Homer. Dante. Cervantes.These names and hundreds more dazzled me in gold from the ornately painted walls and ceiling of a soaring chamber. With my eyes (and untrained neck) straining to behold such sublime beauty, I wandered in a daze from corridor to scintillating corridor. Thousands of years of knowledge — painted, inscribed and tiled — passed before my fervent gaze.
The only other time I had visited the Library of Congress was six years ago on a high school field trip, before I’d read more than a couple of titles in the Western canon or taken an interest in academic Classics. Although I marveled at the architecture, my literary inexperience prevented me from being truly impressed with the meaning of the room. But during this past break, while touring the landmark sites of D.C., I was utterly astounded by the sheer breadth of knowledge contained within the myriad names I recognized in the Library of Congress. Written on these walls was an incredible history of epistemic striving, of a purest passion for learning that spanned all disciplines, all cultures, all eras.
To me, the room presents a unified vision of the quintessential American education. Timeless yet protean, diverse yet patriotic, it illuminates the fundamental spirit of inquiry which runs equally through science, art and literature. Every discipline imaginable, from chemistry to political theory, from lyric poetry to masonry, finds a place of honor on these walls. And the great names of each field hail from a vast panoply of cultures: American, French, British, Spanish, German, Chinese, Roman, Greek. Complementary and competing strands of thought are interwoven into a harmonious fabric.
The ideal American education is, in essence, a library. The “canon” contains works that are meant to be timelessly thought-provoking and valuable, collectively reflecting upon and informing one another. It eschews both the cut-and-dry standardization of the modern public American education and the conception of the “great books” curriculum as an esoteric, exclusive reading list. It synthesizes the wisdom of all cultures and reaches a point of convergence between the ideas of the classic texts and the identities of its readership.
And who should be privy to such an education? Perhaps an answer lies in the facade of the Library of Congress, encircled by 33 “ethnological heads” representing ethnicities from Polynesian to Korean to Modern Greek. We cannot ignore that the classification of the heads reflects an outdated conception of race and an era of rising European imperialism. At the same time, the balanced representation and placement acknowledge the multicultural nature of all contributions to human knowledge. All these voices enhance and amplify the living history of knowledge — a fundamentally American education for a fundamentally American people.
Certainly, it would be all too easy to play Directed Studies bingo in the Library of Congress. But to fixate on that handful of names would come at the price of neglecting the rest of the countless contributors that are honored. More importantly, it would disrespect a vibrant cross-cultural conversation that far precedes modern demands for “literary decolonization.” This reminder of the enduring vitality of these works is especially prescient at a time of uncertainty about the politics of the canon.
It is dangerous to pay lip service to the idea that the classical canon is irredeemably resistant to diversity. When those who are misguided and unlearned champion that claim, we should challenge it by investigating the canon ourselves, instead of acquiescing and surrendering those texts to a self-fulfilling prophecy of justifying Western imperialism. Rather than wholesale abolishing the study of English poets, we should permit them a place and a context in the shelves of our own personal, ever-expanding libraries.
At the Library of Congress, I watched a Chinese girl of about 8 point to a Latin quote in a mosaic and ask her father excitedly, “Daddy, is that Plato?” It was Horace, in fact, but nevertheless a sense of humbling awe welled up in me. There is hope, indeed, if curiosity and affinity for a cross-cultural education can blossom in young people of all identities.
Hopefully, she will return often to the Library of Congress in the future, as I would like to, in order to “read” more of the room with each new visit. Although I vehemently disagree with Thomas Carlyle that history is forged by great, elite men, I still find truth in another of his maxims, written above a window in the Library: “The true university of these days is a collection of books.”
After all, the heroine of my story has always been a woman of letters.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .