Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
-T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Over the summer I wrote about intellectual tradition for VIRTUE Magazine, a publication of the Great Hearts Institute, an association of so-called classical educators. I defended the view that the practice of carefully and sympathetically reading texts – not least the ‘Great Books’ favored by the model of classical education – invites us into both conversation and community with the other readers of these texts across time and space. (My own definition of ‘Great Books’ is simply: those texts that are capable of inspiring such communities across wide differences of context.) My goal was to show that tradition is not a purely reactionary notion, as if these texts were wisdom stored up in a dragon’s hoard of culture.
More generally, I think we should regard humanistic education as an activity, one by which we animate texts with our concerns and are thereby open to transformation by them. We will fail to engage in this activity whether we treat these texts as a storehouse of wisdom or (as is increasingly common) as a record of old and morally reprehensible ideas by old and morally reprehensible people.
The occasional of writing this essay was my embarking again on teaching in Columbia’s Core Curriculum, specifically in the Literature Humanities sequence that takes the students from Homer to the 20th century at breakneck pace, largely via a tour of pre-modern European epic poetry and modern European novels. While deeply sympathetic to this type of training, which I myself received as an undergraduate in the Plan II Honors program at the University of Texas and which I shared in the teaching of at the University of Chicago, I confess to remaining ambivalent about the Core in other respects.
The tradition represented by the Core itself – a hundred-year old endeavor, once widely imitated but now a rather peculiar practice – is one that our students tend to be both intrigued and puzzled by. When a serious research university requires of its undergraduates a fairly rigorous course of shared study, they tend to listen, at least up to a point. But when they come to our campus, they encounter a bewildering array of justifications for the practice – from the ability to make cocktail party conversation in the rarefied environments they hope (and can reasonably expect) to join after they graduate to an adequate preparation for citizenship. I have already written about my skepticism about such instrumental justifications for liberal education in Line of Beauty, so I will not repeat those arguments here. Instead, I would like to consider the special value of entering into conversations like the one that I take this tradition to represent.
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So much of what we do in our lives is limited to the here and now. Beyond the obviously mundane activities of sustaining ourselves, there are great goods whose significance lies largely or entirely in the present moment, from spending time in conversation with our loved ones to contemplating the beauty of the natural world, . Of course, these activities may also be entangled in larger courses of action. Intimate conversations, even those anchored in a moment, sustain the relationships that help define our lives; any given course of contemplation may help us cultivate habits of attention or powers of discernment. Still, in the typical case, the significance of these activities reaches a limit in the boundaries of our individual lives.
Though we may scarcely notice it, cultural activities are of a different kind. Whether we are playing or watching a sport, performing or listening to music, writing or reading literature, we engage in cultural activities in the shadow of all those who have come before us, those from whom we learned how to engage in these activities, and those in turn who taught them, and so on.
Cultural activities are essentially dialogic: that is, even if they are not directly communicative, they are sustained in the way that conversations are: they are passed on together with habits of ‘listening’ (receptivity) and ‘speaking’ (spontaneity); they are open to engagement and modification.
When we engage in such activities, we are intertwined with the past, not merely as the past, but as a living heritage. That is one half of the substance of what is called tradition. The other half is the future, those to whom we will pass on an appreciation of these activities, the skills to engage in them, witness to what they have been, hope for what they might become.
Debates over the value of studying canonical texts often illicitly assume that in studying them we are merely receptive, subject to influence and authority. But if I am right that, in reading such texts carefully, we instead give them life as part of an ongoing conversation, then we must think of ourselves as (in part) active in relation to inherited tradition. What must be fostered in students is not only attention and respect (and it is a great task to foster these qualities, to be sure!), but also courage, the courage to say what they think, to make new arguments, to draw connections to their own lives and the lives of those they know, to make these texts matter.
When we think only of the authors and originators of these texts, a sense of their real or assigned authority tends to loom large. But tradition is a smaller thing, more fragile and more beautiful. In my own classrooms, it is best represented in my own person. I am just a few years older than my students and hardly wiser, but I bear witness to a commitment, of a significant span of my life and portion of my attention, to the value of the texts that are, for a time, our shared concern.
That is what teachers, at their best, can do. As we might learn from Plato’s Symposium, a text we read a few weeks back in Literature Humanities, a teacher is not a vessel of understanding, but a beacon of love.
It is a striking features of the lives of many people that I know that they do not regularly spend time with those who are much younger or much older than they are, unless they are related to them. That is one of the ways that modern life tends to limit the force of the traditions that, in truth, sustain us.
I feel lucky that I have spent nearly every Thursday night for the past five years – apart from a brief pandemic hiatus – in the company of about a dozen other people, ranging in age from a little younger than me to their 80s, varying likewise in occupation and in many other respects, but united by our love for the polyphonic sacred music of the Renaissance. The traditions that most of all shape our time together do not derive from five centuries of performance practice, however. Rather, they are the traditions of this group, this choir, that got its start fifty years ago, here in New York. John, who started the group in 1973, still directs it, and several members have sung with the group for over forty years.
One of the traditions that I love the most is our custom of staying after the end of the formal rehearsal to sing ‘oldies’, pieces from the vast catalog of music that John has typeset in his uniquely useful editions for our performances over the years. Much of this music remains unfamiliar to me, so it is a wonderful opportunity to extend my knowledge of the composers and their repertoire. But it is also a chance for members of the group to share our tastes and our memories. I favor the English composers, Byrd, Tallis, Fayrfax, Browne. Others have shown me what is wonderful in Obrecht and Festa, Willaert and Compère.
In my first years in the group, one of our number, Janet, joyfully took on the task of choosing pieces for us to sing, as she had for some time. Janet knew the music and she knew what people liked to sing. It was one of the ways I learned who she was, watching her march from the cabinets in the back of the loft to the group, assembled around John’s kitchen island, which is always laden with snacks and wine.
When Janet died – of cancer – in the early months of the pandemic, I felt a sharp sense of loss. We were all wondering when we would again gather round John’s kitchen island, indoors, safe, as we used to do, as we met to talk on Zoom during our usual rehearsal time. Though I hadn’t known Janet that long or that well, still I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without her.
We found out, eventually.
I can’t remember if it was the first week, when we stayed after rehearsal, or sometime thereafter, but I started to go to the filing cabinets myself, to look for music – perhaps even the Lamentations of Robert White that Janet loved and that I loved, too – and brought something back. We sang the piece, no doubt unsteadily and inexpertly. And afterward, when I walked back toward the cabinets, what had been Janet’s role became mine. I don’t know the music as well, nor is my taste as cultivated as hers was. But the tradition of supplying music for us to sing, reasonably appropriate for the forces we have and sightreadable-with-some-effort, has fallen to me ever since, a tradition that is considerably smaller than the grander and more austere one that sustains the work of White and the other composers of his time.
Here, I think, is the loveliness of tradition – and the grace it can offer us, bound as we are by our own concerns in the urgency of the here and now.