According to Dorothy Sayers, classical education is not as much an orthodox literary corpus as it is a mindset and a methodology. It is not merely the content of the Great Books, but the tools used in learning any book, which modern education has lost and needs to recover. In the ideal classical form, the student is not taught what to think but how to think.
In writing about classical education, I would like to begin by diverting the reader’s attention to an illustration. Let us consider a ubiquitous device of our modern age: the GPS. Gone are the days when one would rely on a friend, the cashier, or a stranger to relay the way to us in narrative form. We would rather simply enter co-ordinates into our devices than bear the burden of carrying a map in our heads.
But more disturbing than our reliance on the GPS is our curious subservience to it. I have seen people (not excluding myself) use it for even the most simple and routine destinations: the local grocery store, or a friend’s house. Now that I have a GPS, I no longer need to remember these details. And how often have we denied our own instincts to turn right when the unwavering synthetic voice dictates that we turn left? Granted, when we find ourselves in a pickle, the gadgets of the digital revolution may in fact be life-saving. But when the same gadgets are incorporated as a regimen of our existence, they not only become impractical but deadly. There are many accounts of these devices leading the driver to the wrong destinations—or worse, leading him into lakes or into oncoming traffic. Additionally, few anticipate the possibility of their phones dying, or losing connection: Therefore, once they are lost, they are truly lost.
This is the challenge that resisting the culture of convenience and efficiency presents to us. Nobody who relies only on a GPS for navigation will ever master the art of navigation. Those who can only cook by following a cookbook will never master the art of cooking. If one’s musical education involves only learning pop songs from a YouTube tutorial, he will not acquire the first principles of music. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with these tools. The problem arises in how we are using them. An antibiotic can work wonders when you get an infected tooth, but nobody in his right mind believes that taking a daily antibiotic could in any way be a substitute for brushing, flossing, and limiting sugar intake, or that an antibiotic is a permanent fix for an abscessed molar.
In the end, the shortcut is no shortcut. Because we learn nothing, we retain nothing. Because we retain nothing, we must expend precious energy frantically appealing to Google every time we encounter a new situation. Googling “how to jump-start a dead car battery” may help us get to work on time, but it will not do anything toward helping us understand why the battery went dead in the first place, or even the first principles of general electrical theory. Hopefully, we will retain enough knowledge to jump-start our next battery failure, but the knowledge will do us no good when we blow a circuit breaker in our house. We must “Google it” all over again. And again. And again. Every time we get behind the wheel, we must re-invent it.
But our addiction to convenience is merely a symptom of the illness, not the illness itself. I suggest the problem lies in the very way we have come to understand learning—more specifically, how we have come to understand education. Many in my generation graduate from college and attempt to enter into the workforce with no conception of where they are going. What’s worse, they have lost all interest in actually getting there. While some students do indeed successfully transition straight from college to a comfortable, well-paying job, others have somehow missed the exit. They are more likely to wind up serving coffee and applying for unpaid internships for the next five years to gain more “experience.” Unfortunately, five more years of experience will do no better than fifty if we cannot navigate what the late Ravi Zacharias called the “crisis of meaning.”
Christians believe they have solutions to the crisis of meaning. Most of these solutions are based on creeds, confessions, teachings, or catechisms which summarize and frame for us spiritual truths and point us toward spiritual solutions. But there is one solution that tends to cut across creeds and confessions, and this is the one we will consider here: classical education. “Classical” and “Christian” education (sometimes used interchangeably) expanded exponentially in the late 20th century, especially in the 90s. For those who identify with the movement, Dorothy Sayers is a household name. Her 1948 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” is an indispensable handbook for identifying the fundamental fault in American education, particularly regarding the compartmentalization of academic subjects and the absence of any spiritual or moral perspective. Sayers reveals her diagnosis through a series of provocative Socratic questions:
Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee-meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?
Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly and properly documented, and one that is to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?
It is a primary concern of Sayers that the modern student (public or private, secular or religious) cannot see the relation between “algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon, cellulose and the distribution of rainfall”—all of which comprise the heart and soul of the “liberal” arts. “They learn everything, except the art of learning,” argues Sayers, breeding a generation of youths who are unable to cry “Distinguo” and thus rendered defenseless targets of mass propaganda.
