Burning Down the House


Here is an excerpt from a post by Anthony Esolen over at Mere Comments:

Of the Burning of Books

. . .

When I was in Sweden with my daughter this summer, we saw some churches with plaster ceilings that were entirely white. But now and then we'd see a shadow beneath the white, and that made me wonder if there hadn't been paintings underneath, whitewashed over. My guess was correct. In the Enlightenment, that period of self-satisfied bigotry, the constriction of the arts, and the consigning of centuries of human learning to the flames, the smart people of the day commissioned the destruction of works of folk art that were learned, intricate, and quite beautiful. It is hardly an isolated instance of the phenomenon of culture-destroying among deistic or antiecclesiastical elites. Francis Bacon consigned Aristotle to irrelevance, but it is much to be doubted whether he actually read such Renaissance Thomists as Suarez and Banez, much less Thomas himself. The smarties of the eighteenth century sniffed with contempt upon things medieval — for almost two hundred years Dante is almost wholly unread outside of Italy. What happened, too, to all the stained glass windows in the cathedrals of France? One wonders how much literature has been lost because the courtiers of the Renaissance, unlike the monks, were simply not interested in preserving medieval manuscripts. John Dewey, despiser of all learning originating in an age before John Dewey's, tried his hardest, and with wonderful success, to eliminate classical learning from American public schools.

And now in our own day, who are the burners of books? I note with real pleasure that homeschoolers, the large majority of them Christian, and those in charge of upstart evangelical and Catholic high schools and colleges, are the ones in the United States who are preserving classical learning. They study Aristotle — with impressive care — at Thomas Aquinas College in California. They learn Latin and Greek at Patrick Henry College, a school whose students are to the typical Ivy Leaguers what linebackers are to waterboys. I could say similar things about the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, the Great Books program at Baylor, the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota, Thomas More College, and many more such places, but I could not say them about too many other schools.

Meanwhile, at many another school, the secular fires go on burning. This week I met a wonderfully engaging and very smart candidate for a position teaching medieval literature at my school. She told me that she had been informed by her department that they would cease to offer a course in the history of the English language after her departure. That is not because such a course would be unpopular, but because they believed it should not be taught. Why not, you ask? She informed me that in many English departments, the professors believe that study of the older literature, say before 1800, and especially medieval literature, should simply die away. It should not be taught. Again, that's not because Chaucer would be unpopular. On the contrary, the fear is precisely that students would come to love Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton. That's why those authors should die the death. Shakespeare, of course, avoids the ax, mainly by being conscripted into the legions of the politically correct.

So, as has happened before, it will happen again: if Western culture is to be preserved for a better age, the church will have to do it. No one else will.

Coincidentally, in the next issue of Salvo we will have an article about John Dewey and the effects of his crusade against all thought pre-Dewey.

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