The literature we have lost

I was comparing the 1918 and 1958 editions of the first volume of the Collier Junior Classics, and one of the first things I noted was that the Introduction by Harvard University President Charles Eliot had been replaced with one by William Neilson, the former President of Smith College. I strongly suspect the following two paragraphs will suffice to explain why it was replaced:

The right selection of reading matter for children is obviously of high importance.  Some of the mythologies, Old Testament stories, fairy tales, and historical romances, on which earlier generations were accustomed to feed the childish mind, contain a great deal that is barbarous, perverse, or cruel; and to this infiltration into children’s minds, generation after generation, of immoral, cruel, or foolish ideas is probably to be attributed in part the slow ethical progress of the race.  The commonest justification of this thoughtless practice is that children do not apprehend the evil in the bad mental pictures with which we foolishly supply them; but what should we think of a mother who gave her children dirty milk or porridge, on the theory that the children would not assimilate the dirt?  Should we be less careful about mental and moral food materials?  The Junior Classics have been selected with this principle in mind, without losing sight of the fact that every developing human being needs to have a vision of the rough and thorny road over which the human race has been slowly advancing during thousands of years.

Whoever has committed to memory in childhood such Bible extracts as Genesis i, the Ten Commandments, Psalm xxiii, Matthew v, 8-12, The Lord’s Prayer, and I Corinthians xiii, such English prose as Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech, Bacon’s “Essay on Truth,” and such poems as Bryant’s “Waterfowl,” Addison’s “Divine Ode,” Milton’s Sonnet on his Blindness, Wotton’s “How happy is he born or taught,” Emerson’s “Rhodora,” Holmes’s “Chambered Nautilus,” and Gray’s Elegy, and has stamped them on his brain by frequent repetition, will have set up in his mind high standards of noble thought and feeling, true patriotism, and pure religion.  He will also have laid in an invaluable store of good English.

What has happened to the former “Junior Classics” in the last 100 years is both a prelude and a microcosm of what has happened to the West as a whole. It’s something that can be seen in everything from the transition of blasphemy laws to hate speech laws and the musical descent from “The Hallelujah Chorus” to “Christmas in Hollis”. First, the Christian influence was pushed to the side, then it was removed and replaced with a focus on secular aesthetics, then the aesthetics were abandoned and the original purpose of the institution was entirely lost.


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