“They say such different things at school.”
-W.B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats, Senator of the Irish Republic, heard about contemporary trends in education from “a kind old nun in a white hood”:

The children learn to cipher and to sing,
to study reading-books and history,
to cut and sew, be neat in everything
in the best modern way.

All that industrious scurrying after mediocrity made Yeats dream of the heights of human beauty and self-fulfillment, polar opposites to the goals of modern education. A year ago a columnist in a Denver paper found out how much money is paid to teenage girls who have illegitimate children. He demanded high school courses to teach poor girls not to produce babies. Such different things do we seek from education in our time. What is the history of such disparate cravings and demands?

Harvey J. Graff, of the University of Texas at Dallas, tries to answer part of that question in The Legacies of Literacy, an ungainly but interesting survey of the secondary scholarship on literacy from the ancient Greeks to today’s Third World. Graff does not ask much of literacy: It is the ability to write your name and read a basic document. Some people can do one and not the other. A society may be literary, that is, depend on written laws and a written sacred scripture and yet (as in the Middle Ages) have only a minority of literate citizens. Societies have achieved total literacy without a school system, such as Lutheran Sweden and Iceland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Literacy by itself does not correlate highly with economic progress or, indeed, any social good. The fast rising literacy rates in modern Africa, for instance, have not led to democracy or wealth. Take-off periods such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were not heavily literate. Although the education industry in America claims that we need ever more education, “new literacies,” most new jobs in America need less reading ability, not more. When the U.S. Army tested its recruits, it found that “they were able to perform successfully in jobs where the reading difficulties of material exceeded their average reading ability by four to eight grades,” because they were interested in the tasks and friends helped them.

At this point the reader of Chronicles is becoming impatient. It is all very well to assert the absence of a literacy crisis, as long as literacy is defined as the ability to sign a welfare check and read the want ads and TV Guide, as the Los Angeles School District did some time ago. But in today’s complex world we need much more. We need access to several foreign languages and cultures, to mathematical types of reasoning, and to the ability to analyze issues and facts critically and objectively. Most people in America, however, receive their culture orally from movies, radio, TV, and cassettes. Public school literacy enables them to function at their jobs. They study the Bible in Bible study groups, not with Greek and Hebrew lexica and commentaries. They do not read Gibbon, Rabelais, or Chronicles, and they do not feel the lack.

The average person gets along quite well on his own level with skills derived from public schools and on-the-job training. Our leaders, on the other hand, suffer from short-sightedness rooted in a monoglot ignorance of the world, past and present, and an uncritical acceptance of what is dished up in the public prints. Anthony Grafton of Princeton and Lisa Jardine of Cambridge (UK) think that the liberal arts curriculum inherited from the Renaissance is part of the problem. From Humanism to the Humanities traces the development of Humanist education from 15th-century teachers such as Guarino of Verona, who emphasized the ethical significance of reading great Latin authors, to the 16th-century world of Peter Ramus, who led the way towards a more pragmatic, job-oriented curriculum.

Grafton and Jardine are both excellent Renaissance scholars, and Grafton is one of our best intellectual historians. This, however, is not a very good book. It exudes the Push-me-pull-you bouquet often emitted by double authorship. The idea for the book was born 10 years ago, when the authors’ paths crossed for a semester; and although their original research has developed, their thinking on this topic is still immature.

Harvard University Press claims that “the book is based on intensive archival research,” but most of it is an interpretative summary of earlier scholarship, such as Lauro Martinez’s Social World of the Florentine Humanists (1963) and Walter Ong’s Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1959). Page after page is derived from T.W. Baldwin’s William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke of 1944, including three pages of untranslated Latin from the hand of Edward VI. There are good pages on Valla and Erasmus. But much of the book is derivative and careless, especially parts that may reasonably be imputed to Jardine. Both scholars have done better work apart.

