When most people imagine a classical school, they probably think of a K-12 institution with a compulsory Latin curriculum focusing on grammatical analysis and close translation, an integrated approach to humanities that takes inspiration from the Great Books programs developed over the last sixty years, and some compromise with the conventional STEM-orientation in science and math, perhaps incorporating readings from the “great texts” of science produced since 1600. The historical reality of classical education is quite different. From antiquity to its eclipse in the nineteenth-century, a classical education essentially meant one thing: Latin. Latin was the medium of instruction, and mastery of Latin was the single goal. History, language, literature, and composition were all components of a single Latin-based and Latin-centered curriculum, and what instruction took place in the subjects we now call STEM was largely limited to arithmetic and geometry with some exposure to algebra. Experimental science was wholly absent. This curriculum was not broad, but it was deep, and it produced people who were masters of language and who, through exposure to the theoretical and practical philosophy enshrined by the classical authors, approached Quintillian’s ideal of the “vir bonus, dicendi peritus.”
With some liberty, we might translate this formula as “a virtuous person who is an expert public speaker.” This phrase, which Quintillian attributes to Cato the Elder, neatly summarizes the two-fold aim of traditional classical education. In the first instance, the goal of classical education was to form its charges into virtuous actors through exposure to conventional morality. They passed on this morality primarily through the media of fable and historical exempla. The ancients, medievals, and humanists all believed that history was both the highest form of rhetoric and a branch of practical philosophy whose value was presenting patterns of behavior that taught students about human nature and furnished them with examples of virtue and vice to be imitated or avoided. Absent from any such conception of history was the idea of cultural, intellectual, or social development. Antony and Cicero stand alongside Demosthenes and Philip as eternal exemplars of positive and negative expressions of statesmanship, recurrent types laid out for imitation and emulation. As late as the second half of the nineteenth century, we read of the young Winston Churchill’s earliest oratorical triumph when he recited Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome at an event at Harrow, his boarding school. Such displays, still common in our great grandparents’ day, connected students to a stable tradition of moral formation and public service that united historical study with performance.
Even the strongest advocates of classical education struggle to appreciate how limited its curricular basis was. Consisting of ancient history, primarily narrated through the “lives” of its great actors, epic and lyric poetry, and classical oratory, this educational model did not aim to be comprehensive. What little direct philosophical and ethical instruction was obtained from the rhetoricians Isocrates and Cicero rather than Plato and Aristotle. The appeal was protreptic or hortatory rather than theoretical or systematic. Now almost forgotten texts like the Dream of Scipio and the Distichs of Cato served alongside Christ’s parables to furnish students with models of behavior and matter for contemplation rather than definitions and formulae. If this shocks us, we ought to remember that no less a political philosopher than the author of City of God claimed to be ignorant of Greek, and that his early philosophical training consisted almost solely of Cicero’s Hortensius, an unfortunately lost protreptic, and a few libri platonici, late antique philosophical textbooks whose synthetic mixture of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism the nineteenth-century historians of philosophy worked so hard to analyze, chop up, and rearrange into a logical narrative that explained the development of ideas but no longer could claim to provide guidance towards achieving eternal wisdom.
And yet, there was wisdom in this radically limited approach. Ancient, medieval, and early modern education had an oratorical orientation, recognizing that it was training leaders rather than experts. People who had been taught to imitate the classical authors, to analyze and understand their language, to construct valid arguments, and to make them persuasive, and who had committed to memory the virtuous and vicious deeds of the their noble predecessors had all the skills necessary to build civilization and inspire their peers to virtuous action. Whether we look to the Roman procurators and Chinese Mandarins of the empires of antiquity, the monks and scholastics of the medieval Church, or the bureaucrats and pioneers of more recent times, we see the constant of stable, efficient civil service carried out by leaders trained to revere a literary canon, to study it with traditional disciplines, and to see the unchanging contours of wise self-governance and prudent leadership in a constantly changing world. Although it is certainly mythical, perhaps no image more powerfully represents this ideal than that of our own frontier lawyers, who, like Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard, went to bring order to the Wild West armed only with copies of Vergil, Blackstone, and the Bible in their saddlebags. For all this, we cannot help but notice that the foundations of civil society rest on the spiritual products of this older form of education rather than on the material and technological advancements of our (post-) industrial economy.
In continental Europe and the United States, this truly classical education had largely disappeared already by 1850, replaced by technical approaches in both the sciences and the humanities. But in England, the old tradition tenaciously held on in the “public” schools and the ancient universities, where it did not wholly disappear until the 1960s. While many marvel at the linguistic attainments of products of this system like Tolkien and Lewis, they do not realize that they came at the expense of the study of modern history, English literature, and experimental science. It all comes down to a question of time. Producing men and women with the mastery of language demonstrated by professors Lewis and Tolkien takes time and focus that educators such as Charles Eliot, John Dewey, and even Mortimer Adler considered already at the beginning of the twentieth century not worth the investment. As anyone involved in primary and secondary education knows, balancing curriculum is always a zero-sum game. Making way for computer science and Chinese necessarily involves decreasing time devoted to literature and music theory.
Few now would consider a return to the Latin-centered curriculum of the past desirable if it were even possible. What this means practically is that for the foreseeable future we will not be resurrecting classical education but rather recapitulating and creatively redeploying it, taking inspiration from the past but not working in organic continuity with it. Whether we imagine a school centered on Latin or the much more likely possibility of one centered on the classics of the English language, what we seek to regain are the arts of language at the expense of technical training. In contrast to so much contemporary humanities scholarship, we seek to recognize that language is the medium and master of all academic subjects and as such deserves our focused attention. Language is uniquely powerful, and a knowledge of how to interpret it, construct arguments, and make it persuasive cannot but be among the most useful and practical skills that any student could possess. So, we look in the first place to retrieve the disciplines of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These abstract systems must be married to an integrated approach to humane study that seeks to build and foster a common culture, rooted in a broad tradition, rather than an approach that seeks to deconstruct and unsettle that culture and substitute a present-minded enthusiasm for relevance that must ultimately result in the ignorance of students and teachers alike.
Deciding what should form the basis of that common culture, defining classical education more precisely, and determining how one might go about building on the present retrieval of the arts of language to effect a renewal of the arts of number in a truly integrated concept of classical education must be addressed elsewhere. For now, we must develop an appreciation of the modern origins of many of the features of what we consider to be “classical” education, their provisional nature, and the historical reality of what constituted education and learned culture from the first century to the beginning of the nineteenth. These all are essential as we look now to a restoration and renovation of the disciplines in our time. Having preserved the Great Books from oblivion, we can now build up a culture to sustain them. With institutions and organizations devoted to fostering classical education, we now have the resources and leisure, if not to turn back the clock, at least to offer an alternative and parallel system of schools, examinations, colleges, universities, and certifications that take the best of the deep tradition of classical education, renewing our contact with the wisdom of bygone ages through the redeployment of the disciplines that, although almost forgotten for a century, are now being rediscovered and brought to classrooms across the United States.
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The featured image is Banquet Scene in a Renaissance Hall (1628) by Dirck Hals (1591-1656) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.