Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960

By Christopher Stray | Go to book overview

8
Redefining the Classical: Varieties of Hellenism
and the Rise of Discipline

This chapter deals with the ideological reformulations produced in response to the changes and challenges described in the last three chapters. Two general points need to be made about the reworking of such idealistic formulations. The first is that the challenges which provoked them were very often made within social and institutional arenas, and were in fact challenges to specific institutional variants of classics. Reformulated notions of the classical were often the products of situated strategies which were linked not only to the symbolic field and its conflicts and competition, but also to the defence of jobs, hierarchies, and institutional status; in short, to social interests. The second point is a related one: that 'ideal' formulations—cultural absolutes detached from the everyday world of action and interest—are in fact often the product of precisely such action and interest. The detachment of the absolute reflects the detached status of absolutism. Thus, as we have seen already, the 'free play of the critical intellect' advocated by Arnold became, in the hands of the humanistic civil servants of the later Victorian decades, a crucial legitimating device for the dominance of their own Oxbridge culture over the 'crabbed routine' of municipal officialdom. This 'freedom' went with a generalizing authority which had very specific social and institutional roots.

The result of the challenges described in previous chapters was that the authority of classics as an exemplar transcending change and relativity was severely eroded. Its claims to permanent value were eroded both by the brute fact of rapid and widespread social and cultural change, and by its having itself undergone change. Its claims to generality were eroded by the advance of specialization—both in the curricular field at large, and within classics itself. The defensive reformulations of its nature and claims to authority discussed below follow one or the other of two strategic paths: assertion and accommodation.1

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1
This distinction is also central to the corpus of formulations discussed by Fritz Ringer in Fields of Knowledge:French Academic Culture in Comparative Perspective, 1890-1920 ( Cambridge: CUP, 1992). Ringer maps these fields in a way which offers fruitful comparisons

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