My curriculum vitae still includes a paragraph describing my activities as an “educational consultant,” though it has been some years since I went to Washington to read grants or evaluate schools for the Department of Education. It was all time wasted, less profitable than time wasted on politics. Politicians, to their credit, know that it is money and power they are seeking, but I have never been able to discover what educators have in mind. The worst of them babble statistics—IQs, achievement-test scores, minority percentages, word counts in first-grade readers. None of it amounts to much more than counting—counting words or counting people.
In every discussion of reform, whether it was with professors of education, school-board members, or the secretary of education and his staff, the conversation always ran aground on the following question: “What is your object in teaching a class, running a school, or developing a program?” When I received no better answer than gimmicks summed up in slogans such as “child-centered education,” “back to basics,” “phonics,” or “writing for reading,” I clarified the question by asking, “What sort of person, if you succeed, do you expect to turn out?” A Quaker headmaster informed me that he hoped his students would be themselves; I naturally asked him why parents should pay high tuition to a private school if not to turn their little savages into some kind of civilized human beings.
Perhaps I have spent too much time reading Plato. After all, a simple society can rear its boys and girls to be patriotic citizen-soldiers or competent matrons without having an explicit theory that stipulates the for what we teach children, but that is only because traditional societies have an implicit understanding of what a good man or good wife and mother is like. An Athenian on his way to fight the Persians at Marathon did not have a refined definition of courage arrived at in a course of dialectic or at the end of an argument with Socrates’ father. He had read or heard the same Homeric poems as his fellows, worshiped the same gods at the same festivals, attended the same meetings of the Assembly and the same courts, where he listened to the wise and the foolish debating the controversies of the day. We are not so lucky.
No young man today, unless he has been locked in a basement or reared by the Amish, is unaware that every virtue extolled by parents and pastors is contemned by the really important people in our society—namely, celebrities. His parents may teach him to be polite and respectful in his speech, but if he turns on the television to learn something about politics—a grave mistake—he will be subjected to the coarse hectoring of Bill Maher and Ann Coulter. He does not need to turn on the TV. Every day in school, he learns the same bad lessons, bad manners, and bad morals. A slave to the indoctrination he has received, he thinks that he (obeying the dictates of the Harvard School of Education and FOX News) is the ultimate judge of all value, whether it is the received wisdom of the Church or the received wisdom that tells grown men to put on a jacket and tie before going to church. Instead of learning from experience, his own and that of his parents and ancestors, he believes only abstract speculations about human equality and the progress of humanity.
We live in a culture gone mad on theory: theories of sex and family, theories of government, and, inevitably, theories of education. A debate has raged for centuries over “the future of education.” Early American liberals such as Noah Webster insisted that a democratic society needs a suitable educational system, divorced from the classical tradition that encouraged aristocracy and elitism. What sort of American democrat could listen to Sarpedon’s admonition “always to be the best” without giving a Bronx cheer? It took over a hundred years, but this appeal began to take concrete form in American colleges and secondary schools between the two world wars.
John Dewey and his students developed the argument to include a soft social-science indoctrination that would liberate American kids from the shackles of race, ethnicity, nationality, region, class, wealth, religion, taste, and anything else their poor benighted parents might have valued. By the late 1960’s, the attack was extended to sex and gender, species and phylum. An old high-school friend—a beautiful and charming woman—once asked me (at an oyster roast) why I could be so concerned about unborn babies when I cared so little about baby seals. This same woman, if she had not been warped by the propaganda inflicted on her by half-educated Ph.D.’s, would have remained a Trinitarian Anglican and a patriotic Southerner. As things turned out, she was only a New Yorker manqué. That is why every school in the nation should have a sign at the entrance: Enter at Your Own Risk or, better still, Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate.
The conservative response to the progressives’ takeover of education has been of two types, and neither has been particularly effective. The capitalist response is to emphasize vocational skills, whether at the low level of shop and computer courses or on the high level of mathematics and science. Bill Gates, himself a model victim of American education, thinks that he can do some good by rewarding students for designing innovative technical projects before they have learned anything about who they are or why they are alive. The results are all around us: the technological barbarians who cannot even imagine the moral problems presented by cloning, in vitro fertilization, and the virtual reality in which young people are imprisoned.
Most of us, who are neither angels nor monks, would like to have money; sensible people would like to earn their money by pursuing an interesting and useful career. We all understand that an aspiring physician, lawyer, or engineer must receive specialized training, but what hardly anyone realizes is that money, career, and profession are, in most cases, only marginally connected to the serious purpose of education. The application of businesslike methods to politics or education is routinely disastrous, because the object of statecraft or teaching is quite different from the object of business.