The Introduction announces, “It is our contention that teachers and students of the humanities today need to be fully aware . . . of the fact that the security of the humanities within institutions of higher education in particular rests on the continuing assumption that they are intrinsically supportive of ‘civilisation’—that is, of the Establishment.” (The critical reader will note the spelling of “civilization.” The ideological parts of the book tend to have an English orientation.) Once we get into the text, we meet people like Lorenzo Valla, Erasmus, and Peter Ramus, who were far from being “supportive of the Establishment.” Was it supportive of the Establishment for Lorenzo Valla to publish a scholarly pamphlet that proved that the Donation of Constantine, the legal basis of papal rule in Italy, was a post-Constantinian forgery? However, the authors tell us that Valla produced a “set of highly polemical scholarly works” to prove that “teachers of grammar and rhetoric deserved the sort of esteem and salaries” received by dialecticians and philosophers under Medieval education. In modern terms, he did it to get a raise from the dean, but Valla as an Establishment lackey just will not wash.

Chapter One, on the great Humanist educator Guarino of Verona, reads like a parody of Grafton’s important book on the great classicist Joseph Scaliger, where he showed Scaliger failing to live up to his own self-proclaimed standards. Guarino promised a rich and fulfilled life to his students, but they spent most of their time memorizing grammatical rules and slowly trudging through a few basic works in Latin. No educator ever pretended that the process of learning to read and write Latin was fun but that it produced a better person who had access to more interesting alternatives in life. Sitting around jabbering about death and sex roles and the Establishment is more fun, but the end result is mediocrity.

The humanities are not especially secure in today’s universities, and the least secure part is the teaching of literature and language. The intellectual training needed to master Greek and Latin and the resultant confrontation with great minds produce unpredictable results. There are plenty of lackeys, but there is also the occasional Valla or Erasmus. Thucydides confirmed Thomas Hobbes in his monarchism, but Tacitus convinced revolutionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries of the evils of Kingship. Our authors are influenced by Lauro Martinez’s famous formulation that Humanism was “a program for the ruling class.” It was many other things as well, as the authors’ own examples show.

Humanist education needs a critical evaluation that goes beyond the Humanists’ own propaganda. Grafton and Jardine ignore the critique in the first chapter of C.S. Lewis’ OHEL (as he liked to call his volume in the series “Oxford History of English Literature”), while repeating his observation that the Medieval education that the Humanists replaced was a superb one. Humanism can take some credit for Shakespeare and Rabelais, but the older education produced Dante and St. Thomas.

My contrasting examples bring up the worst result of the Humanists’ success: For all their pseudo-Ciceronian bombast, they succeeded in killing Latin as the language of culture and science. Nothing, not even the Reformation, did more to destroy the unity of European culture than that stupid act of vandalism. How much time does every scholar lose because important work has appeared in a language he does not know or cannot read with ease? How much international cooperation has been frustrated by nationalistic language barriers that did not exist in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance? Erasmus, the most farsighted of the Humanists, saw what they were doing and wrote a devastating attack on it in “The Ciceronian.” But not even Erasmus’ prestige could stop the Humanists’ lemming march to destruction.

Instead, however, of analyzing what was wrong with the Humanists on the basis of their own ideals and those of their contemporary critics, we are treated to talk of the Establishment. The problem with conspiratorialists is not that there are no conspiracies—there are plenty of them—but the insistence that there is only one conspiracy. What was the Establishment in Renaissance Italy? There were many city states: the Church, itself no monolith; and the influence of other European empires and nations. What single Establishment did Erasmus serve? Is there only one Establishment in England or America, or even in individual universities?

The possibility of universal literacy lies in our hands. Is it really worth grasping at? The foundations of the liberal arts curriculum were born in enthusiasm and high hopes. To what extent has it outlived its usefulness? What do we want from education, anyhow? Should it aim at universal but minimal competence, the production of an informed and committed elite, or the possibility of personal creativity and fulfillment? Or should it just stop teenage girls from getting pregnant? Until we reach some consensus on these issues, discussions of education will resemble these books, full of life and excitement, but still a confused babble, in which we continue to ask, with Yeats, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”


[The Legacies of Literacy, by Harvey J. Graff (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press) $57.50]

[From Humanism to the Humanities, by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) $27.50]