Suzanne Fields

One wonderful book of summer reading that's good for the cold, gray days ahead is "A Literary Education" by Joseph Epstein, a collection of essays for adults eager for their children to get a literary education and to avoid joining an endangered species.

His essays span a half-century of the thought of an educated man who studied English literature at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, who considers the changes in education over the past 50 years as changes in the wrong direction. He describes the kinds of ideas he wanted his students to take away from the books he taught at Northwestern University for more than 30 years, "from Charles Dickens, the importance of friendship, loyalty and kindness in a hard world; from Joseph Conrad, the central place of fulfilling one's duty in a life dominated by spiritual solitude; from Willa Cather, the dignity that patient suffering and resignation can bring; from Tolstoy, the divinity that the most ordinary moments can provide -- kissing a child in her bed goodnight, working in a field, greeting a son returned home from war." He goes on, but you get the idea.

He's a man of his time and above his time, a thoughtful writer in a digital-oriented world of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, where ideas shrink to spontaneous exchanges of disjointed messaging.

Those who brave a major in literature today bear the burden of working through narrow political ideas and arcane critical theories based on gender, race and class. This is especially true at the elite universities. But that's not the only reason the study of literature has fallen on hard times.

The liberal arts were once the classes that sustained the soul in harmony with the utilitarian subjects. They must be required study lest they be passed over. The new technology may alter the way students learn, think and behave; college recruiters emphasize creature comforts, luxurious dorms, gyms, swimming pools and athletic fields. Good things, to be sure, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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