The Mighty River of Classics:

Tradition and Innovation

in Modern Education



In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla

Khan,” one of the classic texts of English Romanticism, a

“sacred river” runs for miles, “meandering with a mazy motion”

through a paradise realm and then falls down through

caverns to “a sunless sea.” The river continues underground,

then reappears as a “mighty fountain,” a geyser forced up

with such power that boulders are tossed in the air like “chaffy

grain.” The river now runs overland, only to fall again beneath

the earth and disappear.


Though his setting is imperial China, Coleridge calls his

river the “Alph,” probably after the Alpheus, a river in the

Greek Peloponnesus that flows past the sacred precinct of

Olympia and was thought to pass in a single pure stream

through the Mediterranean Sea until it reappeared as the

fountain of Arethusa on an island in the harbor of Syracuse

in Sicily. According to legend, the river god Alpheus had

fallen in love with the nymph Arethusa, and when he pursued

her, the virgin goddess Artemis protected her by changing

her into a fountain.


By shortening “Alpheus” to “Alph,” Coleridge also evokes

the Christian use of the first and last letters of the alphabet

as a symbol for God, who is the “Alpha and Omega,” the

first and the last, a paradox often illustrated in the wall decorations

or mosaics of churches. Coleridge’s alternately

“mazy” and “mighty” Alpheus seems to me an excellent

metaphor for the classical tradition in Western culture,

which flows down like a river from antiquity and sometimes

seems to disappear underground. But despite constant prophecies

of its extinction, it always reappears, forced up again

with renewed power.


We are in yet another period when the validity of the classics

as the foundation of Western learning and education is

being questioned and when there are many signs of erosion

—as in the reduction or outright elimination of Latin

language courses in public high schools and classics departments

in American universities and when the amount of

classroom time devoted to the classics in freshman survey

and composition courses has in many institutions drastically

diminished. There are several reasons for this. The demand

after the 1960s cultural revolution for contemporary “relevance”

in the curriculum produced a relaxing of academic

methods and demands and a proliferation of courses oriented

toward the present. Popular culture has entered the

classroom as teaching tool as well as subject—a phenomenon

toward which there are quite different views. I myself,

as a product of the 1960s, feel that popular culture has massively

shaped American society over the past 150 years and

that students, who have been immersed for their lifetimes in

pop, need a map to it—to understand its evolution, technology,

modus operandi, and persistent themes. On the other

hand, an education that has tipped toward popular culture

at the expense of the past threatens to become frivolous, faddish,

and merely reactive. There is a way to teach or discuss

popular culture, I would argue, that can be integrated with

and can reinforce the classics, since so much of Hollywood’s

use of sex and violence—from molten sex goddesses to

larger-than-life action-adventure heroes—can be seen as an

analogy to and even as a direct survival of classical mythology.


A second reason for the turn from classics in the past

quarter century is the new interest in multiculturalism,

which also originates in the 1960s. Veterans of World War ii

had come home with direct experience of Europe, the Pacific

islands, the Philippines, and Japan, but in the domestic preoccupations

of the postwar period and in the exacerbation

of political tensions in the Cold War stalemate with the Soviet

Union, with nuclear warfare hanging in the balance, a

certain xenophobia took over, so that the rest of the world

was sometimes regarded as picturesque to visit but always

improvable if it would only Americanize. In the 1950s and

1960s, the civil rights movement and labor activism for migrant

workers put the theme of racial and class justice front

and center. When the controversy over the Vietnamese war

split the generations, the patriotism of protestors was often

questioned, partly because leftism from the mid-nineteenth

century on has indeed been programmatically internationalist.

Proletarian solidarity was premised by Marxism to cut

across national boundaries, even though the working class

from common observation has always been fervently patriotic.

In cultural terms, the 1960s were also permeated by

Asian influences, coming from Zen Buddhism, an interest of

the West Coast branch of the fifties Beat movement, and

then Hinduism as well.


Multiculturalism is in theory a noble cause that aims to

broaden perspective in the us, which because of its physical

position between two oceans can tend toward the smugly

isolationist. It is no coincidence that much of the primary

impetus toward multiculturalism began in California, because

of its Hispanic heritage and its pattern of immigration

from Mexico, Latin America, and the Pacific rim. What poisoned

the debate over educational reform, however, was that

so many of the proposals for multicultural change were explicitly

political, using a leftist frame of reference that polarized

the campuses. Shortcuts were resorted to to get quick

results in democratizing the curriculum: the number of texts

by dead white European males was reduced to make room

for those by women or people of color, sometimes without

due regard for whether the substitute texts, which were often

contemporary, had the same cultural weight or substance

as what they replaced.