As a teacher, I took a long and circuitous route before I arrived at the threshold of classical education. American public schools have had their own whack at mending the crisis of meaning. Unfortunately, most of it involves little more than rearranging the classroom desks or circulating empty rhetoric about “creating an atmosphere of joy” and encouraging “reciprocal teaching.” Most frequently, as Sayers observes, it means knocking off all the fetters of structure and discipline and letting the child “express himself.” In my experience as a debate coach, the fruits of this philosophy have proven disastrous. Entering the world of secular competitive forensics, I was stunned to find that the students had virtually no foundation in logic, reasoning, the principles of rhetoric, or even manners. If you do not teach the student the art of navigation, it is better to mindlessly follow a GPS than nothing at all.
Disillusioned by the Western style of education, I turned to the East for answers. In the 2015 PISA survey measuring academic performance, seven out of the top ten performers were all from Asian countries. Singaporean students took the cake, ranking #1 in the world in math, reading, and science. In comparison, U.S. students staggered sorely behind, ranking 25th in all three subjects. In America, I had been taught to distrust authoritarian education. It creates power imbalances, they told me. It stifles true thinking. It traumatizes the student. And above all, it doesn’t work. Some of these charges are somewhat true. However, even if all we have is the test data, no one can argue that authority-based education doesn’t work. Clearly, something was working in Asian countries, and with nothing much else to go on, I took a teaching job in China to figure it out for myself.
I have nothing but positive things to say regarding the inherent respect for teachers embedded in Asian culture. In this capacity I hail Eastern learning as a corrective counterpoint to the West. However, neither environment seemed to provide propitious conditions for fostering original thinkers. While Japan ranks #2 in academic performance, it has a famously high suicide rate. In 2014, suicide was the leading cause of death in youth between the ages of 10 and 18, many of which stemmed from family pressures, school bullying, or stringent academic environments. Even if they are in many ways outperforming the West, the East has come no closer to solving the crisis of meaning.
Exhausted by all other options, we come back at last to Dorothy Sayers. Nobody, in all my research, has offered a more viable and robust ethos for modern education. Sayers writes,
If we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.
For Sayers, the new ethos necessitates a return to the medieval model of education, which consisted in the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) preceded the Quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) and were the foundational principles from which all other subjects were derived. None of these subjects are necessarily being neglected in the modern curriculum (except, sadly, astronomy). What interests the classical educator is how the student is taught to understand and connect them. Grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric are considered foundational because language is the atomic building block of the psyche (ψυχη). The student learns to decline his Latin nouns for the same reason the musician practices her scales: Ethos, pathos, and logos are the piano keys of human expression. These principles, while initially restrictive, will ultimately increase the student’s freedom to manipulate words effectively and exponentially expand the faculty for expression. With this foundation, the student can move on to logic, mathematics, history, and virtually any other subject of his choosing with a properly oriented internal dialectic, significantly increasing not only his likelihood of success but also his enjoyment of learning.
The classical movement founded on the Sayers’ vision is not without its critics. Some of the criticisms from the secular front have already been winsomely refuted by other contributors of The Imaginative Conservative such as David Deavel. I intend here to address some of the criticisms that occur from within. Even among communities who share the same educational values, it is difficult to provide a reliable definition of the word classical, much less define what a classical education is. Some have argued, for example, that Sayers misappropriated the Trivium and Quadrivium by wedding it with a contemporary psychological understanding of childhood development. There is a grain of truth to this argument, but Sayers cannot be justly accused of misunderstanding the medieval model herself. She admitted in her own words that she wished to provide a modern Trivium—“with modifications.” The definition of what is classical and what is not is by no means straightforward. Classical purists who criticize Sayers would, if they were consistent, insist that all classical studies be conducted only in Latin and Greek. Sayers herself had the requisite language mastery to actually do this. Most of her critics do not.
Having reflected on the subject, there seems to me to be roughly six different ways of using the word “classical,” which I will outline below. To navigate this territory successfully, it pays to understand the lay of the classical geography.
1) The historical definition: The historical definition refers to the culture and history which emerged from Ancient Greece between the 5th and 4th century B.C. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are among the thinkers of this period who are indisputably referred to as “classical.” However, even this can be used loosely as Homer and Virgil are not technically from the same chronological “classical” era though they are still considered foundational to classical studies. Additionally, the historical definition of “classical” can also refer to the classical period in music (1750-1830) between the Baroque era (1600-1750) and Romantic period (1815-1910.)
2) The literary definition: This definition includes the entire corpus of “The Great Books” that traditionally constitute the Western literary canon, spanning works as diverse as Plato’s Republic, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, and Darwin. Any enduring work up to the 19th century sits comfortably in this category, whereas most 20th-century authors have not yet earned a unanimous consensus.
