Matthew Stewart writes for the Martin Center about an effort to counteract a disturbing trend in higher education.
Alan Jacobs’ new book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, is a coaxing argument to read “old books that come from strange times.” Readers of his previous works The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and How to Think will not be surprised that Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor University, brings intellectual heft to the self-help genre.
Jacobs focuses on why we ought to pay attention to old books. There is no surprise in learning that such reading makes us deeper, fuller persons, and more humble. Ex post facto moralizing comes easily; working to see things through the eyes of those who lived before us, to understand the confines and dilemmas that they faced, to acknowledge their inability to foresee all consequences—this takes patience, effort, and good will. Reading old books develops “personal density” and provides “a balm for agitated souls.”
The book’s timeliness is without question. The past is currently under siege. Reading lists at universities are undergoing another round of scrutiny primarily trained on old texts. Freshman common readings are almost always new books chosen for their immediate relevance. The default position of too many students toward old books is suspicious, even dismissive, though studies continue to find students to be worryingly unacquainted with the history that produced these books.
What Jacobs does not confront directly, however, is the threat posed by a progressive ideology that constantly devalues the past. What holds sway in the academy today is a rejection of the old, with little desire to preserve much of the past.
Media sources are increasingly appending content warnings to older movies, alerting the viewer to the fact that the movies contain—surprise!—material, speech, and attitudes that are not in perfect alignment with 2020.