Apologists for Greek and Latin have lately dwindled. Yet in the past several years there have been some notable attempts to save classical education from utter extinction—one of which is Tracy Lee Simmons’ “Climbing Parnassus.”
Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, by Tracy Lee Simmons (290 pages, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2007)
As the subtitle of his book acknowledges, Tracy Lee Simmons is not the first to defend the classics. In the principal address on the 215th anniversary of the founding of Harvard University, James Russell Lowell reminded his audience that, although the ancient languages may be “dead,” the literature they enshrine “is rammed with life as perhaps no other writing, except Shakespeare’s, ever was or will be.” He maintained that the Greco-Roman languages speak to us as much as they spoke to the contemporaries of Homer or Virgil, for these languages appeal “not to the man of then or now, but to the entire round of human nature itself.”
Nearly six decades later, in 1908, Harvard Professor Irving Babbitt called Lowell’s address “the most eloquent appeal that has been made of late years for a more liberal study of the classics.” Before the First World War, Babbitt and fellow leader of the New Humanism, Paul Elmer More, wrote their own apologies for Greek and Latin. Like Mr. Simmons they knew that the modern objection to schooling in the immortal languages arises, as More put it, from “an instinctive suspicion of them as standing in the way of a downward-leveling mediocrity.” As Climbing Parnassus has done again, Babbitt and More encouraged a rearguard action to counteract the desultory tendencies of American education.
More examined these tendencies in Aristocracy and Justice, a scrupulous treatise in which he criticized the overgrowth at the undergraduate level “of courses in government and sociology, which send men into the world skilled in the machinery of statecraft and with minds sharpened to the immediate demands of special groups, but with no genuine training of the imagination and no understanding of the longer problems of humanity.” More was not suggesting that such courses are inherently bad. He was merely saying that, as a background to them or to other courses in any of the branches of human knowledge, “there should be a common intellectual training through which all students should pass, acquiring thus a single body of ideas and images in which they [can] always meet as brother initiates.”
In Literature and the American College, Babbitt argued that the aim of education is to forge the minds and characters of future leaders, and he asserted that the proven way to forge the minds and characters of undergraduates is to steep them in Greek and Latin. In this, one of his most important books, Babbitt challenged banal misconceptions about the purpose of studying the classics. What he wrote remains pertinent. Although Southern poet and man of letters Allen Tate harshly censured Babbitt’s New Humanism, he continued to recognize the genius of Literature and the American College. “It is still quoted,” he said, “but there is no reason to believe that its message has ever been taken seriously by the men who most need it.”
Tate was another champion of the classics. At Vanderbilt, where he matriculated in 1918, he received instruction from truly educated men of the kind remembered and celebrated in Climbing Parnassus. Take, for instance, his Greek teacher, Herbert Cushing Tolman. At the end of one class period Tolman recited a free translation of one of Pindar’s odes. When he was done, Tate raised his hand and asked, “Dr. Tolman, could we have read that translation somewhere?” To which Professor Tolman politely replied, “No, Sir, my reading is the way John Dryden might have rendered it into English prose.” Like Simmons, Tolman and his colleagues did not view Greek and Latin as curricular superfluities; they saw them as an indispensable means of honing minds.
Yet even while Tate struggled with his Greek declensions, Vanderbilt administrators and progressive faculty were beginning to consider changes then being adopted across the country to make university learning “practical” and more “sensitive” to perceived student needs. These changes stemmed from a growing emphasis on “career training,” the implicit end of which was to prepare students to “function” efficiently in the workaday world. According to those who embraced the changes, impractical subjects such as Greek and Latin could benefit no one except the instructor employed to teach them. Tate knew better, however, and he along with professors John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson vociferously, if futilely, denounced the timeserving innovations that finally dissipated Vanderbilt’s classical orientation and ultimately resulted in the present educational system, which Mr. Simmons rightly charges with doing nothing well and many things badly.
The last century heard from other apologists for Greek and Latin besides those recollected above. Most, though, were among what Mr. Simmons describes as the last group of writers, reared and educated between 1870 and 1920, “whose early exposure to classical rigors at school allowed them as adults to be literary masters and gourmands.” This band of cultivated men consisted of W. Somerset Maugham, R.W. Livingstone, Rupert Brooke, Ronald Knox, C.S. Lewis, Albert Jay Nock, Robert Graves, and Louis MacNeice. It also included W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, in whom Mr. Simmons finds especial inspiration.