So-called cultural conservatives are aware of the shortcomings in the businessman’s call for vocational education, but their response has been to call for a return to the Great Books, though some of them cannot distinguish between The Great Gatsby and what William Bennett once described as “the published works of Socrates.” If our cultural-conservative leaders had read some of the great books, instead of merely talking about them, they might have read in Plato (who wrote the works Socrates did not) that reading impairs the memory. Plato’s observation—which is truer with every technological step away from simple orality and literacy—might have led them to reflect that books are only means to the ends of a system of education or paideia, to use a more inclusive Greek word, which means nothing more than childrearing. The end, as Calder Willingham expressed it in the title of his beautiful and almost forgotten novel, is a man.
All of the above might have been written 20 years ago, and, indeed, such arguments have routinely been made in Chronicles. All that has changed in 20 years is that these false conservatisms, which used to be limited to movement periodicals and small ideological colleges, have now metastasized into a viral empire of websites and distance-learning programs that feature the usual cafeteria of computer skills and great books. All of these projects will fail; most of them will do more harm than good. Even at their best, they will distract well-intentioned parents, teachers, and students from considering the purpose and function of education.
The same basic questions, however, remain, and, until they are addressed, there can be no significant improvement in education: What is the purpose of education—that is, what sort of a person do we want to result from 20 years of schooling, and what is the curriculum that will produce such people? The traditional answer, “the classical curriculum,” is short enough to appear on a standardized test, though only if it is one of multiple choices on the grid of a computerized test form. But what are the classics, and why should we study them? For most readers, Great Expectations and The Thirty-Nine Steps are classics, but I should be hard pressed to defend the inclusion of these admittedly good novels in a serious curriculum.
Critics, including Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot, have tried to define such terms as classics and culture. For Arnold, the son of a famous headmaster, culture was “the best that has been thought and said.” In his lecture “What is a Classic?” Eliot set out to be more precise and more profound than the Romantic Arnold. For Eliot, maturity is the hallmark of classical literature—maturity of mind, of manners, and of language. Maturity is a quality difficult to pin down. Like the Greek sophrosyne, it implies restraint and the absence of extravagance, but maturity of style is the perfection of the best tendencies in a language. A mature writer is not a child of his own time, but, like Vergil, he possesses a sense of history. It is Vergil who displays all of these qualities and is the benchmark of classicism.
As valuable as they are, both of these essays in definition were on one point misguided in beginning at the wrong end. Do we value Vergil because he is mature or maturity because it is Vergilian? Before answering too quickly, we should consider that civilized men of the West have been Vergilians for two millennia. From one perspective, it does not matter if Homer and Plato, Vergil and Augustine are the best writers, so long as they are ours, the writers who define our civilization. The body of classical literature is not a set of museum exhibits, catalogued, arranged, and dead; it is a living tradition, something handed down from one generation of intelligent readers to the next. The Latin for “hand down” is tradere, from which we derive our word tradition. Naturally, the canon must be open to the new writers—Dante and Racine, Shakespeare and Goethe—who make themselves indispensable, but never to the exclusion of their literary progenitors.
In recent centuries, we have grown used to the idea that tradition is in conflict with “objective truth,” and academic intellectuals (unless they are either reactionary or postmodernist) would tell us that the only way to strive for truth is by being objective—that is, by eliminating all the prejudices that come from our personal experience, our ethnic and national identity, and our religion. They might as well ask us to flap our arms and fly across the Grand Canyon. No ordinary mortal can entirely escape the blinders of subjectivity, and those who claim to have done so—e.g., modern university teachers—have simply put on another, more constrictive pair of blinders that prevents them from seeing any good either in patriotism or religion.
The studies that make up humane learning are called the liberal arts, not because they “liberate” students from inherited prejudices (as I have heard claimed by educators), and not even because they are arts practiced almost exclusively by liberals. The artes liberales of the Romans (translating a much older Greek phrase) were the studies appropriate to a free man. While servile or banausic arts were aimed at practical results (making a sword, for example) and gaining money, liberal arts form the character of a citizen in a republic or, in an aristocracy, a gentleman. Plato and Aristotle went further, teaching students to aim at the highest goal, which is the contemplation of the good.
The free man practices and values the virtues of honesty, courage, reverence, justice, and self-restraint not so much because they are good in the abstract as because he shares a general taste for them. It is only within such an ethical and civic context that it makes any sense to speak of pursuing or loving truth. Philosophy, as Aristotle points out, is a dangerous pursuit for people who have not been properly brought up by family and friends, because they will only learn how to justify their vices. Even the paltry bits of philosophy studied by Ayn Rand and her chief apostles hardened them in their selfishness, arrogance, and lewdness. Even if Rand or the Brandens had read a few good books, they would probably have turned them to evil purposes. We need only look at the example of Straussians who spend entire careers twisting and distorting every great political thinker from Plato to Jefferson. What is the result of all their lying? The kind of mad arrogance that overtook Bloom and Jaffa.
