When wondering around a bookstore it is often the case that you will see a large fiction section with the authors listed alphabetically. As you continue to browse, you may find specific genre areas like ‘fantasy’ or ‘self-help.’ You are also likely to find a ‘classics’ section. The books here look somehow more important. The covers are often adorned with equally ‘classic’ artwork to remind us that these are classics, masterpieces…old. This is taken to its extreme conclusion when you get new books that are designed to look old to give them greater credibility.
We are taught to be sentimental about literature, art, movies and music. ‘Old’ quickly becomes classic and therefore better or at the very least more important or significant than what is current. Teachers use this as a reason to teach Dickens and Shakespeare, parents as a reason to play you The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
Teachers and parents are not wrong, but they are not right either.
What is current is too often dismissed as trashy, lacking in substance, cheap, tacky, not like it used to be etc. But, in 20 or 30 years what is now current will join the ever-expanding list of classic, probably detouring at ‘retro’ and ‘old school’ along the way.
As an English teacher I love and appreciate the classics of literature, but two of my favourite books are Paradise Lost by John Milton and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. These are worlds (and 338 years) apart on every level and yet they coexist in my mind and on a bookshelf without conflict.
I think it is important to remember and celebrate the past, though I think it is often foolish or misplaced to become overly sentimental about things that we only half recall, or actually had an experience of whatsoever. Nostalgia certainly has its place and is often a great comfort, but it is worth keeping in mind that on an individual level, the past’s greatest use to us is to help inform our present lives; we learn from the successes and failures of the past and aim to become better, more triumphant versions of that self.
Whilst writing this I remembered a very formative ‘song’ from my teenage years; Sunscreen by Baz Luhrman was actually just a reading of some advice that was published in the Chicago Tribune by Mary Schmich in 1997.
“Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.”
This seems to ring true when considering the idea of nostalgia and holding on to what can sometimes be antiquated ideas from the past.
It is an interesting phenomenon that given our desire to wistfully hold on to the past, we demonstrate the exact opposite reaction towards technology. When a new piece of technology emerges, we throw out the last thing quicker than you can say ‘iPhone3Gwhat?’ It becomes an embarrassment to hold on to a TV that isn’t HD ready, a phone which isn’t smart or a camera which doesn’t photograph in more pixels than there are people on the planet.
This response seems pretty justified and logical; when things can be improved, why would you hold on to older, less efficient versions?
We innately want to be, to have, and desire the best.
So where does ‘education’ fit in to all of this?
Education is not something one would imagine people get sentimental about – it is a process, a function that we apply to people in order to give them skills. Literature although forming a part of education is very different – literature can be frivolous and pointless and indeed meaningless, Education appears to be more functional; more like technology; whilst it could be immensely satisfying, productive and fun, it is trying to achieve something.
But if this is all true, why are we so afraid to change it?
Some answers follow in part 2 of this blogpost…