Intended originally to transform a largely agrarian population into efficient industrial workers, the progressive system of education has had its day. In response, over the past forty years, there has been an explosion in homeschooling and classical schools, which propose a variety of ways of moving forward by retrieving the wisdom of the past. This has led to myriad pedagogical approaches but little certainty as to what “classical education” is.

For more than a century, we have witnessed the erosion of the reality of classical education along with the surprising tenacity of its ideal. Already by the second half of the nineteenth century, attempts to dismantle classical education and replace it with something more practical and up-to-date had begun. By the 1920s, educational reformers had made significant progress towards redefining the ends and means of education along what they considered to be scientific lines. Over the next forty years, Latin and “the three Rs” held on, more out of inertia than out of conviction, but the launch of Sputnik in 1957 sent shockwaves of hysteria through governmental and educational institutions. Their leaders were concerned about the need to fill real or imagined technological “gaps” and engage in a never-ending series of races with an implacable enemy, in order to protect a culture and way of life that our tradition enshrines while at the same time eroding the cultural practices that ensure contact with that tradition.

Over this more than hundred-year period, we have seen the once-dominate arts of language and number replaced by the techniques of science. The humanities have been comprehensively subordinated to what are now called the STEM fields. In the institutions of higher education that produce the next generation of educators, critical theory is married to a comprehensive hermeneutic of suspicion that seeks to expose and deconstruct, rather than to form and instruct. Where humanities programs have not wholly abandoned their social duty to train their students to think, speak, and write effectively, they have renamed and redefined their disciplines. Logic has become “critical thinking,” rhetoric is “public speaking,” and grammar, almost abandoned in English curricula, occupies an ever-shrinking place in foreign language classrooms beset by declining enrollments. And yet, interest in classical education (as well as debate as to what constitutes it) has never been stronger at any point in the last century than it is now. Somehow, children, young people, and adults continue to be inspired by the transcendent vision of truth, beauty, and goodness encapsulated by the Western Tradition, despite the best attempts of educational and governmental policies to redirect their energies towards the flat and mundane technical learning of applied science.

Dr. Eliot’s Bookshelf and Dr. Adler’s Program

The survival of this interest in the United States is due largely to the concept of the “Great Books” and the numerous university and college programs it has inspired. This concept comes from a surprising place. While many associate the “Great Books” with Mortimer Adler, who did so much to popularize the term in the central years of the twentieth century, the concept goes back to Charles W. Eliot, the long-serving president of Harvard whose tenure bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and who transformed a regional college into a research university with worldwide influence. Although an advocate of broad, liberal education of the sort that now strikes most as deeply conservative, Eliot was profoundly influenced by the progressive thinking of his era. He insisted that the benefits of liberal learning could be got by spending 15 minutes a day with a five-foot shelf of literary classics in translation. His claim resulted in an offer from the publisher Collier’s to realize his plan in print in 1909. For the next fifty years, “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf,” The Harvard Classics, could be found in homes throughout America.

While he included a good portion of the classics and a surprising number of Christian and medieval authors (much larger than what Adler would offer forty years later, but significantly, no philosophy or theology), Dr. Eliot’s canon reflects the tastes of a well-to-do Anglo-American professor and betrays a fundamentally utilitarian approach to the reading of the great literature of the past. In his fifty-one volumes, Dr. Eliot included a large number of books from the second half of the nineteenth century, with special attention paid to the then new disciplines of evolutionary biology, psychology, and economics. Perhaps most surprisingly, Dr. Eliot excluded the Iliad, revealing a Romantic’s love of the Odyssey and a certain squeamishness at Homer’s starker, more brutal meditation on the nature of virtue. He believed that packaging the wisdom of the ages and not so distant past would provide seekers with an instant library and that a daily quarter hour of self-directed reading would provide those who did not have time to devote to liberal study a shortcut to forming the intellect and becoming cultured. The idea that these texts could be approached without an experienced guide by anyone willing to make a small investment of time revolutionized the market for legacy authors and sold many more copies of the Harvard Classics than could ever have been read. The key claim of Dr. Eliot and those who would follow the trail he blazed was that one could attain the wisdom of the West without the necessity of spending long hours and concerted effort to acquire Latin, Greek, grammar, logic, rhetoric, and all the other components of a traditional, classical education.

With the outbreak of World War I five years after the publication of the Harvard Classics and the decades of economic and political turmoil that followed, progressive, utilitarian notions of education became entrenched in America’s universities and began to trickle down and then flood into primary and secondary education. Alarmed by these developments and inspired by a profoundly humane sense of democracy, Mortimer Adler and his colleagues at the University of Chicago sought to provide a way for students to retain access to the classics even though they could not benefit from the extensive training in Latin and Greek (and Hebrew) that had been common a few generations before. Adler, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, was himself unable as a boy to study classical languages and only encountered ancient literature in translation while taking night classes after he dropped out of school and entered the workforce. This experience led him to read ever more widely and to begin developing his notion of the “Socratic seminar” as a replacement for the traditional classroom lecture. Adler advocated the seminar, which involved a group of readers discussing a text as part of what his friend and colleague Robert Hutchins called the “great conversation” encompassing a series of “great books” picking up and in turn discussing each other’s arguments.

