Is Classical Education Still Possible?

by David Hicks

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From the Winter 2017 Issue


I’m now old enough to look back on over half a century in the world of education as either a student or a teacher.  It’s hard to make this backward glance without cynicism or to look ahead without despair. All this time the trend lines by almost any standard measure bent ever lower and lower, while the language of reform never failed to beat upon the ear. This world of education, and all the reformers in it, seem to divide themselves roughly into two groups: those who believe that in technology, brain research, mega-data, or some research-based breakthrough we will discover new tools and approaches that will revolutionize the way we learn and teach, and those who believe that recovering “the lost tools of learning” will spark another Renaissance and turn those trend lines around.  

Amongst this latter group, we find the phonics advocates, the Core Knowledge crowd, and the homeschoolers and McGuffey Reader readers.  We find the un-schoolers, the Great Books and 3R’s champions, and those complaining that the social sciences have supplanted the study of history in our schools and resulted in appalling historical ignorance and civic illiteracy. We find those who demand that students write more and read more non-fiction, watch less television and play fewer video games. And finally, we find schools that in both private and public settings claim to provide a “classical education,” which usually entails some combination or selection of the above.

But like many of the terms one finds bandied about in the world of education, the term “classical education” does not so much describe a specific and well-understood approach to learning and teaching as something that feels good and appeals to this second group of reformers and to those, mostly parents, who no longer trust the first group and are looking around for alternatives to their failing local school systems. We are, after all, talking about a world in which the affective trumps the cognitive, truth is whatever we care to believe or what an enlightened “majority” somewhere tells us to believe, and our leaders lie brazenly and with impunity because their lies confirm our prejudices.

In this essay, I shall argue that the necessary conditions for a classical education don’t exist in America. This is not to say that one can’t teach Greek and Latin, or the trivium and quadrivium, or adopt any of the other pedagogies loosely associated with “classical education,” but while these may suggest a flavor for what it means to receive a classical education, none of these comes close to offering the meat and potatoes of that education. In the modern, secular societies of the West, the assumptions and infrastructure necessary to support a true classical education are largely (and officially) absent. Indeed, they are regarded as antithetical to the modern state and its institutions.


A Classical Education is unthinkable outside of a normative framework, yet it’s hard to think of a single segment of modern life in which de-norming has not become the norm.

Classical education as practiced by the Greeks and the Romans of the ancient world and as inherited and revivified by the Italians and their followers during the Renaissance rested upon four assumptions. These assumptions were so embedded in the cultures of the time that for the most part teachers and students accepted them unconsciously and uncritically and were content to pursue their studies under the roof supported by the four pillars of this temple. 

 

The First Pillar

The classical world, whether pagan or Christian, believed without serious questioning that Man lived in two worlds, one of time and material appearances, the other of eternity and immaterial reality. These two worlds, no one doubted, interacted in strange and mysterious ways, and whether the student was memorizing Homer’s epics or reading Plato’s dialogues, he was trying to gain a better understanding of this interaction and how it might increase his knowledge of the world and inform his life. This assumption assured him of at least two things: that perhaps in this life, and certainly in the next, he would be held accountable for his choices, and that he was wise to govern his passions with his intellect and to be aware of his natural limitations and to accept them with grace and equanimity.

The modern world, on the other hand, places Man exclusively in time and rejects the notion of an eternal soul, of a reality beyond material causes and effects, or of a life after death. The social and educational consequences of this belief are manifold. It places an enormous and exclusive emphasis on the methods of science since these are the methods whereby the material universe is understood. It holds out the promise of a progressive future in which Man’s expanding knowledge of matter allows him to recreate himself and the world in accordance with his own needs and desires. It renders largely irrelevant the works of writers and artists before, say, 1700 AD, when a false two-world assumption framed their thinking. It replaces the study of history, based as it is on a false premise, with the study of social sciences. It makes the search for meaning and the ground for morality if not irrelevant, then highly subjective, for there is no world beyond the one present to our senses that can tell us why we are here or what our purposes and obligations are. Finally, this places upon the State (society as ordered and organized) what was formerly the task of the second world to define morality and give meaning and purpose to life.

