English and the Classics

In his 1915 collection of essays on Aristocracy and Justice, Paul Elmer More argues that “the classics, with the accompaniment of philosophy and the mathematical sciences” should form the core of a college curriculum. The simultaneous orderliness and difficulty of Latin and Greek, he writes, make these languages the perfect backbone to a “disciplinary education,” an education which produces orderly and intelligent minds. “It almost inevitably happens that a course in English literature,” or in the literature of any other modern language, he argues, “either degenerates into the dull memorizing of dates and names or, rising into the O Altitudo, evaporates in romantic gush over beautiful passages.” As a result, these languages and the literatures written in them are unfit to be placed at the center of a system of education. While it seems clear that there is a great deal of benefit to be derived from the study of the Greek and Latin languages as well as the literatures written in them, More’s dismissal of the study of English literature as inevitably consisting only of rote memorization of trivia on the one hand or mindless emotionalism on the other is an unnecessary exaggeration that serves as an opening to find fault with his position.

More’s assertion that the difficulty of Latin and Greek qualifies them for a place of preeminence in a “disciplinary education, for example, falls short of reason. There are, after all, much more difficult languages to learn than either Latin or Greek. A language in which meaning is invested in tone, such as Mandarin Chinese, is decidedly more difficult for native speakers of European languages to learn, for example, than their own language’s European antecedents in Greek and Latin. More himself taught Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language of great difficulty, at Harvard University for several years. Furthermore, the implication that a language, or anything else at all, is better because it is more difficult is unwarranted. There is no inevitable connection between the difficulty of an activity and its qualitative effect upon the person performing it.

If what More intends is that Latin and Greek, because of their difficulty in conjunction with their orderliness, serve to develop the reasoning skills of those who learn them, this is certainly to be admitted. Yet the same could surely be asserted about the mastery of the English language and the reading of English literature, contrary to More’s assertion that these inevitably degrade into memorization and emotion. Memorizing the declensions of Latin nouns and Greek verb forms no doubt builds discipline and memory. Studying the sonnets of Shakespeare or, for that matter, the striving of Ernest Hemingway after perfectly succinct sentences is, however, certain to produce the same sorts of results.

If it is the content of the works to be found in Latin and Greek that is of the greatest concern, it can hardly be asserted that the works of authors writing in Latin and Greek is more universal or humane than those writing in English. Shakespeare’s tragedies are as much a school of virtue, for example, as are the works of Homer or any of the Greek playwrights. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are as much, and perhaps more, a celebration and elaboration of the panoply of human possibilities as are Plutarch’s biographies. It cannot be asserted with any truth that the authors of Greek and Latin literature have outstripped the authors of English literature in their appeal to the universally and humanly true.

When Greek and Latin are considered side-by-side with English, the observation and prescription of Winston Churchill, a superb writer and speaker of English who was never able to fully master either Latin or Greek, seems closer to the mark than More’s thought. “Naturally I am biassed in favour of boys learning English,” he wrote in his biography, “I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.”

Liberal education and a free society

In a letter, written in 1813, to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson explains the steps taken by the Virginia “legislature after the Declaration of Independance” to eradicate the vestiges of the old world aristocracy that had taken hold on the American landscape.[1] First, he says, they “passed a law abolishing entails” and “this was followed by one abolishing the privilege of Primogeniture.” He claims that “these laws . . . laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy. And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat.”[2] This final law, not adopted by the state of Virginia, included as its central component a plan to provide for the equality of opportunity of all people through the discernment of what Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents.”[3] Opposing this “natural aristocracy” to the “Pseudo-aristocrac[ies]” of physical strength and inherited wealth and titles, Jefferson saw the cultivation of a true aristocracy as an endeavor essential the continued life and vitality of the new American Republic. By ensuring that all Americans had access to at least a rudimentary version of a liberal education, this natural aristocracy could be cultivated and prepared for positions of leadership in the republic. Simultaneously, the very process by which this natural aristocracy was discerned would allow all Americans to be provided with the foundational knowledge and inculcated with the civic virtue necessary to a citizenry that is able to sustain a free society.

In his letter to Adams, Jefferson then briefly describes the framework of the “Bill for the more general diffusion of learning” he had proposed.[4] His plan would “divide every county” of the state of Virginia “into wards of 5. or 6. miles square.” Within “each ward . . . a free school” would be established “for reading, writing and common arithmetic.” From each of these ward schools, an “annual selection” would be made “of the best subjects . . . who might receive at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school.” There would, in turn, be a selection “from these district schools . . . [of] a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught.” By means of this process of common education for all and selection of the best students for higher levels of education, Jefferson says, “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”[5] Jefferson sought to supplant the aristocracy of “wealth and birth,” replacing it with the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents” in a single generation, through his program of public education.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson provides more detail on the plan of education he had proposed, including the sort of curriculum appropriate to students selected for each level of education and the overall goals of this program. While his letter to Adams lists only “reading, writing and common arithmetic” as the disciplines to be taught in the first level of schools, to which “every person . . . [is] entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it,”[6] his Notes on the State of Virginia indicates a decidedly wider purview for the ward schools. “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds,” writes Jefferson, “wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here.”[7] As such, there will, undoubtedly, be a focus upon the basic skills of writing, reading, and arithmetic. These schools will also, however, ensure that children’s “memories may . . . be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” The education at this initial stage is, in fact, “to be chiefly historical.”[8] Jefferson explains,