Indeed, for some in this movement, questions of quality

were fundamentally elitist, having been created, it was alleged,

by a cabal of imperialist white males to perpetuate

their own power. The actual mechanics of canon-formation

over time were either unknown or ignored: in point of fact,

major writers and artists have rarely possessed or were significant

beneficiaries of power in the political sense; in most

cases (as in that of the embittered Dante) they were eccentrics

or social failures. Second, only sporadically, as in Victorian

England, can it be shown that major art was primarily a political

vehicle—and even then, it had little effect on the curriculum,

which was still based on the classics. When scrutinized

over a time-span of thousands of years, canon-formation, a

process always fluid and open to dispute, is more intimately

linked to artistic impact than to political ideology. We declare

something is important and assign it to the curriculum when

we find evidence of its influence on other artists. In other

words, the canon is really about artistic or intellectual fertility;

it’s the dynasty of works that have generated other

works. To return to my river metaphor, art is a cascade down

the centuries, like the cataracts that mark the changes of level

of the descending Nile.


The laudable mission of multiculturalism also unfortunately

got entangled with academic careerism. Job creation,

recruitment, and promotion became attached to multiculturalism.

Some established academics were so resistant to

change that as universities sought diversity in the student

body and curriculum, an add-on strategy was hastily adopted.

New programs and departments multiplied so that diversity

was achieved not by genuinely revising the curriculum but by

turning the campus into a crazy quilt of competitive fiefdoms.


Furthermore, the nascent multicultural programs were

more allied with campus administrators than with the older

professors with their classical erudition. A host of assistant

deanships were created nationwide whose positions and

budgets were wed to particular campus constituencies and

which therefore fostered divisiveness rather than reconciliation.

Over the past thirty years, American education at both

the primary and secondary levels has been deformed by a

steady expansion of bureaucracy that not only drains resources

and usurps prerogatives that belong to the faculty

but that sometimes encourages administrators to be more

committed to external public relations than to internal academic



In this first decade of the new millennium, I remain to be

persuaded that college students are graduating even from the

elite schools with deeper or broader knowledge. They are

certainly well tutored in sentiment—that is, in how to project

approved attitudes of liberal tolerance, though how well

these will survive the test of adult life remains to be seen.

Too much academic writing in multiculturalism, whether

about the Americas or the Indian subcontinent or the modern

Mideast, has been filtered through poststructuralism—

which is ironically just about as Eurocentric and elitist a

technique as can be imagined. Furthermore, too many proponents

of multiculturalism have adopted the social realist

or Stalinist view of art as an instrument of indoctrination,

deploying positive social messages as a prelude to political

action. However, on the other extreme, those most intellectually

prepared to give multiculturalism a scholarly system—

the professors of ancient history and classics—frequently did

not respond to the demand for change except as a challenge

to their survival. They set no counterproposal before the nation

and lost the opportunity to take control of the momentum

of reform.


The grand sequence of the classical tradition, which extends

in various strands through the Middle Ages and Renaissance

to the scientific Enlightenment and modern era, is

actually a master paradigm for how to structure an authentically

multicultural curriculum on a global scale. All students

abroad as well as in the us need to learn the general

contours of the world’s major artistic and cultural traditions.

These long channels of lineage can best be understood as

streams—mighty rivers that are fed by tributaries and that

are a confluence of mixed and varied material. The great

rivers of cultural tradition are nearly always powered by religion,

even when they slow down and spread out into the

secular delta of modern life.


Thus my premise in understanding art and culture is always

continuity. From Egyptian and Greek sculpture to

Hollywood movies and rock music, I believe in creative influence

over time. I categorically reject the view of culture as

disconnected fragments or as the breakage of meaning—an

insular fiction fostered by depressive intellectuals who lack

the long view and whose ability to weigh or negotiate historical

evidence is questionable. The modernist delusion of

fragmentation can be traced to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”

published in 1922 in the aftermath of the disaster of World

War i. Its use in the chic postmodernism of the closing

decades of the twentieth century descended from European

writers and intellectuals in crisis after World War ii. Lamentably,

this outdated and provincial point of view has been

given canonical status by those who evidently cannot see the

patterns in culture and who have imposed their own limitations

on hapless students.


