[A Short Preface: I first delivered the following essay as a keynote address on the occasion of the fourth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, in New York City, in the fall of 1999. It subsequently appeared in a number of Modern Age, the ISI quarterly. Some of the references are, in 2020, a bit dated, but nothing has changed essentially since the end of the last century – except that what was bad then has only gotten worse. I have rewritten the essay a bit, but have made no attempt to update the references in sections III and IV.]
This essay attempts to set out the basic or better yet the deep justification of the traditional curriculum. That phrase, “the traditional curriculum” means, of course, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and select items from modern and national literatures. The list in Harold Bloom’s study of The Western Canon (1997) is perfectly acceptable. “The traditional curriculum,” it must be added, also implies the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind. It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a recent development in the half a million years or so of incontestable human presence. The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later and rather more pronouncedly, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia. Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done these paragraphs shall attempt to indicate. That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western Tradition is not a thought that most people are used to thinking. Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABCs in just that light. Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element, speech, of human experience and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective. The confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of the confrontation with what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait, language. One begins, then, at the beginning.