. So what might a convincing case against him look like?
Turner Senior begins his letter with an acknowledgment, through clenched teeth, that he’s “old fashioned enough to believe that the purpose of an education is to enable one to develop a community of interest with his fellow men [sic], to learn how to know them, to learn how to get along with them.” He appears ready to accept that Classics is well-placed to offer such an education. It does indeed provide, then, an education in humanity, and in one’s contemporaries’ humanity, by Turner’s own admission. But something important is missing from this characterisation: Classics offers the resources not just to ‘get along’, to ‘know’ one’s colleagues, and to fit in. It also offers an education in what it might mean to stick one’s head above the parapet and take a different line; to stand for a principled cause, to defend or advance an unpopular or controversial position. Whereas Turner Senior seems to envisage that it is beneficial to learn about the Greeks and Romans merely to learn how to get along better with one’s peers and to understand what makes them tick, he seems to miss this vital element of what Classical learning can do.
Other Americans of his generation did not. It was to the example of Socrates that Martin Luther King turned during his tumultuous stay in Birmingham Jail in 1963. And it was to the haunting words of Aeschylus that Robert Kennedy turned, later in the same decade, when forced to give a speech in Indianapolis in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination, just weeks before his own in Dallas. In these examples, Classical texts offered ways not to ‘get on’ but to console and inspire, as well as challenge oneself and one’s peers; the challenge in question is to try to see and think more deeply through the social, political, intellectual and indeed religious forces which bear upon us in moments of darkness, which may also be moments of insight. Even in his acknowledgment of the virtues of the study of Classics, then, Turner Senior doesn’t capture the depth of what Classical history, Classical writing and Classical exempla can do here.
The next point in Turner’s letter is to wonder who his son will be able to speak with in Ancient Greek. The point is rhetorical. The main point of learning Greek, now today, as with Latin, is to read ancient texts, not to speak the language. So Turner Senior moves on to try to debunk the point of reading Plato and Aristotle themselves, those “old bastards” who had “so much time for thinking and useless deliberating”, whose minds “worked very similarly to ours”. The casual use of “useless” here betrays the utilitarian and pragmatic case of the argument. But scratch the surface of Turner’s assumption that philosophical thinking and deliberating are “useless” (or indeed his notion that the philosophers of Ancient Greece thought “very similarly” to 20th-century Americans) and you quickly run into problems.
Is it “useless” to seek the truth about a matter, say, of political, social, aesthetic or epistemological import? Discovering the limitations of your current positions can free you from them (and their deficiencies), allowing you to live more interestingly, more deeply, more satisfyingly, more authentically – and indeed in a manner more in tune with reality. What could be more immediately useful, to you as an individual, and to those with whom you have dealings, than that? And even if exposure to (for instance) Aristotelian philosophy doesn’t dislodge you from your assumptions, you will doubtless end up furnished with a clearer sense of what you are about, when you have a clearer sense of what you aren’t. Or to put the point another way: it’s hardly “useless” to know, or at least to have an improved sense of, what you stand for on matters of fundamental human concern.
Turner Senior then takes aim at esoteric scholarship: what’s the point of that? What’s the point, specifically, of knowing which Classical influences have a bearing on English literature? After all, “it’s not necessary to know how to make a gun in order to know how to use it,” Turner quips. This bizarre analogy conjures a sense of machismo in its talk of guns, but also, perhaps, in its jaunty notion that it’s harmless to be ignorant of something where that ignorance doesn’t inhibit the present-day performance of a “useful” practical task (and let’s leave aside whether shooting guns is ever really all that “useful”).
Here we encounter the difficult truth, for which – admittedly – the gung-ho man of action may have little time, that brazen machismo and practical action may in many circumstances be no substitute for intellectual awareness and depth of understanding. In any case, one need not even choose between them, as the binary here is a false one: action and depth of existence are not mutually exclusive. Turner sets up a false dichotomy, then. He makes understanding literary influence and literary history an exercise in mechanics and irrelevancy (which in its worst manifestations, no doubt it can be), rather than in intellectual deepening and in illuminating one’s own and others’ lives.
Turner then takes aim at how specialising in Classics leads one to establish a limited “community of interest with an isolated few impractical dreamers… and college professors”. Part of the objection here seems to be that such people live static, star-gazing lives. Better instead to be around people who “are moving, who are doing things, who have an interesting, not a decadent, outlook.” Decadent? Perhaps this is the Protestant Work Ethic speaking: people should be getting on with tasks and jobs, making things happen in a hands-on way, moving the world forward: not sitting, writing, pondering, learning, understanding the past.
Perhaps Turner Senior would have enjoyed the company of Charles Clarke, the Labour Education Secretary (2002–4) under Tony Blair’s government in the UK (1997–2007), who described the idea of education and scholarship for its own sake as “a bit dodgy”, and later as an “adornment to society”. To dignify Turner’s position (and Clarke’s) with a refutation: Classics and the fruits of Classical learning are of course about much more than ivory-tower musing and contemplation. They involve bringing to bear one’s understanding and skills not just on the past but on the present. More profoundly, we might think of them as helping to ensure that the standard of reasoning and public discourse in play in our societies is strong.
If there is a tendency for some Classicists to be unworldly nerds, this is no more the case than it is in other technically demanding disciplines. When William Gladstone turned to Homer and Thucydides in the evening during his spells as Prime Minister, it wasn’t to retreat from reality, but to help him engage more fully with it. Reasoning about, and engaging with, the cultures of the past, far from being irrelevant to how we engage with the world of the present day, can help us do it much better – not least by giving us perspective, and by reminding us of the shape (and limitations) of our own discursive norms.
Turner’s next point is that one will find that Classical learning leaves others cold. The billboard baron in Podunk, Iowa, he points out, is not going to have heard of Leonidas. He’ll feel you’re “a snob and a fop” for bringing up ancient Spartan Kings over the dinner table. To take this objection seriously: it’s certainly true that most people lack any great familiarity with many of the best-known figures of Classical antiquity. But there are of course ways to avoid being seen as a snob or fop if you do possess a sprinkling of Classical knowledge. You may wish simply to avoid the topic of Leonidas (or Lycurgus or Solon or Alcibiades) when visiting Podunk, Iowa. Or if you really can’t resist mentioning the leading figures of Ancient Greek history while you’re in town, why not bring them up in an understated or self-deprecating way, at an appropriate time? But, really: there’s just no need to talk Classics over dinner in Iowa. And what’s true in Iowa is no less true elsewhere.
Turner Senior seems to have no sense of how academic interests can overlap with, inform and enrich the world of practical action. Professors are “oddballs” in ivory towers, who specialise in pointless knowledge: such trifling matters as the influence of hieroglyphics on the novels of William Faulkner, the study of Ancient Greek language, the niceties of theoretical mathematics. People who are focussed on arcana such as these are all too plainly out of touch with what really matters in the world at large, thinks Turner.
No doubt this caricature is not entirely without foundation: there have been, and are, otherworldly thinkers in the educational and academic firmament. And perhaps these star-gazers can indeed seem rather like naval-gazers. But other possibilities exist here: the socially-engaged educator is not an altogether unheard of figure, after all. In any case, a word of defence is surely also due for purely theoretical pursuits: who knows when the knowledge and expertise of the abstract thinker might turn out to be highly valuable in its practical application? There’s a reason many Classicists, with their razor-sharp skills in taking apart tricky ancient texts, were hired to crack the German codes at Bletchley Park in the Second World War, for instance.
Turner’s parting shot is that it is his son’s teachers, not his own Dad, who are “philistines”. The evidence, readers may agree, points in a different direction.
Turner’s ideas, amusingly delivered as they are, put me in mind, as I mentioned at the outset, of discussions I’ve had with teenagers over the years. Similar points are always raised – about usefulness, practical applications, career possibilities. The stimulus for these discussions is usually the need to consider whether pupils will opt to pursue their Classical subject(s) further at GCSE or A level. And use and practical application naturally matter to many students. They want to know what they’ll get out of the subject, what it’ll do for them. This matters for their decisions.
My preferred method in such discussions has been to make the case that, although studying Classics demonstrably offers numerous ‘useful’ skills, the main point of learning the subject is to receive an education for life, rather than for a specific profession, trade or career. It is to provide a basis for approaching anything and everything you encounter, to give you a basic sense of confidence gained through an understanding of worlds far different from our own, which can in turn serve as a guide, comparator, source of inspiration, outrage, objection, consolation and/or delight, as appropriate according to circumstance.
The ‘point’ of the subject is not just to make you more literate, more historically aware, or better at verbal reasoning, though these certainly aren’t bad by-products. It is to get you in touch with your own humanity, its situatedness in space and time, and the humanity of others outside your own necessarily limited intellectual and social ambit. Experience suggests it isn’t overly grand, even if it may seem unfashionable, to make such a case to teenagers: it gives the more reflective among the hardline pragmatists and utilitarians something to dwell upon.
As for Turner Senior himself? No doubt he’d have some objections to my arguments. It’s hard, after all, to convince anyone who’s fanatically fixated on what’s ‘useful’ in the present that the past isn’t a mere bucket of ashes but a source of present-day concern, inspiration and value. Nonetheless, as someone who evidently did set some store by the charms of the written word, Turner might at least have found something to chuckle at in a spirited attack on his arguments, albeit one coming from one of the ‘philistines’ against whom he launches his broadsides.
Gavin McCormick is a teacher and writer. His previous articles have concerned the death of Creusa in Virgil’s Aeneid, the power of Latin in ecclesiastical music, and Giorgio Bassani’s Ferrara sequence of novels.
Edith Hall makes a readable case for the relevance of Aristotelian philosophy to modern people in Aristotle’s Way (Penguin, London, 2018).
Examples of charismatic and socially-engaged Classicists are not difficult to find. On Antigone one can read more from (and about) several examples of this breed – from Isotta Nogorola to Mary Beard to Gilbert Highet to Richard Porson.
|⇧1||Kennedy relied for his reference to the words of Aeschylus in his speech on the translation he had read in Edith Hamilton’s book, The Greek Way (1930). See further on Kennedy’s use of Greek writing the article by Joseph Casazza, ‘”Taming the Savageness of Man”: Robert Kennedy, Edith Hamilton, and their Sources’, Classical World 96 (2003) 197-9.|