I am not arguing for illiteracy—though a glance at the best-seller lists might persuade us that Americans would be better off illiterate. Books, great and good, are the necessary tools of any educational method. It is also true that an American who has not read Hamlet or The History of Henry Esmond, I promessi sposi or Huckleberry Finn, while he may possess many serious intellectual and cultural interests, will be, in a society of educated readers, like the long line of ill-dressed gawkers who watch the beautiful people entering the club from which their lack of beauty and the right clothes have barred them. Schools must needs have a reading list of indispensable fiction, poetry, and drama, but teaching, say, Conan Doyle or Kafka in the classroom would require some justification, such as a desperate need for remediation.
We are so used to the idea of reading fiction and poetry in school that few of us stop to ask why we should spend time on what might otherwise be regarded as entertainment. If you have the patience and stomach for reading literary theory, you will discover a great many mystical statements about literature that no one in his right mind has ever believed. To take only the most banal example, you will hear that students should read modern novels, especially very dirty novels, to learn something important about life. Practical men—businessmen and engineers—with some justification make fun of the whole idea of studying literature in school. Reading stories is all very well for people who have the time, but why can they not pursue their hobby at home instead of watching TV? What possible use could it be to write essays on imagery in the poetry of Dylan Thomas or character development in the novels of Thomas Hardy?
Ancient writers on rhetoric would have no problem in answering the businessman’s objections. Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian would tell him that the object of education is to turn out a good man who can be useful to his neighbors and to his community. There is, they would add, a certain set of books that can be used effectively to teach both sound moral and civic principles and the art of effective writing and speaking. Civilization itself, they would conclude, depends on the process of inculcating these values and techniques, year after year, and generation after generation, into the human beastlings who need to be domesticated. Education, then, occupies a space somewhere between theology and toilet training.
The ancient system had its shortcomings, and nothing could be more foolish than to design a school around Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, much less to pretend to revive an imaginary trivium and quadrivium that more often existed on paper (or, rather, parchment) than in practice. However, the fundamental objectives of education remain, and not just the objectives but the methods that have proved useful and indispensable: the teaching of Latin and mathematics; the study of grammar and rhetoric (which includes logic and composition); and a systematic reading of the books that make us who we are, particularly poetry, drama, and history—and not the pseudo-scientific history written by professors but the history of historians who can write and think: Thucydides and Livy, David Hume and Shelby Foote. This is a far cry from four years spent on the Five Foot Shelf.
The study of languages, live and dead, is essential. The Greeks were mostly content to know their own language, but educated Romans, by the end of the Punic Wars, had to learn Greek. In the Middle Ages, Western Europeans, whatever language they spoke at home, had to study Latin, and a 17th-century Englishman had to make a stab at Greek, speak at least a traveler’s French, and, if he wished to set up for a literary gentleman, make shift to read the language of Dante, Petrarch, and Tasso.
Foreign languages are not everything, and each of us has limited time. But some disciplined study of ancient and modern tongues and the literatures written in them is an absolute necessity: first, because it improves our mental acuity; second, because it is the only way of gaining an acquaintance with the highest standards of “the best that has been thought and said.” Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Eliot were trained in the classics, and Milton learned Hebrew, French, Italian, and Old English. Most poets today do not even know correct English, much less Italian. As one Italian poet told me ruefully, after entertaining a group of American poets, he had no use for American writers: They could speak no language he knew, took no interest in art, philosophy, history, or literature. All they wanted to do, he said, was to scribble postcards in a bar. Today, unable even to scribble with a pen, our poets—once the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”—drink their coffee in an internet cafe, text-messaging each other the inanities that no one, thank God, will ever read.
Whether we wish to be a poet or merely a president, there are no secrets or shortcuts and no new method of counting people that can tell us anything useful about humane learning. There are only the old methods that taught the men who made our civilization and framed our Constitution. Begin, as they did, with Vergil and Homer. As Mr. Jefferson said, they are the poets “as we advance in life . . . we are left at last with.” Chesterton agreed: “Those who count in any generation will always be talking of Troy.” If few people today talk of Troy, in Greek or in English, it is not because Chesterton has been proved wrong. We barbarians of the New Atlantis can either bemoan our ignorance or decide to join the conversation.
Thomas Fleming is the editor of Chronicles and the president of The Rockford Institute.
This article first appeared in the September 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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