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Great Tradition

 The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being , an excerpt from Richard Gamble’s introduction.

Evelyn Waugh’s gently satirical Scott-King’s Modern Europe follows the declining career of a classics teacher at Granchester, a fictional English public school. Granchester is “entirely respectable” but in need of a bit of modernizing, at least in the opinion of its pragmatic headmaster, who is attuned to consumer demands. The story ends with a poignant conversation between Scott-King and the headmaster:

“You know,” [the headmaster] said, “we are starting this year with fifteen fewer classical specialists than we had last term?”

“I thought that would be about the number.”

“As you know I’m an old Greats man myself. I deplore it as much as you do. But what are we to do? Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ any more. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?”

“Oh yes,” said Scott-King. “I can and do.”

“I always say you are a much more important man here than I am. One couldn’t conceive of Granchester without Scott-King. But has it ever occurred to you that a time may come when there will be no more classical boys at all?”

“Oh yes. Often.”

“What I was going to suggest was—I wonder if you will consider taking some other subject as well as the classics? History, for example, preferably economic history?”

“No, headmaster.”

“But, you know, there may be something of a crisis ahead.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

“Then what do you intend to do?”

“If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”

“It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King.”

“There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.”

And there ends the story of Scott-King’s misadventures in the modern world. Any teacher who has endured a similar conversation sympathizes instinctively with poor Scott-King. His dignified but stubborn resistance to the wickedness of making students fit for the modern world speaks to the heart of teachers who, like Scott-King, take the long view.

Books on liberal learning may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreRead the complete introduction to The Great Tradition. Find the Robert Woods review of The Great Tradition on The Imaginative Conservative here.

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  1. This is a first class book and I enjoyed it. I spoke with the author (I met him at an ISI function) and said my only disappointment was that it did not have any essays by Gilbert Highet (who is referred to in the text). Gamble said he "loved Highet" but he was concentrating on classical and unusual material not easily found in print. Most of what Highet wrote is STILL IN PRINT which is amazing when one considers that few teacher colleges include him on their reading lists.

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