Even in manifest destruction, I see construction or the possibility

of cultural recovery and transformation. A superb

example is a church in Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a

medieval church with a Renaissance facade. Built in the thirteenth

century in the Gothic style—the only one of its kind

in Rome—it sits on the foundations of an ancient Roman

temple to the virgin goddess Minerva. That in turn was built

over a sanctuary to the mother goddess Isis, whose cult had

spread from Egypt to Greece by the fourth century bc and

from there throughout the Hellenized Mediterranean. Isis

worship was very popular with the masses in ancient Rome,

though it was intermittently opposed by religious conservatives.

Everywhere in the rites of Isis the sacred waters of the

Nile were used; a cistern to store them has been excavated at

the remains of the Isis shrine in the buried city of Pompeii.


The passage in just this one building of Santa Maria sopra

Minerva from Isis to Minerva to Mary, who is both virgin

and mother, encapsulates the entire cultural history of the

West. Such examples of cultural overlaying can and should

be found for every major tradition in the world. In this age

of mass media, when students are swamped by the present,

it is a teacher’s obligation not to tear down or deconstruct

our artistic and intellectual heritage but to reveal the invisible

foundations or hidden roots of the present.


In 1665 an Egyptian obelisk, clearly belonging to the original

sanctuary of Isis, was dug up in the garden of the Dominican

monastery at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pope

Alexander vii asked Gianlorenzo Bernini, the genius of the

Italian Baroque, to design a pedestal for it so that the obelisk

could be displayed in the street in front of the church. Possibly

after consulting with the renowned Jesuit scholar,

Athanasius Kircher, who would publish a treatise on the hieroglyphics

of this obelisk in 1666, Bernini produced one of

his most charming works. Today the obelisk, carried on the

back of a muscular elephant beckoning toward passersby

with its trunk, remains one of the most beloved works of

public art in Rome.


When they were unearthed during the rebuilding and expansion

of the city of Rome during the Renaissance and afterward,

obelisks, four-sided pillars capped by a pyramid,

were interpreted as symbols of divine illumination. Like the

tendrilous Gothic spires of Northern European cathedrals

whose stone seems to dissolve in midair, obelisks carried the

eye and mind skyward, toward a realm of greater permanence.

In Baroque Rome they were usually crowned with a

bronze crucifix, signifying the triumph of Christianity over

pagan religion. In ancient Egypt too, obelisks, which were

hewn by virtuoso engineering in the quarry as single, fragile

blocks of stone, also signified a yearning for ultimate reality

as they soared toward the divine disc of the sun.


The obelisk, therefore, in its simple, clean, sharp-edged

geometry, can be seen to embody a long line or current of

idealism in the Western tradition that connects pagan with

Christian thought. It is precisely that idealism that I find

missing in contemporary higher education, which in its

laudable movement toward secularism—that is, freedom

from sectarian coercion or dogma—has ended up with a

chaotic, diffuse humanities curriculum that is too often simplistic

in content and spiritually empty, despite its claims to

be the agent of social good.


Many members of my 1960s generation followed the High

Romantic pattern of critiquing politics and rejecting organized

religion—both of which were viewed as forms of outmoded

masculine authority. But the sixties counterculture,

like Romanticism, retained a religious perspective and sense

of the sacred by honoring nature: hence the poet Percy

Bysshe Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford University for

writing a manifesto in defense of atheism, could write an ecstatic

ode to the highest mountain in Europe, “Mont Blanc,”

with its awesome spectacle of cold, brute power. American

Romantics like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman

explored religious traditions outside the West, specifically

Hinduism, which was assimilated into 1960s music as well as

the transcendental meditation movement. But the Romantic

comprehensiveness of sixties consciousness was almost immediately

lost by the 1970s, the hedonistic disco era.


Massive drug-taking in the sixties, notably psychedelics

used to gain visionary insights, became a substitute for serious

spiritual inquiry and took a great toll personally and

psychologically on some who, urged on by new-minted gurus

like Timothy Leary, chose to become dropouts from the

career system and public realm and thus were unable to effect

authentic and enduring change. But I respect those psychedelic

explorers of inner space who destroyed themselves

in a genuine quest for truth. On the other hand, I lament the

tragic waste, for these were the idealists of my generation,

the ones who should have been the real educational reformers

of our time.


