Do We Teach Western Civilization?

I have been trying to formulate a satisfactory answer to this question for as long as I have been in education. I have been involved in K-12 classical education for more than six years, including five years as a founding faculty member of a classical K-12 charter school in Savannah. Throughout that time, I have had to navigate the rather peculiar amalgam that is classical education and the perhaps more peculiar intricacies of American public education. And this question is one that has recurred, in various forms, throughout that time. Of course, depending on who puts it and how it is put, the expected answer can differ wildly.

A few examples:

The school at which I taught had some unique demographics when compared to classical schools in the United States. While the classrooms were diverse in effect, the students were more than three-quarters African American and more than three-quarters from low-income households. Most classical schools, whether private or charter, tend to be middle class—typically upper middle class—and overwhelmingly white. As can be imagined, our unique demographics presented us with some interesting challenges.

Before the school even opened its doors, for example, an editorial ran in a local newspaper decrying the Eurocentrism of the typical classical curriculum and demanding that “our children be taught our history.” This criticism was reiterated by the state of Georgia in their critique of our school a few years later, when they stated bluntly that a classical curriculum is “inappropriate for this demographic.” More recently, the members of the DC Public Charter School Board alleged that African American students might find a classical curriculum “alienating” during the public question-and-answer session with a group seeking to start a similar school.

These sorts of criticisms are, of course, not unique to the school that I was a part of. They are questions that are being raised in Classics as an academic field as well. The recent racist incident as a meeting of the Society for Classical Studies provides an example of the sort of debate that is going on in that field, as some classicists seek to hold on to an older theory of the Romans and the Greeks as the founders of Western Civilization while others aim for a broader interpretation of classics, perhaps even an elimination of Classics as a separate field in favor of a Department of Ancient History.

Personally, I have struggled with these questions.

One the one hand, I am aware of the history of classical education and of the academic field of Classics, and the ways in which both have been used to justify and perpetuate racism. There is a deep association between classicism and racism in the early modern era that continues even to the present day. Advocates of classical education often reiterate the racist arguments of their nineteenth-century forebears without even realizing that they are doing so. At the opening of our school, one prominent advocate of classical education spoke about the idea of “becoming fully human,” an idea with roots in classical humanism, but with some very troubling associations in south Georgia.

More than that, most classical schools seem like some sort of bizarre Victorian revivalism, idealizing the “tougher” educational practices of the a century ago. They seek to model themselves on whatever was done in schools before the influence of John Dewey, taking no account of the significantly changed world and changed United States that have been brought about by technology and globalization.

The most troubling aspect of the rhetoric and practice of contemporary K-12 classical education, I think, is the constant talk of the Platonic trinity of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful coupled with an emphasis on the Western canon. Each of these things on their own seems to me to be a good thing. I think it is good to want students to know what is virtuous and right, to seek the truth, and to recognize and appreciate beauty. And I tend to agree with the Great Books philosophy that some works are just time better than others. The problem arises, for me, when these two ideas are coupled. When a classical school proclaims that they guide students to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and then provide a reading list which consists entirely of authors from one rather small peninsula (that is, Europe), this is problematic. The not-too-subtle implication is that India, China, Africa—the whole rest of the world—have somehow fallen short of the Absolute, the Best, the Greatest. I agree with the DC Public Charter School Board; such a curriculum is indeed “alienating” for students of color—for any student, to be quite honest.

One the other hand, however, I think that the findings of E. D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy, have not been sufficiently taken into account by the critics of classical education, nor by the educational establishment as a whole. There has been enough discussion of Hirsch’s bestseller since it was published in the mid-1980s, and I don’t want to rehash the debate. But I can say with absolute certainty that my own experience has confirmed Hirsch’s findings for me.

After introductions on the first day of class of our new school, I spent some time trying to get a sense of what my students already knew so that I can build on their prior knowledge. I asked a series of what I thought were rather simple questions that any sixth-grade American student should know: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Can anyone name and point to all seven continent on the map of the world over here? What is this building called (pointing to my poster of the Parthenon)? Does anyone know who the first emperor of the Roman Empire was? After a moment of silence: Has anyone heard of the Roman Empire before? Silence.

This is disturbing. This should be disturbing to anyone reading this. Not one of my 50 sixth-graders could identify Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; could name and point to North and South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica on a map; had ever seen the Parthenon before; could identify Augustus Caesar as the first Roman emperor; or had even heard of the Roman Empire. Not one. This isn’t their fault, of course. The Georgia social studies curriculum for grades K-8 includes absolutely no history from before Christopher Columbus; that means no Mesopotamia, no Greece, no Rome, no Middle Ages. And what it does include seems more often than not to be a hodge-podge of this and that from modern history rather than any real narrative that would provide a sense of the scope of historical development in the world.

An all-European “Western canon” curriculum is alienating. However, an education that doesn’t provide a child with even a basic understanding of the world they live in and how it got to be this way is undoubtedly more alienating.

And so I find myself navigating these two extremes.

In my next post, I will continue this discussion.