 

The Second Pillar

It follows from this that our modern approach to science and the study of the natural world is decidedly not classical. We study not to understand the natural world in order to shape our lives and societies around the requirements of nature, but in order to manipulate and improve upon nature for our own comfort and profit. Our success in doing this has brought many benefits in health, longevity, and material well-being. No one can argue with this. But this is also what makes “the sorcerer’s apprentice” so seductive. How can we ignore the fact that with each benefit there comes an invoice with mounting interest to be paid — whether in the form of an over-populated and over-heated planet; weaponry of unimaginable destructiveness; chemicals and substances not found in nature that poison the earth, air, and water (and our children) and cannot be rendered benign for generations; drugs that increase dependencies and addictions; and technologies that in the words of Neil Postman encourage us to “amuse ourselves to death”?

The modern world’s response to these challenges merely doubles down on its contra classical approach to science. It studies nature to unlock ever more sophisticated drugs, chemicals, and gene-altering technologies with which to combat the depredations of modern science and increase the profitability of the industries “improving” on nature. Billions are now being invested to clone our way into the future, to make robots and cyborgs to do our bidding, to kill our enemies without risking our lives, to grow our food without consideration for the good soil we have wasted or poisoned, and to find sanctuary on Mars once we have made Earth uninhabitable. No wonder we are awash in literary and cinematic dystopias. One cannot offer a classical education in a world at war with nature and refusing, indeed proud of its refusal, to work within the boundaries set by nature.

 

The Third Pillar

Aristotle defined the classical approach to science and is largely credited with the renaissance of classical learning in both the Christian and Islamic worlds. Fundamental to his approach was his four-causal explanation of what happens in nature. Modern science and philosophy have banished from consideration the last of these, known as the final cause, or the teleological explanation. Although at the risk of what may seem an esoteric detour in an essay like this, it is worth pausing to consider the implications of this third pillar and its banishment.

In his Physics 194b23-35, Aristotle states that “the end (telos) is spoken of as a cause. This is that for the sake of which (hou heneka) a thing is done, e.g. health is the cause of walking about. ‘Why is he walking about?’ We say: ‘To be healthy’—and, having said that, we think we have indicated the cause.” This example implies a psychological intention behind the cause, of course, and those who argue for Intelligent Design in nature make a similar case, but for Aristotle it is doubtful that this was necessary. The telos might inhere in Nature itself, as it does in the acorn destined to become an oak tree, but this is not a distinction crucial to the point I wish to make regarding classical education. Rather, I want us to understand that by rejecting the teleological reasoning of the classical world and no longer believing that everything has a pre-existing natural end toward which it is moving, we have freed ourselves to define or re-engineer everything’s telos, including our own, as we choose.  

Now, this rejection would have seemed incomprehensible to a thinking person before the modern era. Teleological reasoning was deeply embedded in this person’s education and understanding. Such an education entailed the study of final causes and, on a personal level, the knowledge of those ends by which to guide his actions and order his life. He would have believed that any alteration or interruption in an organism’s movement to its natural and appointed ends would certainly harm and possibly destroy it. He would have identified our society’s recent claim to have a (human) right to re-define or re-engineer the telos as a divine, not a human, right; but this distinction is now rendered meaningless by the First Pillar.

Here it is worth noting that the telos is connected to the Christian idea of sin. “Sin” is the English translation for the Greek word hamartia, meaning “to miss the mark.” Just as an arrow is directed at a target that it is meant to hit, or an acorn is destined to become an oak tree, Aristotle taught that a telos inheres in every natural object, including Man. His failure to act in accordance with his telos (his purpose or end) out of hubris (over-weaning pride) is what it means to sin (miss the mark). In every Greek myth this results in death.

Plants and animals cannot sin because they are not free to live other than in accordance with their respective teloi. They cannot choose the mutations or environmental factors that may prevent them from achieving their ends. Man on the other hand is so free. This is the creative opportunity and most profound ethical concern of his life. In the Genesis story, the Tree of Knowledge represents this freedom, and Adam and Eve ate the fruit of this Tree to become godlike, as the Serpent promised, free of their human telos and natural limitations. The result was death. This, at any rate, would be a “classical” reading of the Genesis story.

 

The Fourth Pillar

Above all, a classical education is about preserving and passing on the culture’s norms for individual and social behavior. Education (paideia) as the ancients understood and practiced it, indeed as all teachers and schools until the 20th century understood it, was overwhelmingly about transferring the norms of civilization from one generation to the next. There were norms for everything. Not only for grammar, rhetoric and logic, but for drawing, dressing, and dancing; dining, dueling, and dousing. Norms governed all of life, giving it at times a ritualistic quality. Prospective teachers went to “normal school” to master the norms they would later teach and use to judge student performance. How well did the student imitate the norm for good prose, good posture, good personal hygiene?


By tearing down these four pillars we are erasing the past, expunging memory, and condemning our children to a shallow existence of buying and selling in a Hobbesian world governed by fear and personal desire.

A classical education is unthinkable outside of a normative framework, yet as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s hard to think of a single segment of modern life in which de-norming has not become the norm. Art, music, fashion, language, manners, beliefs — what would have been regarded as outside the norm, if not beyond the pale, fifty years ago is now common currency and hardly provokes notice, let alone censure. Paint splashed on canvas or cardboard (or anything) sells as art; noise amplified and accompanying obscene words (lyrics?) poses as music; bodies pierced, skin tattooed, hair shaved off or dyed green, clothing torn or soiled -- the fashion is whatever startles or offends. No doubt, the nihilists, anarchists, and Dadaists set the stage for this attack on norms over a century ago, but not even they could have anticipated a time when the attack on norms would become normative and when the establishment would join in the attack with the enthusiasm of jackals around a fresh kill. There is no surer way to be dismissed as intolerant, bigoted, or out-of-date by the opinion-makers of the day than to feign offense at any of this. What is distinctively American is our tolerance of everything except norms. If you want to show yourself to be an American, find something pretending to be a norm and attack it.

It will be apparent by now how intimately related these four pillars are. 

 

EACH is critical not only to a classical education, but to our understanding of the past and our place in the world. By tearing down these four pillars, like the Vandals in North Africa and the Islamic terrorists in Syria, we are erasing the past, expunging memory, and condemning our children to a shallow existence of buying and selling in a Hobbesian world governed by fear and personal desire. Students grounded in the assumptions of the modern secular state will see no meaning in their lives other than whatever meanings they themselves can assign. If they think about it, they will realize that their own words and deeds will eventually be rejected by their children and will consequently have little if any enduring value, except for those actions that contribute to technological progress. Only matter matters and endures.  

So, are we who teach the young, or bring children into this world, to throw up our hands in despair? 

By no means. We who call ourselves Christian are still charged with the responsibility to raise our children in the fear of God and educate them to treat the natural world with utmost respect, to live in pursuit of the ends for which all men and women are created, and to order their lives in accordance with biblical norms. 

But no one should assume this charge lightly, believing that a classical education—whether understood as Greek or Latin or Great Books, a curriculum or a method—will somehow accomplish this task for us. This might have been the case were the ground and pillars for a classical education in place, but as I hope I have shown in this essay, this is not the case. The pillars are toppled and the ground sown with salt, as thoroughly as the Romans destroyed Carthage. This requires us to make a sober estimation of the challenge we face. How are we to meet this challenge in an increasingly invasive, relentless, and hostile environment?

EssaysDavid Hicks