When Jefferson Davis was a boy, he told his father that he did not wish to go to school. The Yankee schoolmaster, although a kindly man, demanded a great deal of memory work and threatened to punish young Jeff for his failure. His father took the declaration in stride and calmly explained to his son, “Of course it is for you to elect whether you will work with head or hands; my son could not be an idler. I want more cotton-pickers and will give you work.”
Recalling the incident later in life, President Davis observed that “the heat of the sun and the physical labor, in conjunction with the implied equality with the other cotton-pickers, convinced me that school was the lesser evil.”
The elder Davis, far from being a scholar, was a frontiersman and a soldier in the Revolution, but he had come up in the world far enough that his eldest son, Joseph, was able to study law and make his mark in the world. Joseph Davis was one of the men who drafted Mississippi’s constitution. It was partly Joe’s doing that young Jefferson was given so many opportunities for study—with the Dominicans in Kentucky, at the Wilkinson County Academy, at Transylvania University (which Felicity Allen, in her magisterial biography, correctly describes as “the finest college west of the Appalachians”), before going on to West Point.
The father’s lesson was clear to everyone, though it is likely to be misunderstood today, when education has been reduced to vocational training. Samuel Davis could read and write, and was viewed by his neighbors as a man of some culture, but he had little schooling and did not regard college as a route to a career. He had made his way in the world by means of hard work and intelligent management, but if his son wished to enjoy the fruits of his father’s modest success, he would need to have the education expected of the rich planters and professional men who led the state and governed the nation. This was not professional training or a technical education in any sense. A gentleman in Mississippi or Connecticut was supposed to be familiar with the English classics, display some knowledge of history, have sufficient mastery of mathematics to manage his business. He would have the Scriptures on the tip of his tongue, but above all he would know Latin—and preferably some Greek. Since before the days of Cicero and Caesar, a man’s learning (in Western Europe, at least) had been measured by his mastery of Latin.
Davis himself knew the value of his Latin; not only was it an indispensable tool for learning Romance languages and deeply implicated in the etymology of English, “but the argument for its study most conclusive with me is that it is the best exercise for the mind which a small boy is capable of.” As a war hero (in the Mexican War) and statesmen, Jefferson Davis put his erudition and discipline to public use, but, as admirable as he was, the Confederacy’s only president was no eccentric genius but only an exemplary representative of a classically educated American political class that included John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster among his predecessors and W.H. Seward and Stephen Douglas—all of whom had received a decent classical education—among his contemporaries. Lincoln was, of course, the great exception, since he was ignorant of Latin and Greek and virtually every other aspect of human learning.
The young Davis did not study Latin because he, as a self-determined individual, wanted to learn an exotic language, nor was the desire for a classical education a whim on his father’s part. Nearly all Southern planters expected their sons to be gentlemen, which included the memory, at least, of Latin taglines and a general knowledge of who did what in the ancient world. When gentlemen in and out of politics got together, they spoke a common language, and, whether Democrat or Whig, they understood one another’s references to Vergil and Cicero, Pericles and Cimon. They could, if they had a mind to, speak of something other than the weather, sports, or the latest minstrel-show performers.
The Ciceronian Southern politician, over the years, became a stereotype, but his Northern counterparts were scarcely less Ciceronian. In America’s greatest generation, Jefferson could weary Adams with his incessant—even obsessive—commenting on the rules of ancient Greek versification, precisely because he knew that the Yankee Adams, though less erudite than the Virginian, was an educated man. Calhoun could have discussed Aristotle with Webster or Clay, and Seward would have caught Davis’s allusions to the Roman Republic.
The possession of a common stock of great books served to unite the leaders of different sections and diverse backgrounds in a common culture. If Latin was the second language of the Southern tribe, it was also the language that enabled them to speak to the Yankee tribe and to the English tribe. And, when a well-behaved Southerner went to Europe to study, as Basil Gildersleeve did, or to make the tour, as his friend James Johnston Pettigrew did, he could associate easily and affably with similarly educated gentlemen in France, Germany, and Italy. (Any well-read conservative today must read Clyde Wilson’s indispensable biography of Pettigrew, Carolina Cavalier.)
In other words, the classical tradition helped to form the character of the antebellum Southern elite, but it also connected them with a broader civilization, which their learning enabled them to understand. After the War, the tradition of erudite political leaders was continued in the North by James Garfield (who taught Latin and Greek and could write one language with his right hand and the other simultaneously with his left), Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. I do not know how much (if any) Latin Robert Byrd ever learned, but his studies of the classics and ancient history have made him the last man in the Senate who can actually look at current issues from an historical perspective.