The religious impulse and cosmic perspective of the sixties

shifted not into education but in diminished and sentimentalized

form into the New Age movement, which has become

a highly commercialized farrago of self-help therapies,

mystical lore, and sometimes quite beautiful, atmospheric

trance music, Asian or Celtic in mood. New Age, another

creation of the West Coast, is syncretistic in the way it fuses

Asian and European influences, but as an approach to life, it

is all-accepting and undemanding, suspending guilt and

judgment. It offers a psychology without conflict, and a subjective

ethics without challenge or moral responsibility.


Elements of New Age sensibility seem to have entered

American Catholicism, which in the 1950s was already moving

away from its déclassé ethnic roots and Protestantizing

itself through a startling drabness of church architecture and

décor. The folk songs, Protestant hymns, affable sermons,

and literal hand-holding in today’s suburban Catholic

churches illustrate mellow New Age principles of inclusion

and harmony and reinforce the casualness of the vernacular

Mass and the slackness of unpoetic contemporary translations

of Scripture. Priests, meanwhile, are now being trained

to be social workers; theology and learning per se are no

longer as heavily emphasized. The priest, with his public

performance of the mysterious Latin Mass, was once an embodiment

of learning for ordinary people. Latin, which I still

believe to be the basis of most strong writing in English, was

intrinsic to a priest’s official identity and gave churchgoers a

moving sense of historical continuity with classical antiquity,

when the Christian story began. The priest, in other words,

was an educator, just as university education began in the

Middle Ages as training for priests.


In the wake of the 1960s cultural revolution, organized religion

in America has clearly tempered its authoritarianism

and tried to make itself more user-friendly. But in this welcome

process, which posits the parish as a happy family, what

has been lost is the sense of theology as intellectual history,

complex and daunting. Jesuit colleges, following the mandate

of early Jesuit missionaries to learn native languages and custhe

toms, tended to be hospitable to the post-sixties movement

for multiculturalism. But I am not aware of Jesuit voices taking

a leading role on either side of the public debate over

poststructuralism, which seeped into American universities in

the 1970s and early 1980s and has in my view damaged the

humanities in ways that it will take a half century to repair.

Surely Jesuit professors, with their scholarly training and tradition

of disputation, could have been in the vanguard of engaging

poststructuralism in its own terms as a putative

philosophy and freeing nascent multiculturalism from its

grip. Certainly the response to the theory trend by the professoriat

at secular institutions was too slow and feeble, so by

the time the general alarm sounded, it was too late.


Nothing has been more deleterious than the common error

that poststructuralism is a product of 1960s leftism and

therefore an agent of progressive political change. This misconception

was made possible only because authentic American

radicals of the sixties rarely if ever entered or completed

graduate school in the humanities or made their way up the

academic ladder. Poststructuralism was two generations

older; it was a product of the school of Saussure, a system of

linguistic theory predating World War ii and subscribed to

by French intellectuals who were heavily influenced by the

pessimistic modernism of Samuel Beckett. The American sixties

believed in social reform, in individual identity, in emotional

intensity, and in nature; poststructuralism believes in

none of these things. It asserts that there are no “facts”; that

language constructs or mediates all reality, that political

power is created and sustained through language, and that,

conversely, an alteration in language will somehow produce

political change. Poststructuralism is simply a new version of

verbalism—the excessive preoccupation with words—that

has repeatedly plagued the history of Western education,

even in ancient Rome. The sixties cultural revolution, as energized

by mass media, was grounded in the sensory—and it

should have produced a massive reform of education in this

era of cutting-edge science and technology by moving the hu-

manities curriculum forcibly toward the arts. That leftist politics

can be synthesized with traditional erudition and passionate

respect for the arts is proved by Arnold Hauser’s

Marxist study, The Social History of Art, a magnificent magnum

opus in the tradition of German philology.


America is presently suffering from an effete, cynical

pseudo-intellectuality in the universities, a manic rotation of

superficial news cycles in the media, and a generalized hypochondria

in the professional middle class, as shown by its

preoccupation with stress-related ailments and disorders,

buffered by tranquilizers. From a distance, this affluent society,

with its avalanche of high-tech toys, must look as if it

can barely survive the anxieties of freedom. In a secular society

where commerce is king and where the fine arts have

never been deeply rooted, it is up to professional educators

to provide the sustaining material of culture. But when they

themselves cannot agree on what constitutes a basic body of

knowledge for the young, then education disintegrates and

the humanities are inevitably marginalized, disdained and ignored

by average Americans busy with their daily lives.


