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Going Off-Book is Key to Liberal Education During Cultural Decline

Reading and citing the classics as some kind of “script” for western civilization sells them short.

Many Hollywood stars, even those at the top of their profession, shy away from Broadway. Bruce Willis and Al Pacino, for example, both tried to debut their screen acting skills on the stage in 2015, but ended up being panned by critics.

Consensus was that the leading men struggled to memorize a full script all at once—so they came across as distracted or tonally confused. Pacino even had to read his lines from a series of strategically placed teleprompters that forced him to stand awkwardly in the same places on stage.

Going off-book, theater slang for rehearsing without reading a script, allows actors to practice rudiments of their craft like body positions and eye contact, to choreograph, and to build emotional chemistry with other actors. Even more importantly, it offers the freedom of improvisation that can turn a good script into a great play.

The drama of politics has scripts as well—and even the famous players often do no more than read their character’s lines. David Koch, whose billions have sponsored innumerable political campaigns and think tanks, once called politicians “actors playing out a script—that we write.” Precious few politicians dare improvise.

In the internet age, conformist parrotry has become much more common and easier to spot, especially on broadcast news. Earlier this year, for example, independent journalist Michael Tracey compiled a list of “robotically similar” public statements from a long list of elite figures and institutions. Teen climate activist and “thought leader” Greta Thunberg accidentally tweeted the instructions from her handler on what opinion she should promote regarding India’s farmer protests. Does anyone in the chattering class have their own ideas?

Even the scriptwriters themselves—the journalists, academics, and billionaires—are usually just mouthing the oversimplified stories and meme concepts they uncritically adopted as impressionable students. To quote the early 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Conservatives commonly claim that “reading old books” can protect our minds and our politics from the voices in the air. But this is demonstrably false. There are many public figures who read the classics but nevertheless get enslaved by modern ideology. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the U.K. can spontaneously quote a hundred lines from The Iliad—in ancient Greek—but has still dishonored himself before the modern-day Agamemnon of globalist liberalism and pandemic alarmism. Observing BoJo, one would almost be tempted to agree with the clueless twenty-something who runs @TwitterBooks: “Reading the classics doesn’t make you a better person.”

Of course, that’s not quite right: the classics are the greatest teachers, and conservatives’ reflex to canonize them has done immeasurable good. If nothing else, leftist attacks on the great books plainly demonstrate their value. But reading them slavishly—inside the boundaries of their fashionable modern interpreters—can leave the reader just as trapped as the chattering news anchors or Keynes’ “madmen in authority.” Going off-book still matters, even when the book is one of the great ones.

It is difficult to read and understand classics of any era without the baggage of academics and interpreters. Ancient epics appear in translation with notes that layer on cultural biases. Modern retellings, movies, and cultural tropes quietly taint the classics with marketing, hidden agendas, or the hangups of modern-day Thomas Bowdlers. Sensing the power of great authors past, “custodians” of the classics now try to appropriate, subvert, and obfuscate their legacy.

It’s counterproductive to read Plato’s Republic and nod while your professor explains that the father of philosophy opposed the nuclear family. It’s dis-educational to learn how the wartime novels of NKVD asset Ernest Hemingway were inspired by his great love for Spain. It’s worse than worthless to reduce Virgil’s Aeneid to Dido’s fight against the patriarchy. By all means, read Plato, Hemingway, and Virgil, but don’t let the “script-writers” exploit their authority to cramp your intellect.

To enrich your readings of the great books, you must read them with the mind of a creator, a leader—and claim them as your own heritage, if indeed they are. Then you can read them as you would the journals and letters of your family ancestors, asking all-important questions like “What will I now do with this idea?” and “How can I continue their legacy?” You can respect them but still feel free to critique them.

A good litmus test for whether you’re doing this correctly: time travel. If the author you’re reading could journey to 2021 and assess your ideas and actions, what would he say? Would he diagnose your mind as a casualty of contemporary fashion, or shake hands with a fellow free-thinker? Whether he’d agree or disagree with your views is irrelevant.

Going off-book requires more reading of the classics, not less. But it also requires rebellion and fortitude to insult the custodians and question their narratives. Sacred though the classics may be to cultured minds, those minds must never allow arts and letters to become bludgeons that enforce lies.

Andrew Cuff writes on conservative issues and policy reform from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @AndrewJCuff.