History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

This first level of education is that which will be received by all people. This is, therefore, the stage at which it is most important to instill a knowledge of their heritage and of human nature, knowledge that is essential to the development of the ability to identify and eliminate incipient tyranny.

In addition to this induction into historical knowledge, “the first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds.” This morality, writes Jefferson, is not yet to be that of “the Bible and Testament” as the “judgments” of these young children “are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.” Instead, the morality inculcated in the children should be such as is conducive to the development of that civic virtue which is necessary to members of a free society. It should, writes Jefferson, be “such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”[9]

The morality the children are to be taught, then, are the virtues of self-reliance, hard work, and responsibility.  In short, they are to be inculcated with the virtues of an industrious and freedom-loving people.

Following this basic education, most of the students will return to their homes prepared to take up the tasks both of their respective occupations as well as the preservation of a free society. Some, however, “whom either the wealth of their parents or the adoption of the state shall destine to higher degrees of learning, will go on to the grammar schools, there to be instructed in the languages.”[10] In a prescient forewarning of what was to come in both the grammar schools and institutions of higher learning in the United States, Jefferson notes that “the learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe . . . but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their  example in this instance.”[11] The memory at this stage in the child’s life, “from eight to fifteen or sixteen years of age,” is so “susceptible and tenacious of impressions” that “it seems precisely fitted to the powers of this period” to acquire “the most useful languages ancient and modern.”[12] In addition, “the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.” By this means, the memory will be exercised and the intellect excited. This stimulation of the mind through the activity of the acquisition of language and the contemplation of the wisdom gleaned from those texts used in language instruction preserves the mind from the “idleness” that would allow it to become “lethargic and impotent.” “As soon as they are of sufficient age,” says Jefferson, “it is supposed they will be sent on from the grammar schools to the university, which constitutes our third and last stage, there to study those sciences which may be adapted to their views.”[13]

Having explained his proposed system of education, Jefferson concludes with an explanation of the logic of his plan. One of the goals of his program is “to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.”[14] This equality of opportunity through equal access to education is of mutual benefit to both the citizen and the state. The citizen will be allowed to exercise his abilities and attain his full potential rather than languishing in a condition below his natural endowments. The state, in turn, will benefit from the education this person receives through his ability to use his talents in the service of his country.

In spite of Jefferson’s disdain for Plato’s Republic as a work filled with “whimsies, . . . puerilities, . . . unintelligible jargon . . . [and] nonsense,”[15] Jefferson’s plan is reminiscent of Plato’s plan for education and thought on the possibilities of movement from one social class to another.[16] Jefferson, however, avoids the utopianism of Plato as he does not, as Plato does, propose a radical restructuring of society, including the elimination of the family and the organic local community. Instead, Jefferson proposes a practical means by which to accomplish a similar goal.

“But of the views of this law,” Jefferson continues, “none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.”[17] Although only a relative few would directly benefit from the higher levels of education in Jefferson’s plan, all would be enabled to attain an education that would provide them with the knowledge and habits necessary to citizens of a republic and members of a free society. The rudimentary liberal education each received would make it possible for each to seek his own happiness and to contribute to the good of the nation as a whole.

While the implementation of Jefferson’s plan today is impractical as it would entail a massive and infeasible overhaul of the American public education system, there is a great deal of insight to be gained from his vision, which, in turn, can be applied to education today. Jefferson’s central goal in the first level of education, for example, is a worthy central goal for primary and secondary schools today. The dual emphasis on teaching historical knowledge and inculcating moral virtue in the course of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic is certain to provide the sort of education that a free society requires, and that students in many American schools are not being provided today. Such an education-for-liberty presents a stark contrast with the vocationalism and moral bankrupcy which currently permeate public education and are certain to produce an ignorant and ineffective electorate.

Similarly, Jefferson’s emphasis on the knowledge of language in adolescence is sound advice that could easily, and no doubt with great rewards, be implemented at the primary and secondary levels. Greek and Latin, in particular, are languages that put one in touch with the heritage of Western Civilization, grant one access to the wealth of wisdom recorded in these languages, and contribute to the development of logical thinking in children. This latter point, especially, is one that might be emphasized in response to the current clamoring after the rather nebulous and ever-shifting skill of “critical thinking.” A mastery of the English language and a fair knowledge of Latin or Greek and one additional European language seems hardly too much to ask of graduates from America’s high schools, yet it is a great deal more than is being asked now.