3) The aesthetic definition: Any work of art that is remembered with fondness, or has had a significant impact on the speaker’s life, may be referred by him or her as “classic.” Of all the definitions, this one has the least to do with chronology. I have had friends and acquaintances who refer to Roald Dahl, Star Wars, Finding Nemo, or even Arthur as “classic,” by which we all understand them to mean their favorite childhood books and movies. Whether these works have any real lasting impact is irrelevant to this meaning of the word (they may or may not). It is more of a personal taste relative to the individual.
4) The cultural definition: Broadway shows and movies may fall under this category. Since movies are a fairly novel art form, film historians are somewhat ambiguous on the meaning of “classic” movies. Great movies, influential movies, and financially successful movies are all often conflated. It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and E.T. are all considered “classics.” In Broadway, one might think of West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, or Les Miserables. Some may say this is no different from the aesthetic definition, but I disagree. The cultural definition is less subjective than the aesthetic because it considers the degree of influence as a criterion for admission.
5) The lexical definition: In its purest form, “classical” simply means “authoritative” or “traditional”—as Merriam-Webster defines it, “of or relating to a form or system considered of first significance in earlier times.” In this sense, one might refer to any “original” or “traditional” practice as classical, such as “classic rock” or “classical physics.” I would also include the linguistic definition such as “Classical Greek” or “Classical Chinese” in this category; however, there is some nuance here that is up for debate.
6) The sixth and final definition is the educational definition. This is the definition which most concerns us, and has, in its most current iteration, come to mean instruction in the humanities and the fine arts. In my experience, classical education focuses primarily on the first and second definition of classical. But I have heard it used in all the other senses of the word and perhaps, I should add, indiscriminately and with little clarification. As a result, I have seen books such as Charlotte’s Web, Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hobbit (all great books) included on the same shelves as the Iliad and Hamlet as part of a “classical curriculum.”
We must admit then, that the current popular understanding of classical education may have drifted slightly from Sayers’ original vision, and the term has been used spuriously for the purposes of academic marketing. It is absolutely crucial at this cultural juncture to emerge with a clear definition of the classical, especially since universities are now putting the entire Western canon up for trial for being composed of “dead white European males.” Conservatives who wish to preserve the Great Books are being required to make a sturdy defense. But what does a sturdy defense look like? How do we best answer the “why”?
For Sayers, the question is answered in the asking. To answer the “why” is the skill of the classically educated. For this reason, Sayers’ definition of the classical is (if you have not yet grown weary of hearing the word) the most classical of them all. Classical education is not as much an orthodox literary corpus as it is a mindset and a methodology. In the ideal classical form, the student is not taught what to think but how to think. As indicated by the title of Sayers’ essay, it is not merely the content of the Great Books, but the tools used in learning any book, which modern education has lost and needs to recover. Once the student is equipped thus, no work, old or new, should be out of his grasp. The world is his oyster.
In conclusion, Sayers’ “modifications” to the medieval model are not motivated by compromise, but by a deep rootedness in truly classical values. Having mastered the art of persuasion, she is readily familiar with the responsibilities of those who wish to be a winsome apologist for tradition. She does not commit the fallacy of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”: that is, appealing to an older system merely because it is old. She does not even necessarily make her argument for classical education on the basis that it is effective. Sayers makes a far bolder claim: Classical education is superior because it is most congenial to the God-given entelecheia of the human being and the human relationship to the created universe. That it is both effective and a glorious tradition is almost secondary to this startling fact.
While acknowledging the critiques from both within and without the classical movement (for dialectic is a classical virtue), we must keep in mind that any modern classical education, even at its best, would still not be a perfect restoration of the medieval model as it was conducted in the Middle Ages. Nor should we want it to be. We no longer speak Greek and Latin. We are the beneficiaries of the printing press and the internet. Sayers would not argue that we should eschew these advancements in technology (not even, necessarily, the GPS). A student who is primarily interested in physics should not have to endure a class in Shakespeare on the grounds that it is “classical.” Rather, he or she should see (we would hope) the relationship between Shakespeare and physics, and therefore be able to say of both: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In doing so, the student weds the knowledge of the sciences with the wisdom of the humanities and recalibrates his internal compass with true North at the center. Armed with Sayers’ toolkit, the student is at last ready to confront the dark and confused landscape of the modern world and not only survive, but triumph.
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The featured image is “The Sense of Sight” (1617) by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.