To the surprise of many, Adler’s idea resonated with factory workers and professionals who were hungry to discuss ideas that had long been thought of as the preserve of a small intellectual elite. Over the next several decades, Adler enshrined his Great Books in a widely popular series modelled on the Harvard Classics, wrote bestselling books, and encouraged the formation of discussion groups throughout the country among both business leaders and members of labor unions. A sign of the changing cultural landscape, the success of this last endeavor was cut short by the same cultural forces that saw College Bowl replaced by the Super Bowl in the wake of the television boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Undaunted, Adler stood fast in his belief that ideas were important, and that all people should have access to and be encouraged to engage with the Great Books. Although he attempted to reform American public primary and secondary education, these efforts met with little success, and his lasting legacy, though profoundly important, has been mostly limited to the college-level Great Books programs he inspired.

Dr. Senior’s Diagnosis and a Prescription for the Future

As a reviewer of the second edition of Adler’s Great Books remarked in 1991, one did not really need a five-foot shelf of handsome books. All that one needed was a list, sufficient leisure to read and think, and the desire to learn. Of the three, too little attention has been placed on the last, and no mention was made of what is surely also an essential ingredient: discipline. Already in the late 1960s, some had begun to see a problem in Adler’s approach: it took little consideration of what the ancients called propaideia or progymnasmata, the culture and discipline-forming practices that had been lost since 1900 and that many in the older generation took for granted. John Senior and his colleagues at the University of Kansas attempted to address this weakness with their short-lived but amazingly influential Integrated Humanities Program, which sought to provide the youth of the 1970s with the experience of reality of which they had been deprived by their suburban upbringing, dominated by mass-media, fast food, and consumerism. Senior argued that before students could profitably read the 100 great books, they needed to have read 1000 good books. Realizing such an ambitious program fell outside the bounds of a two-year general education program, he took his students out into the country to look at the stars and the Milky Way, to learn to dance and sing by firelight, and to memorize and recite the great poetry and tales of a tenuously intact tradition of folk culture.

Following Senior, there has been a continual erosion of even those parts of linguistic and literary education that had remained current through the 1970s. It is now possible to earn advanced degrees in English without reading Shakespeare or studying the extremely unfashionable discipline of philology. In their places, we have the seemingly endless production of new and fashionable critical theories, an ever-widening and debased sense of what constitutes literature worth studying, and instruction in composition that centers on creative self-expression rather than reason, argument, and persuasion. In an era when many English teachers would be hard-pressed to explain the subjunctive and imagine their role as challenging authority rather than teaching students to write effectively, it is unsurprising that many outside the educational establishment question the value of humane study. In brief, teachers of language arts have largely abdicated their traditional role as guardians of language. Many within the discipline celebrate this fact while, if enrollment numbers are any indication, most of those outside deplore it.

Almost everyone recognizes that the progressive system of education is not working. Intended originally to transform a largely agrarian population into efficient industrial workers, this model of education has had its day. Those within the educational establishment recognize that something is wrong, but their paradigm has not shifted. They retain the progressive belief that educational institutions should prepare people for employment rather than citizenship and, bowled over by the pace of technological change, they struggle to imagine how teachers and schools can adapt quickly enough to prepare their students for jobs and other forms of employment whose knowledge base and skillset are unknown and do not yet even exist. In contrast, over the past forty years, there has been an explosion in homeschooling and classical schools, both of which attempt to address the deficiencies of this by now traditional progressive educational regime. Using the old argument that a liberal education provides its charges with the stability needed to navigate a changing and chaotic world, they have proposed a variety of ways of moving forward by retrieving the wisdom of the past. This has led to myriad pedagogical approaches but little certainty as to what “classical education” is. Everyone seems to recognize that something is wrong with primary and secondary education, but few seem to know to what exactly they are trying to return.

A proper understanding of classical education can only be obtained through a study of the history of education, and this history is still being written. Once educators have a more thorough knowledge of this history, they will be in a better position to judge whether it is possible or even desirable to implement education’s classical form in order to meet today’s challenges. While the great writings and ideas of the past should of course occupy our minds and our curricula, we should re-examine the foundations of educational culture and see to what extent the disciplines of the past may also be profitably recovered and redeployed.

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The featured image is “Gelehrter über seinen Büchern” (1671) by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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