In a utilitarian age like ours, wrote the former, “the modern revolt against centering the school curriculum around the study of Latin and Greek is understandable,” although it is “deplorably mistaken.” Auden avowed that few persons of his generation ever “kept up” their Greek and Latin after leaving school, but he was certain that something of real value abided nonetheless: “Anybody who has spent many hours in 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 in any other way.” Such effort, he added, “inculcates the habit, whenever one uses a word, of automatically asking, ‘what is its exact meaning?’ ”
Waugh agreed. Although in later life he admitted to remembering no Greek and to having never read Latin for pleasure, he expressed no regrets for having devoted countless hours of his boyhood to the supposed dead languages: “I believe that the conventional defense of them is valid; that only by them can a boy fully understand that a sentence is a logical construction and that words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity.”
Both Waugh and Auden thought that persons never schooled in Greek and Latin suffer a most unfortunate deprivation, a sentiment shared wholeheartedly by Mr. Simmons. Those who have been most deprived ever “since classical education became ‘undemocratic,’ ” Auden observed, “are not the novelists and poets—their natural love of language sees them through—but all those, like politicians, journalists, lawyers, the man-in-the-street, etc., who use language for everyday and nonliterary purposes.”
Apologists for Greek and Latin have lately dwindled. Yet in the past several years there have been some notable attempts to save classical education from utter extinction. In 1999, E. Christian Kopff took his stand with The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition. Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath took theirs more recently, in 2001, when they co-wrote Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. In the same year, Drs. Hanson and Heath joined forces with Bruce S. Thornton to produce Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age. But nobody since the death of Auden has made a stand as delightfully instructive as the one we find in Climbing Parnassus.
In the bulk of his book, which consists chiefly in a history of classical learning from the Lacedaemonians to the Edwardians, Mr. Simmons shows that, up to the beginning of the last century, the end of education was not, as it seems to be now, to encourage individual cleverness at the expense of collective prudence. Or as Mr. Simmons says, it was not, as “historian Jacques Barzun has written, ‘to make ideal citizens, super-tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars.’ ” What our ancestors understood to be the object of education is best expressed by the word Paideia, says Mr. Simmons, which he defines as “enculturation,” in the sense of “instilling core values, enunciating standards, and setting moral precepts.”
And even though the multiculturalists, at least the more radical, insist “that all societies—all ways of life, all ways of thinking and feeling, all modes of expression—are equally valuable and worth the narrow beaming of academic study,” Mr. Simmons uses the root of the word enculturation to distinguish between “lower and higher, better and best.” In short, his use of culture is “unapologetically evaluative.” Cultural achievements elevate, Mr. Simmons emphasizes. They do more than merely entertain; they expose “us to something better than we could find elsewhere” and “make us better as well—healthier intellectually and emotionally.”
What ramifies throughout Climbing Parnassus is a clear distinction between “instrumental” and “formative” education. Mr. Simmons explains that the purpose of the former, traditionally referred to as “vocational training,” has been to teach us “how to do, make, and change things.” Formative education, on the other hand, aims to fashion character around the Good and the Beautiful, just as one might bend twigs and incline trees to assume a pleasing shape. The importance of instrumental training to civilization is obvious, but until very recently it has never been confused with education, in the proper sense of the word. The ancients knew, and Mr. Simmons affirms, that the really educated mind is “the formed mind.”
Mr. Simmons does not expect us all to run out and hire language tutors, although many readers will be disposed to do so after hearing what he has to say. Nevertheless, he hopes that America will soon begin to recover the wisdom of the ages by encouraging more of its children to immerse themselves in the essential languages of their intellectual heritage. He would have this country’s most educable young women and men aspire to climb Parnassus, his symbol for all that obtains in Greek and Latin, and gain from that arduous ascent the ennobled bent of mind that distinguished their nation’s classically trained founding fathers.
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The featured image is a detail from Apollo and the “Muses on Mount Parnassus” by a follower of Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.