In 1957, a young Ted Turner told his father, billboard magnate Robert Turner, that he was planning to major in classics at Brown university. Turner Sr. was less than pleased.
In a letter to his son (found at the excellent Letters of Note site) Robert Turner declared himself “appalled, even horrified” at his son’s decision. Interestingly, he does not bring up what many classicists would regard as the traditional argument against a classics degree, namely that it does not lead to a good career. Turner Sr. expected his son to inherit his billboard business, after all.
Instead, Robert Turner attacks Classics with what is usually used as an argument for it: the enrichment of one’s cultural background:
“I suppose that I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the purpose of an education is to enable one to develop a community of interest with his fellow men, to learn to know them, and to learn how to get along with them.”
Classics, however, will allow young Ted to interact only with “an isolated few impractical dreamers, and a select group of college professors.”
To the argument that classics might help one understand modern literature, and thus modern people, Robert answers “It is not necessary for you to know how to make a gun in order to know how to use it.” (1)
At this point, Robert returns to more well-trodden ground, accusing his son of elitism:
“I suppose everybody has to be a snob of some sort, and I suppose you will feel that you are distinguishing yourself from the herd by becoming a Classical snob.”
The equation of classics and snobbery is too deeply ingrained for Robert to believe that any classicist could possibly converse with a layman in anything but the most condescending tones:
“I can see you drifting into a bar, belting down a few, turning around to the guy on the stool next to you—a contemporary billboard baron form Podunk, Iowa—and saying, “Well, what do you think about old Leonidas?” Your friend, the billboard baron, will turn to you and say, “Leonidas who?” You will turn to him and say, “Why Leonidas, the prominent Greek of the Twelfth Century.” (1) He will, in turn, say to you, “Well, who in the hell was he?” You will say, “Oh, you don’t know about Leonidas?” and dismiss him, and not discuss anything else with him the rest of the evening.”
What’s interesting is that Robert sees Ted’s educational choices purely as social tactics. That he is taking classics because it personally interests him, and because learning about it makes him happy, genuinely does not seem to occur to him.
Robert confesses that he has himself read a bit of Plato and Aristotle, “and was interested to learn that the old bastards had minds which worked very similarly to the way our minds work today. I was amazed that they had so much time for deliberating and thinking, and was interested in the kind of civilization that would permit such useless deliberation.”
He sums up his foray into the classics with an (unintentionally?) hilarious sentence: “Then I got to thinking that it wasn’t so amazing—after all they thought like we did because my Hereford cows today are very similar to those ten or twenty generations ago.”
My favourite passage, however, is the short sentence in which Robert glumly imagines introducing Ted to his friends with “This is my son. He speaks Greek.”
Ted was furious with his father, and had the letter published in the campus magazine in revenge. Alas, some of Robert Turner’s nagging seems to have stuck. Ted later switched his major to Economics, and was then expelled for being found to have had a girl in his room (3). He did indeed inherit his father’s business, and parlayed it into the media empire he now runs.
I wonder if he ever reads classics these days.
(1) I would have thought that knowing how a gun is made would actually help you use it better–how else would you know what to do if it jams?
(2) In what Robert Turner would regard as incredible snobbery, I can’t help but point out that Leonidas was, in fact, early Fifth Century BC.