There is a glorious reformation happening right now in education called Classical and Christian Education. As a teacher in a Classical and Christian school, I am thankful to be a part of this important work. But at the same time, I see temptations that the movement is prone to. One of those dangers is what I would call reverse chronological snobbery. C.S. Lewis (whom I will talk about in a moment) coined the term chronological snobbery and he used it to talk about the fallacious argument which claims that something from an earlier time (e.g. philosophy, literature, etc) is inherently worse than that of the present, simply because it is from the past. There is also an inverse version of this fallacy (some would call it by the same name) which would claim that something from the past (e.g. philosophy, literature, etc) is inherently better than that of the present, simple because it is from the past. Both claims are incredibly dangerous but it is this second error that is particularly tempting to Classical and Christian schools. This error is tempting because the movement has purposefully shifted its gaze back to the past and is trying to bring the best of the past forward. The difficulty lies then in recovering the best of the past without bringing the worst along with it.
In a wonderful essay by C.S. Lewis “On Reading Old Books,” he argues that we need to read old books because they can help us correct mistakes in the thinking of the modern era. We can see things more clearly in older thinkers because they are further away from us. One of the difficulties of our age is that we live in it. It is like we are standing in a forest and trying to see which parts of the forest are good and which parts are dead and dying. Inside the forest, we can see individual trees but it is almost impossible to see large sections of the forest. But if we were out of the forest and looking at it from a distance, it becomes much easier. Distance gives us perspective.
At one point in the essay, Lewis offers a poetic argument for reading these old works: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” This is a wonderful and persuasive image that he employs but it is incredibly easy to overemphasize the palliative nature of these old works. The sea breeze of the centuries is not always so clean.