The mind of the Founding Fathers

Our most recent readings for the Great Books of the Western World reading project are, I believe, among the most interesting that we have read this year as well as the most truly essential. Included in September’s readings are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few of the Federalist Papers, the editorials published by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison in defense of the Constitution.

Each of these readings is essential reading for an American and each is an exhibition of a belief that I have come over the past several years to hold: namely, that the United States is, while not the exclusive representative of Western Civilization, its most pure and significant representative. The work of the Founding Fathers is, in its essence, a distillation of all of the previous history and thought of Western Civilization. They drew, through their own classical educations, upon the history of the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans of the ancient world as well as the Christians of the Middle Ages and later who brought these previous cultures into a great synthesis within their new ideological context.

In so doing, the Founders of the United States drew out of each of these aspects of the heritage of Western Civilization the best elements and avoided the worst errors. The subsequent history of the United States has, in large part, been the sorting out of what all of this means. The Civil War, the various social movements of the last 150 years, and so on each have at their heart the question of what it all of this heritage means and how it is to be lived out. Because of this, these works are essential readings for all Americans as well as the other denizens of Western Civilization.

Book Review: The Great Tradition by Richard Gamble

It is widely recognized now that Western education is in a state of crisis and has been for more than a generation. What is, unfortunately, not widely recognized is the source of this crisis. With each attempt at reform, public education in the United States slips further away from authentic education into a vast abyss of Western self-hatred, technical and vocational training, and, ultimately, nihilism. What Richard Gamble offers here is that great chorus of voices that adjures and admonishes us to return to the proper course and to salvage education for the sake of civilization and mankind.

These pages include authors spanning nearly 3000 years. Not to be found among them, however, are the likes of Rousseau, Dewey, and others who would put education to the use of advancing an agenda entailing the dissolution of the Western tradition. Instead, we are treated to the great voices of wisdom from each era in the history of the West. Some of these voices are the very sources of that tradition, such as Plato and Aristotle, others the great passers-on of that tradition such as John of Salisbury and Petrarch. Others are the modern proponents of that tradition, even with the deluge of voices against it, such as T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson.

Each of these voices offers an unique perspective on the same Great Tradition. Some offer general guidance or argumentation in favor of an education in the classics. Others offer practical advice on what such an education should look like. A few provide programs of study.

What each presents is an education in the good, the true, and the beautiful. What each encourages us to cling to is the notion that there is what is and that it is our task, as the only animal capable of ascertaining what is, to discern and understand what is. In other words, there is a truth about the cosmos, about man, and about the divine order. The great task of a human being is to seek after that truth. A liberal education is the first step in that process, whereas vocational training coupled with a smattering of “humanities” from the relativist perspective is perhaps the soundest way ever invented to permanently maim the human mind and soul, rendering it incapable of pursuing truth.

This book should be required reading for every teacher education program, yet it never will be. It is, rather, the antidote to the modern system of mass education and all that it hopes to accomplish. I recommend this book for anyone interested in the restoration of authentic humane learning.

Book Review: The Devil Knows Latin by E. Christian Kopff

E. Christian Kopff goes a step further than most advocates of classical education today in his insistence upon a return to an authentic classical education that not only focuses on the “great books” and the great ideas they contain but that includes as its centerpiece a thorough study of classical languages and the classics in their original languages. Borrowing, perhaps, though without directly citing, the old motto of the Catholic schools in the United States that “language saves faith,” Kopff makes the case for a return to the study of Latin and Greek as the key to our heritage. As our culture has been handed down in these languages, the loss of knowledge of these languages must necessarily result in the loss of our culture.

From this, Kopff goes on to an assault upon the liberal establishment and the various changes it has instituted in public education in the United States from graduate schools to pre-kindergartens. With the loss of our past and the resultant “alienation from our own history” (p. 99) we have dived head first into the Enlighten Project of creating the new from nothing and forging our own “brave new world.” As Kopff points out, however, with the loss of the antecedent ideas upon which the status quo is based comes an inevitable disjointedness and lack of direction within modern thought. With the loss of the age old ideas and eternal truths which have hitherto informed our civilization comes the loss of the basis upon which that civilization was built. Thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King have drawn upon unique ideas of Western Civilization to advance the cause of human rights and dignity. With the loss of these ideas, goes the effects they have had.

Kopff proceeds then to a series of vignettes, examining the lives of outstanding individuals, certain important ideas, and some recently published lists of books and movies that ostensibly rank as “the best” of the past century. With each look, Kopff further illustrates his overarching thesis about the consequences of the loss of language in the loss of culture. Along the way, he provides a great deal of insight on topics as diverse as James Joyce andThe Godfather movie series.

Finally, Kopff concludes with a treatment of some practical concerns. Without delving too deeply into what a curriculum might look like at the grade school level, he offers some sound insight, advising that early education should focus on language and mathematics, thereby planting the seeds for further growth later. Language, of course, is the key to all of the humanities and mathematics the key to all of the sciences. With a firm foundation in these one will indeed have access to a liberal education. He also, helpfully, offers some suggestions on books from which to learn the classical languages as an adult as well as from which to teach the classical languages to children.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in education, particularly to those who wish to discern where we have gone wrong and what can be done to correct the many and great problems which currently define the American system of public education.