Europe would not be Europe without the current of tradition once inculcated by classical education. It is such an education we must seek to preserve. Though its immediate effects are not manifest, without it the culture would be ceded to those who wish to shape it for a radically secular agenda, perhaps even a posthuman one.
In the opening address at the Vanenberg Conference at Oxford two weeks ago, the speaker (unnamed because of the Chatham House Rule) emphasized three major points: first, that ideas are more important than politicians, since political figures do what they do because of what they think; second, that the culture and the dominant ideas that inform those politicians are upstream from politics; and third, that universities and colleges are upstream from culture. In other words, the real center of interest for those concerned about the future of civilization ought to be higher education, not what’s going on in Washington. In his view, the troubles of our day come from the fact that many contemporary universities have been dominated by variations of Marxist ideology for generations; both students and faculty do everything they can to protect themselves from real exchanges of ideas.[*]
Wyoming Catholic College exists precisely to foster such exchanges, to raise the real and abiding questions, to make real demands and offer real occasions of risk, not to manure the sensitive little rosebuds of our cultural moment. The redoubtable Samuel Johnson writes that “great things cannot have escaped former observation,” but many a mandate these days is for supposed rights that have altogether escaped the assiduous observation of all mankind. The rights advocates at many American and European institutions of higher education invent ever-subtler forms of racism or sexism. Novelties of victimization are the order of the day.
What goes on at “woke” places like Middlebury also happens all over Europe. In fact, it’s worse, because the religious decline has been precipitous, and (surely related) the classical tradition has been largely lost. In an article last week, the English biographer A.N. Wilson wrote that “In the year 1948, 2000 Frenchmen were ordained to the priesthood. Now, there are fewer than 100 per year. . . . A mere 4.5% of the French population regularly attend Mass. This phenomenon is repeated throughout what was once Catholic Europe.” How much the loss of a sense of national sovereignty to the EU has to do with this loss of faith would be an interesting study. Even more related, however, is the departure of classical education from European experience; the current running through the tradition is essentially Catholic, and any real experience of the works of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance helps dispose those who study them to understand the centrality of Christ in history. Europe would not be Europe without this current out of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome. It makes perfect sense, then, that in rejecting its tradition, Europe has also forgotten its own raison d’etre.
In one of the sessions I attended at the Vanenberg Conference, a noted Oxford-educated Canadian scholar, speaking on the future of Classics, pointed out how completely they seem to have disappeared from the curricula of the colleges and universities in England. He lamented even more their instrumental use—for example, by companies that cheapen the nature of them for purposes of superficial appeal: “Learn the Classics to improve your vocabulary.” In the question-and-answer session after his talk, I commented that what he was describing as the real loss of the classical tradition in England and Continental Europe is being strongly reversed by K-12 classical academies and Great Books-themed colleges in the United States. One participant argued that such places (including WCC) remain “marginal”—and perhaps that’s true, but in a sense that’s the whole point of what we do. Besides, I appeal to the great Catholic anthropologist, Victor Turner, who writes that “marginals” tend to be “highly conscious and self-conscious people and may produce from their ranks a disproportionately high number of writers, artists, and philosophers.”
When I first took this office several years ago, I made the point that we are playing “the long game” in what we do. The immediate effects of this education are not manifest, perhaps, but without doing what we are doing, the culture itself would be ceded to those who wish to shape it for a radically different secular agenda, perhaps even a posthuman one. We affirm the service of God, the life of faith and reason and poetic knowledge, the rediscovery of nature and its limits, participation in communities of civic association and friendship, and the full challenges and joys of traditional families. What our students know—and their ideas are thought through, tested, repeatedly put up for discussion, defended and refined—flow from the classical tradition, and they will flow down from our students to their families, parishes, and cities, and thus into the culture such ideas help sustain.
I was reminded over the weekend that incoming freshmen were once expected to know Greek and Latin before they entered college in their mid-teens. One entrance exam of the day required that they translate from the original Latin into English three of Cicero’s Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid, and then translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin.
That’s what was upstream of culture in those days. As Brad Birzer puts it, “Such an education was a norm for the American Founders. Should it surprise us that they gave us the Constitutional Republic that they did?”
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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* Legutko, Ryszard. “The Demon in Middlebury.” First Things, August 1, 2o19.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Cours de philosophie à Paris Grandes chroniques de France,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.