Classical education to be sure offers much that is wonderful. But the most important discoveries come by effort that is often painful. A joyful tour of the “true, good, and beautiful” without pain is likely a superficial substitute for a real education.

When I see T-shirts and bumper stickers that declare, “I survived Catholic schools,” I feel like making a T-shirt of my own: “I survived progressive education.” In the fourth grade, I was enrolled in the “Optional Program” in my public school. We had a table and chairs, not rows of desks, and we often sat “Indian style” on the carpeted floor. We called our teacher by her first name (her name was “Silver”—no, I am not making that up) and we designed our own curriculums. I designed a program of studies in which I worked on math once a week, and wrote stories most of the time. To my parents’ alarm, my grammar and spelling worsened, but the teacher did not wish to correct those things and “inhibit my creativity.” Even though I was pulled from this program at year’s end, I was enrolled in a similar program in high school. As I recall, we spent some time taking Myers-Briggs personality tests and discussing whether we were “thinkers, sensors, feelers, or intuitors.” This time, my parents took only two weeks to pull me out.

Both of these programs suffered from the same vice. They never wanted a child to experience the educator as a commanding “other” opposing the will of the student. They wanted a native “love of learning” to carry me through. The curriculum was lowered to meet the affective responses of a ten or fifteen year old. It is no exaggeration to say that the reason I went to college with anything like an education was because of the extra-curricular efforts of my father, who made me read, among other things, Xenophon’s Anabasis and Caesar’s War Commentaries. (My father was never self-conscious about being a commanding “other.”)

I recognize in many classical programs this same modern spirit. They have a vastly better set of books than I was given, but the message is the same: truth, beauty, and goodness are naturally attractive. Give students great books, great works of art and music, and they will love their education. It is easy to forget the observation made famous by George Orwell, reflecting on his own experience learning Latin as a boy: “I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment.” Classical education to be sure offers much that is wonderful. But the most important discoveries come by effort that is often painful. A joyful tour of the “true, good, and beautiful” without pain is likely a superficial substitute for a real education.

C.S. Lewis makes this point in his essay, “The Parthenon and the Optative.” Everyone knows the Parthenon, the symbol of the Golden Age of Athens. But the “optative” is known only to those who have been exposed to Greek grammar. It is a “mood” of the verb that expresses wish or desire, just as the “indicative” expresses matters of fact or the “interrogative” expresses questions. Lewis opens the essay by remembering a colleague of his looking over mediocre entrance essays and lamenting that “The trouble with these boys is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the Optative.”

What does this mean? As Lewis explains, “I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in ‘Appreciation’ and ends in gush. When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it. But the other fails most disastrously when it most succeeds.”[*]

Classical education then cannot merely mean “Socratic discussions” where children romp like young puppies, or activities where they build their own triremes and armor, or field trips to the art museum. That is, it cannot mean a program of classical sources and topics through the filter of what children immediately find enjoyable, a kind of “unschooling” in Athens and Rome. This is the same approach as the “Optional Program” I had in the seventies, only with the pretensions of classical culture.

Rather, an education called “classical” should be a thorough, prolonged, and liberal education which immerses students, line by line, in the greatest works of the closely related disciplines of history, literature, and rhetoric. As the poet W.H. Auden observed, “Anybody who has spent many hours of his youth translating into and out of two languages so syntactically and rhetorically different from his own, learns something about his mother tongue which I do not think can be learned so well in any other way. For instance, it inculcates the habit, whenever one uses a word, of automatically asking, ‘What is its exact meaning?’ ” Classical education should offer both the “Parthenon” and the “Optative.” But exciting the emotions and imagination is relatively easy; providing intellectual rigor is considerably more difficult.

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* C.S. Lewis, On Stories: and Other Essays on Literature, pp. 109-11.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is an illustration by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1936) and is in the Public Domain.

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