What Makes a Classic?

Jeffrey Brenzel: I’d like to give you five reasons, five rough and ready criteria for identifying a classic of literature or philosophy or politics.  Now no one or two of these criteria are going to be decisive, but I think if you put them all together they’re going to prove actually to be quite useful.

First, the work addresses permanent concerns about the human condition. From a philosophical perspective it has something to say about the way we should live. From a literary perspective, it has something to say about imagining the possibilities for how we could live and from a historical perspective it tells us how we have lived. So that’s mark number one of a classic.

Mark number two is that the work has been a game-changer.  It has created profound shifts in perspective and not only for its earliest readers, but for all the readers who came later as well.

Mark number three is that the work has stimulated or informed or influenced many other important works, whether directly or indirectly.  Mark number four is that many generations of the best readers and the most expert critics have rated the work highly, one of the best or most important of its kind, even if those experts and readers shared no other views than that and even if they violently disagreed with the work.

Mark number five is that the work usually requires a strenuous effort to engage and understand, but it also rewards the hard work strongly and in multiple fashions.  

In this selection from his Floating University lecture, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Essential Value of a Classic Education," Jeffrey Brenzel, Philosopher and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University develops five criteria for identifying what makes a "classic."

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Ashamed over my mental illness, I realized drawing might help me – and others – cope

Just before I turned 60, I discovered that sharing my story by drawing could be an effective way to both alleviate my symptoms and combat that stigma.

Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

I've lived much of my life with anxiety and depression, including the negative feelings – shame and self-doubt – that seduced me into believing the stigma around mental illness: that people knew I wasn't good enough; that they would avoid me because I was different or unstable; and that I had to find a way to make them like me.

Keep reading Show less

Sexual activity linked to higher cognitive function in older age

A joint study by two England universities explores the link between sex and cognitive function with some surprising differences in male and female outcomes in old age.

Image by Lightspring on Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A joint study by the universities of Coventry and Oxford in England has linked sexual activity with higher cognitive abilities in older age.
  • The results of this study suggest there are significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing/word recall in men. In women, however, there was a significant association between sexual activity in word recall alone - number sequencing was not impacted.
  • The differences in testosterone (the male sex hormone) and oxytocin (a predominantly female hormone) may factor into why the male cognitive level changes much more during sexual activity in older age.
Keep reading Show less

What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists are studying your Twitter slang to help AI

Mathematicians studied 100 billion tweets to help computer algorithms better understand our colloquial digital communication.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A group of mathematicians from the University of Vermont used Twitter to examine how young people intentionally stretch out words in text for digital communication.
  • Analyzing the language in roughly 100 billion tweets generated over eight years, the team developed two measurements to assess patterns in the tweets: balance and stretch.
  • The words people stretch are not arbitrary but rather have patterned distributions such as what part of the word is stretched or how much it stretches out.
Keep reading Show less