When Stanford replaced its freshman course on Western civilization, it touched off a major national debate on the value of the “Western literary canon.” Here Leland Ryken, professor of literature at Wheaton College, explains the importance of studying these classic works.

Every major culture has its classics: works that provide depth and comprehensiveness of vision, insight into human experience, profundity of issues raised, superior artistry, and influence upon a culture. Thus classics are not limited to the familiar Western tradition that has been central to the English-speaking world.

But it has been the Western classics—precisely those works that have been central to the history and development of our culture and its educational system—that have come under attack recently. The leaders of this attack, I have found, surprisingly misunderstand and do not appreciate the nature of the classics—or the function of the past, or the way in which the classics achieve their beneficial effects.

Christians have a special stake in the current debate about the value of past traditions. Christians are more self-consciously indebted to traditions than our culture generally is. The Christian faith is rooted in events and in a Book that belong to the past. The chronological bias that regards everything latest as best is preeminently a fallacy for Christians. Thus to defend the reading of Homer or Shakespeare is also to defend reading Luther and Calvin or listening to Bach.

So why should we read the classics? For one thing, they are acknowledged touchstones of artistic excellence. If we are in a quest for “the best that is known and thought in the world” (as the Victorian enthusiast for the classics Matthew Arnold put it), then we will value ...

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