Teaching the Classics: Introduction from Editor Dr. Jeffery Green

By Dr. Jeffery Green

It is my pleasure to introduce to you the theme for our Spring and Summer 2018 edition of The City.  We will be exploring Christianity and the Classics for the next several months.  The word “classics” has a deep resonance here at Houston Baptist University.  We have a department of Classics and Biblical Languages and the first pillar of our Ten Pillars is Build on the Classics.  The classics are an integral part of HBU’s culture and I want to touch on why I see value in studying them using examples from my own teaching career as a philosopher.

In philosophy, and other disciplines, it is tempting to primarily teach contemporary authors.  They tend to be easier for students to read and relate to.  Their metaphors and examples are not outdated.  Even in a contemporary translation, older works, such as Descartes’ Meditations tend to have vocabulary choices and sentences structures that make reading difficult for someone new to the text.  In addition, some parts of past works have been persuasively argued against.  Whether from new empirical knowledge gained by our scientific discoveries or better and more clear arguments, there are times when it can feel like it would be better if we left a classical work in the past.

In addition, some advocate teaching the classics out of either nostalgia or a sense of “old is better”.  I think each is a poor reason to teach classics and both of these rationales lead to mistrust of the teaching of classics all together.  While nostalgia is not necessarily a bad thing, it is indulgent of me to ask students to read a work because of my fond memories.  Their development comes first and my recollection for how Aristotle was taught to me and my old familiarity with the texts are not good reasons for me to assign them.

In addition, I do not think there is much to be said for the idea that something old is necessarily better.  While some classics are of the caliber of Nicomachean Ethics there are others that, whatever their virtues, are not as worthy of the time investment.  We tend to not encounter those in our education as over time the vast volume of human writing has been condensed for us by our predecessors.  Our ignorance of treatises such as Aristotle’s On Length and Shortness of Life gives us a distorted sense of the past and the overall tone and quality of work during times long ago.  This is not to say that Aristotle’s works on biology do not have insights, they have many and some would gain by studying the work in detail.  It is, however, a book on a subject where we have made progress and there are better texts to assign students if our goal is to teach biology.

I think that the gains in teaching classics are worth the effort it takes to teach them well.  First, classics provide an ideal opportunity to practice empathetic imagination across not only space but also time.  It may take a lot of work to understand the perspective of a 13th century Dominican friar (in the case of Thomas Aquinas) but in doing so we open a space in our thinking that previously was hidden from us. We gain a new perspective on life and its questions.  We also gain a strong sense of the timeless transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Part of the antidote to the poison of radical cultural relativism is recognizing that behind differences in culture and language there are values and rationales that are common, intelligible and relatable.

Second, one of the largest challenges in teaching classics is the unfamiliar context and language for the student.  This is not a challenge isolated to the classroom.  Students are entering a workforce that calls on them to be flexible and to learn new skills and sometimes whole new careers in a short amount of time.  The abilities to adapt, learn a new intellectual culture, and to understand a document you initially find obscure and hard to understand are essential in the ever changing business world.

Third, understanding our current culture requires an understanding of its antecedents.  Knowing Nietzsche helps bring to light strands of existential despair that run through our technological advanced but spiritually unhappy world.  Careful reading of Locke and Hobbes help us illuminate our current political assumptions.

Finally, exploring the classics provides an opportunity to engage in robust dialogue with the precepts of Christianity.  The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection has impacted the world in a multitude of ways.  I worry that we sometimes forget the power of the gospel because we are only looking at our own situation.  I am encouraged when I find believers in contexts other than my own; their faith inspires my faith and reminds me of the God’s grace.  In addition, studying classics is a way to affirm our Christology that all things were made through Christ and for him.  He is Lord not just of our time but all times.

In this series of articles you will find a number of different approaches to thinking through Christianity and the classics.  I hope you enjoy the articles as much as I have and I thank you for your interest in The City.

[Editor’s Note:  Christianity and the Classics image from Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of David, c. 1630, found at Wikipedia Commons.]

About the Author / Editor

Dr. Jeffery Green, is the Interim Dean of the School of Christian Thought, Director of the Institute of Christianity and Scholarship, Dean of The Graduate School, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and an Editor of The City. The City is a publication of Houston Baptist University, a journal of intellect and purpose featuring leading voices in Christian academia and elsewhere on the critical issues of the times. A collection of thoughts deserving permanence in a fleeting age.