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Anthony Esolen on Common Core, Dante, and more

We’ve known Dr. Anthony Esolen for quite some time, since he spoke at our 2008 conference in Houston, Texas. Noted author of 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith, and translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dr. Esolen has long been a committed defender of the classics and of classical education. And in recent months he has turned his attention to the new Common Core standards which have quickly become so controversial and of which he vehemently disapproves.

Dr. Esolen was kind enough to take part in our Words of Wisdom interview series to explain why he believes Common Core is such a mistake and why Dante deserves our attention.

You have been fairly outspoken in your opposition of the new common core standards. In your opinion, what is their worst feature?

The worst feature of the Common Core is its anti-humanistic, utilitarian approach to education. It mistakes what a child is and what a human being is for. That is why it has no use for poetry, and why it boils the study of literature down to the scrambling up of some marketable “skill,” and why, in more than 200 pages of blood-clotting verbiage, their promoters use the word “beauty” only once, tangentially, and why the standards pay NO attention whatsoever to the need to impart to students a knowledge of their literary heritage, and why it never occurs to them that you don’t read good books to learn about what literary artists do, but that you learn about literary art so that you can read more good books and learn more from them. It is as if Thomas Gradgrind had gotten hold of the humanities and turned them into factory robotics.

What should classical educators do to combat Common Core?

IGNORE THEM ALTOGETHER. REJECT THEM ROOT AND BRANCH. SEE WHAT THEY ARE DOING, THEN GO AND DO PRECISELY THE OPPOSITE — which is what you will already have been doing, if you are taking a classical approach to education.

On a separate: you are a noted translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a trilogy which many classical educators teach in their schools or homes. What, in your opinion, makes Dante so fantastic?

There is no human concern that does not find its way into Dante’s poem. He is a consummate artist, not only of the individual line, but of the tercet, the speech, the episode, the canto, the set of cantos, the canticle, and the whole Comedy. Everything is a masterpiece in itself, in a constellation of other masterpieces, making up the entire glorious work of art. He is comprehensive in his learning, yet deeply and tenderly and sometimes fiercely human in his affections. He can summon up an unforgettable personality in just five or six lines (e. g., La Pia in Purgatory 5). I like what Eliot has to say: Shakespeare and Dante divide the world between them; there is no third.

When teaching the Divine Comedy, where should teachers start?

At the beginning! Without preparation.

You are also a college professor. In what ways is our current educational climate failing to prepare our students for higher education?

Pretty much in every conceivable way. I’ve begun to notice that some of my freshmen — usually from private or Catholic schools — have actually read Virgil, Dante, and so forth. But I’ve also begun to notice that most of the rest, and they are in the majority, and they include even some students who have gone to a Catholic high school, do not even recognize the NAMES of the greatest writers in English and in the western world. Who’s Milton? They’ve never heard of him.

They have also — the overwhelming majority — never learned how to parse a sentence. They know no grammar, unless they have studied Latin, Greek, or German. They know very little history, most of that having been gobbled up by Current Events. Much of the history that they do “know” is false . . .

What are you reading now?

Just finished reading Eugenio Corti’s The Red Horse, an enormous Catholic novel about World War 2 . . .

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