A survey of 1,164 public school teachers released Tuesday grabbed headlines with a surprise finding: Only 24 percent of the teachers regard teaching "classic works from such writers as Shakespeare and Plato" as "absolutely essential." This finding is disconcerting, and the poll's other results suggest why more than curricular reform is needed.
The poll, commissioned by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research firm in New York, appears reliable. It found that education in the classics was considered "absolutely essential" by fewer teachers than were 13 other educational goals, including "basic reading, writing and math skills," and "American history and American geography."
The worthiness of these items does not explain the relative disinterest in literary and philosophical classics. Such works were integral to the founding of the American Republic. Revolutionary leaders referred often to classic writers of the European Enlightenment and of ancient Greece and Rome. Colonial writings are peppered with quotes from poets like Virgil and Shakespeare.
Thus, in 1774, New England lawyer Josiah Quincy Jr. willed his son, "when he shall arrive to the age of fifteen years, Algernon Sidney's works, John Locke's works, Lord Bacon's works, Gordon's Tacitus, and Cato's Letters. May the spirit of liberty rest upon him!" Inheriting the spirit of liberty - and understanding "American history and American geography" - is harder without knowing the classics.
Such literature also helps develop the "curiosity and love of learning," and "values such as honesty and tolerance of others" judged absolutely essential by more than three quarters of the teachers. True, the classics themselves are often flawed. But they remain classics precisely because they incorporate so much of our society's inherited wisdom and moral foundations. . . . .