Ultimately, what Jefferson is proposing is a liberal education adapted to the needs and abilities of each citizen, which will, in turn, contribute to the greater good of the nation as a whole. In so doing, he undermines the pseudo-aristocracies of wealth and birth which had led to the despotisms of the old world while simultaneously avoiding the opposite extreme, which is taking hold in the United States now, of an enforced and artificial equality. Jefferson’s plan of an informed and virtuous citizenry coupled with equality of access to quality education for persons of natural talent is worthy of serious consideration today. A liberal education of the sort outlined by Jefferson is the only kind of education suited to a people who possess liberty and wish to keep it.

[1] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams–Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 389.

[2] Ibid., 389–390.

[3] Ibid., 388.

[4] Ibid., 390.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 153.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Ibid., 156.

[9] Ibid., 154.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 154–155.

[12] Ibid., 155.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814, in Cappon, The Adams–Jefferson Letters, 432.

[16] On which, see Plato, The Republic 451–457 and 415, respectively.

[17] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 155.

Rousseau and the mutability of human nature

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of those thinkers that is both admirable and terrible. His work is admirable in its depth and range of thought as well as in its lasting significance through its tremendous influence. At the same time, however, it is also terrible in that I believe it embodies the most destructive and false aspects of Enlightenment thought.

For this brief post on the first two books of his The Social Contract, my most recent reading in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I will confine my comments to only one aspect of that thought, an aspect which I believe is at the heart of the trouble. This is that Rousseau believes that human nature can be changed through the imposition of laws upon individuals and societies. This idea of Rousseau is, of course, a central component of modern liberal thought. Ultimately, it seems to me to be what separates the modern conservative from the modern liberal. The modern conservative is someone who believes that human nature is immutable; the modern liberal is someone who believes that human nature is mutable.

For historical antecedents, the modern conservative might look to those many thinkers, which include most of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment, who believed that the purpose of government and law was to keep a check on the worst aspects of human nature and to encourage the better aspects. It is not that human nature can be changed by the laws, say these thinkers (Plato, for instance, and Aristotle, as well as Aquinas come immediately to mind); it is, rather, that the laws serve to help humans, both as individuals and as societies, control their nature(s).

The modern liberal, drawing largely upon thought since the Enlightenment, believes that government and law can and should mold human nature, even that human beings are creatures without a nature, as the existentialist, surely a modern liberal, might assert. Sadly, out of this belief in the mutability of human nature have arisen all of the many experiments in utopianism of the last several centuries, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in the Holocaust and in the gulags of the Soviet Union. Each of these was, at its heart, an attempt to alter or to overcome human nature through the imposition of law and the power of government. And each proved itself to be a catastrophic failure.

These attempts at utopianism and at the molding of human nature into some desired form continue today, albeit largely in less genocidal forms. In the world of education, of which I am a denizen, one might point, for example, to the ubiquity of charter school management companies like UnCommon Schools, which present themselves as the Great White Hope which while finally bring about the much-desired perfect egalitarian society. Of course, their need to resort to underhanded manipulation of statistical data and their rote robotic approach to “instruction” (what a poor word for what used to be called “discipling” or just plain “teaching” and “mentoring”) betray the truth of their ineffectiveness and pitiful condescension. As it turns out, one cannot engineer human beings even if you get them while they’re young and mercilessly beat them into the desired shape.

I know that someone will accuse me here of the infamous argumentum ad Hitlerum. That is not, I must assert in my own defense, my intent, however. I do not mean to say that “liberals are like the Nazis because x.” On the contrary, I do not intend to make a political point at all. My intent is merely to discuss, with no doubt too much brevity, the historical development of a fascinating and quite influential, even if false and harmful, set of ideas.

Book Review: Three Thousand Years of Educational Wisdom by Robert Ulich

The history of thought on education, the means by which the youth of a given people are absorbed into society through imbibing the collective wisdom of their people, is also the history of thought on human nature. Any society educates its youth according to its ideal of humanity. A society which values a man of faith, for example, will provide an education that is oriented toward the development of faith, toward knowledge of theology, and perhaps toward a clerical vocation. A society that values the industrious and technical will naturally educate its young to acquire these habits and values.

What Robert Ulich has done here is assembled a collection of documents from many diverse times and places which exhibit the ideal of man in those times and places and the means by which each of the societies involved hoped to cultivate their ideal. In compiling these into a single volume and paring them down to manageable selections that highlight the essential features of each system, Ulich has given the reader the ability to see each system side by side and so compare them and contrast them, deriving what is best from each and cutting away what is superfluous or erroneous.

A volume like this one, then, is worth a great deal more than the tautologies, platitudes, and jargon-laden gimmicks that fill teaching manuals and most other recent books on education. This is not a book for those who think that education, the process of becoming a full human being, is nothing more than preparation for “college and career.” This is a book for those who believe that the best education springs from the best anthropology.