The standards of erudition, among members of the political class, visibly declined by the middle of the 20th century, and I do not know who was the first president since World War II not to have studied Latin. There are many causes in the degeneration of American politicians, from the time of Webster and Calhoun to the days of the Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas, but the inability of our leaders to state an idea, frame a debate, or write their own speeches results in part from the purging of Latin from the curriculum of aspiring dictators.
The poor quality of the American political class—their mental and verbal incoherence, their self-deception, their lack of self discipline—makes it impossible for them to conceive, much less carry out, any reform or productive change. Any name of a current U.S. senator—nearly every one of them as unmanly as he is uneducated—would make the case for American degeneracy, so I will content myself with just one: Lindsey Graham. If this is the best that South Carolina Republicans can come up with, they may as well move to Illinois.
On the verge of despair, American conservatives are willing to support such impossible candidates as Chuck Baldwin or Sarah Palin on the grounds that their ignorance and inexperience have fortified them against the wiles of liberals and lobbyists, when, of course, the exact opposite is true. People who have never been exposed to any form of a disease are far more likely to fall victim to it.
It is a mistake to look to political leaders for any improvement. We have, as the saying goes, the leaders we deserve. An ignorant, undisciplined people is condemned to be misruled by ignorant and undisciplined leaders.
Then, what is to be done? If the collapse of American education is one of the explanations for the decline in the quality of our political leaders, it would be reasonable to expect that a restoration will come about with the reform of education. Unfortunately, American education becomes noticeably worse every year, and the young Ph.D.’s I run into these days could not have held their own in an intelligent conversation with a college graduate from the 1950’s or a high-school graduate from the 1930’s. (A similar decline took place between the 1880’s and the 1930’s.)
If you will not take my word for it, you have only to listen to the prominent members of the professoriate who are interviewed on NPR or public television. A duller set of semiliterates has never corrupted the youth, and like the students whose minds and character they ruin, the professors get noticeably more stupid and less grammatical every ten years, and the problem is only aggravated by the ill-intentioned education-reform movements that periodically sweep over the U.S. Department of Education and the various state departments. Under Bill Clinton, we had to endure the dim-witted Richard Riley, calling for volunteers to teach children to read after the most expensive system of education in the history of the world had failed on this most elementary level, but, while Clinton and Riley at least paid lip service to local control of education, George W. Bush further nationalized schooling by imposing a failed Texas system on the entire country. If either Bush or Obama wished to improve education, they might have begun with themselves.
That is the point. Education reform begins at home, with ourselves and our children, and once we have undertaken the cultivation of our own minds, we might be able to work with others to establish or improve a local school. My friend Mark Atkins is an excellent case in point. A victim of modern education, Mark did not permit his ignorance to stand in the way of building a successful business, but, unlike so many successful entrepreneurs, he decided to use his money—and the free time it bought—to accomplish two not-unrelated dreams: his own acquisition of a humane education and the establishment of an authentic school in his ancestral village of Cottage Grove, Tennessee (pop. 180), a crossroads located 13 miles (via State Route 69) from Paris, the county seat of Henry County (pop. 9,763), with its very own replica of the Eiffel Tower.
Henry County—much less Paris—seems an unlikely place to begin a restoration of the classical curriculum, but Mark’s mother taught in the Cottage Grove School, and the landscape is salted with the bones of his ancestors. When the school district closed the Cottage Grove Elementary (formerly K-12), Mark, who had moved back to the village, bought the building and housed his fledgling school in one or two rooms. He intends to expand.
The Cottage Grove School, as it proclaims in every description and pamphlet, is Christian, classical, and Southern. The inspiration for the curriculum, he informs me, was my own writings and lectures on the classical tradition. Seduced by this agreeable if dangerous flattery, I agreed to chair the advisory board, and although the school expects only ten students (from grades one to eight) next year, those ten children will spend their days learning Latin and French, math and science, history and geography, and the English language and its literature. Students are required to read, in and out of class, the classics of English and American literature, and, because education is not simply an affair of the mind, they are given explicit instruction in manners. They do not talk out of turn or fail to “make their manners” to their teachers and to one another.
Some visitors to the school, seeing the picture of Bedford Forrest, have pronounced it too Southern, but in addition to the portraits of such Tennesseans as Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk and Southerners of the caliber of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Calhoun, there are pictures of Shakespeare and Johnson, as well as maps and depictions of ancient Rome and historic places in Europe. From this village school, these Tennesseans will emerge with pride in their own state and its history but also a wider understanding of the civilization in whose ruins we are living.
The restoration of the classical curriculum will not regenerate the American elite, much less the character of the American people, but it is a step backward, and, in the upside-down world in which we find ourselves, a step backward is a step in the right direction.