Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On the Dangers of Becoming Dead Men's Tombs

Though Milton's homage to Shakespeare (see: On Shakespeare) is well deserved, an assumption that would no doubt be defended by youth whose only exposure to The Bard came through the mouths of Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, but it brings to mind a danger inherent in education: universal reverence for past masters may encourage cultural serfdom, stifling creative and critical thinking in the present.

Again, I bear Milton and Shakespeare no disrespect. Frankly, I know neither of them so well as to contest their acclaim, and what I do know has lead me to reverence those names as well. Further, Milton and Shakespeare stand as examples of what a balanced education can produce. They didn't simply seek to recreate the past, but to reinvent it. What brings to mind the danger I referenced is the similarity between Milton and Christ's imagery:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness (Matt. 23:27).
What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones to labor of an age in piled stones... thou our fancy of itself bereaving, dost make us marble with too much conceiving, and so sepulchered in such pomp dost lie that kings for such a tomb would wish to die (On Shakespeare).


  1. Really good post. I think a lot of today's education (at least in grade school) is based more on memorizing and regurgitating facts (even when it comes to the more subjective arts like analyzing literature) than really learning and arriving at your own conclusions, and therein is the danger of the "cultural serfdom" that you talked about.

  2. AMEN!!
    Though I DO recognize Shakespeare's genius, it's hard for me to know if we study him so much because of THAT, or simply because he is a "classic author" and classics are automatically important.
    This reminds me a lot of Emerson's essay "American Scholar" because he emphasizes so much the importance of creating something for yourself rather than simply memorizing and studying dead scholars and calling that a useful education.

    1. I hope you recognize the irony of quoting a classic essay that students are made to read (weren't you?) to critique the idea of relying upon dead scholars (like either Shakespeare or Emerson).

  3. I really enjoyed your post and the poem itself. It's so true that our educations are primarily based on learning history, whether it be in novels, history textbooks, math formulas or science. Obviously we can't really study things from the future, but do we need to balance education with more writings from modern times or the present?