At the University of the Arts in 1990, I collaborated with

Lily Yeh, a professor of painting and art history and a social

activist born in China, to create an experimental course

called “East and West,” the notes for which were published

in my first essay collection in 1992. We sought to identify

the major themes in Western and Asian tradition that could

provide the foundation for a curriculum not just for American

but for global education. I certainly expected to see

more evidence over the past decade that college teachers understood

the urgent need to address the general public about

educational reform. But American humanities departments

have been amazingly stagnant in this period, demoralized in

some cases by factionalism or by financial pressure. Few

new ideas have emerged, and no rising major critics or scholars

are visible on the horizon. Bread-and-butter issues have

come to the fore, such as the long overdue recognition by the

profession of the outrageous exploitation of part-time teachthe

ers and graduate students.


Radical change would be needed for the universities to

shift to a truly global curriculum. But the Western classical

tradition would nevertheless retain centrality because of the

sheer massiveness of its documentation, as well as the unrivalled

interrelationship of its artistic genres. In my own experience

over thirty years as a teacher in a wide variety of

schools—including, when I was a struggling adjunct, adult

night classes at a helicopter factory in Connecticut—I have

found that archaeology captures students’ attention. They

are transfixed by material about the destruction of great civilizations.

Because they inhabit a superefficient world of

plastics and stainless steel, where the old and worn simply

disappears, they find particularly sobering images of the catastrophic

effects of time. The contemplation of ruins, in all

their decay and devastation, was basic to European education

in the eighteenth century. Engravings of the broken,

half-buried remnants of the Roman Forum, then an overgrown

pasture for herds of sheep and goats, provided a

melancholy object lesson on human vanity and mortality.


Archaeology is a fusion of the arts and sciences, of theoretical

speculation and engagement with the stubbornly

concrete material world. It is in the recovery, identification,

and conservation of objects from the past that the West has

distinguished itself. My proposed reform of education

would put the world’s major religious traditions at the center

of the curriculum and present them in an Old Historicist,

multi-tiered way as a combination of ritual, text,

artifact, and architecture. Through archaeology conjoined

with anthropology—and here I am deeply influenced by the

early twentieth-century Cambridge school of classical anthropology

—religion can be taught in a non-doctrinaire

way that expands and develops the student’s mind and

opens up the distant past without smothering it with contemporary

assumptions and political projects.


Occupying the center of Rome’s spacious Piazza Navona,

whose oval shape follows that of the ancient stadium of the

emperor Domitian, is another splendid monument by

Bernini, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, commissioned by

Pope Innocent x and built between 1648 and 1651. A mammoth

Egyptian obelisk, ringed at its base with papal insignia,

rests on the grotto of a hollow travertine mountain in

front of the church of Sant’Agnese. At the foot of the mountain

sit, gushing spouts of water, colossal sculptures of the

four great rivers of the world: the Danube, representing Europe;

the Ganges, representing Asia; Argentina’s Rio de la

Plata, representing the Americas; and the Nile, representing

Africa. Carved around the fountain are allegorical inscriptions

by that omnipresent Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher,

whose treatise on this recently unearthed obelisk was published

in the Holy Year 1650.


Bernini’s stunning design for the Nile sculpture seems to

me a great metaphor for culture in general and particularly

for European culture, which descends from the warring

tribes and empires of the ancient Near East. The Nile is depicted

as a burly, nude, adult man wrapping a shroud

around his head—signifying that the source of the Nile in

central Africa was still unknown. These pagan river gods

ringing a North African obelisk before a Catholic church

represent the mighty force of tradition feeding and irrigating

the present. But the Nile god’s masking shroud suggests that

all earthly knowledge is partial and contingent. This is no

discovery by modern theorists but a basic perception of most

major philosophers since Heracleitus, the pre-Socratic who

said you cannot step into the same river twice.


The Baroque era, in which St. Ignatius’ Society of Jesus

flourished, produced a public art that teaches without condescension,

that translates big ideas into passionate, theatrical,

accessible form. Counter-Reformation Baroque, in which religion

was turned into grand opera, has more in common with

Hollywood than with the wizened creeds of our current campuses.

Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, fusing pagan

and Christian and incorporating the entire known world, is

multiculturalism at its best. It presents culture as massive and

monumental yet at the same time in perpetual flux. It is a

perfect symbol for enlightened education, whose energies

must be constantly renewed by the interplay and confluence

of tradition and innovation.



A lecture delivered on 5 May 2001 at a conference, “Jesuit Humanism:

Faith, Justice, and Empiricism in the Liberal Arts,” at

Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California.