The West and the Rest

In a recent post, “Do We Teach Western Civilization?“, I discussed some of the issues that I have encountered in my experience with contemporary classical K-12 education in the United States. In this post, I want to continue that discussion by proposing some possible solutions to the problem of how to have a classical curriculum that both equips students with cultural literacy and reflects a diversity of cultures.

First, I think it is important to point out that although these two ideals are often cast as mutually exclusive goals, I think that they are in fact complementary. In the recent and ongoing protests at various colleges over English and humanities curricula that are perceived as “too white” and “too male,” for example, both sides of the issue seem to take it as their basic premise that a curriculum with a strong canonical emphasis must necessarily be a curriculum that lacks diversity.

To me, this seems bizarre. I currently teach literature and humanities courses at the college level in a college that is majority minority. My courses are, by design, focused on canonical works because I believe it is important for my students to gain some fluency in the “standards” that form the background to so much of American literature and even popular culture. The majority of my students come from disadvantaged backgrounds; many come from low-income households and neighborhoods, went to subpar public schools, are immigrants, and/or live in academic deserts in south Georgia. They deserve access to the works that the students of much more selective colleges like Reed College simply take for granted. There is an irony in the fact that removing canonical works from the curriculum is more likely to harm those students who are already at a disadvantage because of the lack of background exposure to these works in their middle and high schools.

In spite of the canonical focus of the courses I teach, however, I have never had an issue with having a diverse curriculum. When I go back through the assigned readings in my syllabi, I almost always have a close to a 50/50 gender balance of authors and a set of authors from diverse backgrounds. To be honest, I wonder how one cannot arrive at this simply by choosing authors that are important for students to know. My Introduction to Humanities syllabus, for example, is focused on the intellectual development of the West beginning with ancient Greece and progressing through to the 20th century. By necessity rather than by any attempt at pseudo-diversity by counting the numbers, there are readings from Du Bois, Gandhi, and a long section on Islam, among other diverse authors and topics. How could it be otherwise? The same is true of the readings from my literature courses; how could one teach an introductory American literature and poetry course without a heavy sampling, for example, from African-American authors?

The same was true of the curricula I developed when I taught in a classical K-12 charter school. I didn’t read Washington’s Up from Slavery or Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk or Ellison’s Invisible Man with my students because they were mostly African American; I read these works with them because they are important canonical works.

If diversity in the curriculum doesn’t come naturally when one thinks of canonical works, perhaps it is time to reconsider what canonical means. In fact, perhaps it is time to reconsider the meaning of classical education. If it is to be more than mere Victorian revivalism and a strange sense of nostalgia for the 19th century, it has to be founded on a set of axioms that make sense in the modern world.

Any approach to education begins with a set of axioms that express the sort of person you want your students to be at the end of their period of institutional education. For me, the goal has always been that my students become:

  1. Culturally literature
  2. Cosmopolitan
  3. Lovers of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

I see no contradiction between these goals. I want my students to understand the culture around them, and in the United States much of that culture is “Western,” but much of it is also non-Western. I want my students to feel a sense of being rooted in their own cultures and locations, but simultaneously to understand and appreciate the diversity of other cultures around them. And to see each culture as an expression of the universal desire for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty on the part of all people.

I emphatically do not believe that one must abandon the very concept of canon or of the Absolute in order to embrace an appreciation for diversity and to value the variety of cultures. The problem is not with believing that some things are better than others or that some things are truer than others; it is with the mistake of automatically assuming that difference is always a matter of better and worse and the all-too-human tendency to identify one’s own as the better.

I frequently tell my students that if something is True and Good and Beautiful, it is theirs. It is their birthright as human beings. Every aspect of the human experience is part of their experience. They may have their own heritages that they carry with them in a unique way, but they should be able to view every accomplishment of humanity as, in a sense, their own. Every person, no matter their faith, linguistic, cultural, or ethnic background, should be able to see the art of Leonardo da Vinci, the writing of W. E. B. Du Bois, the Bhagavad Gita, and Plato as their heritage as member of the human family.

Terence’s famous line “nothing human is alien to me” is a motto to live by. In its original context, the line is spoken by a character in one of Terence’s plays who is justifying his eavesdropping on others’ conversations. This seems appropriate to the modern world. In a sense, when I, as a Westerner, read the great works of ancient China or India or even Greece, I am eavesdropping on others’ conversations. They were not writing for me or to me, yet I am able to overhear them two thousand years later, and to see that their concerns are my concerns too, that they have something to say to me about what it means to be a human being.

Practically speaking, what I would like to see is a classical curriculum that continues the emphasis that classical K-12 schools have on grammar, logic, and rhetoric (that is, on an understanding of and authentic engagement with ideas), but that widens the scope of the conversation. I would like to see the Mahabharata and the Ramayana taught alongside the Iliad and the Odyssey; Confucius and Lao Tzu taught with Plato and Aristotle; Kabuki and Noh taught with Shakespeare. Such a curriculum may be difficult to accomplish. There is, after all, only so much time in the school year, which means some sacrifices will have to be made from existing material. Then there is the matter of finding teachers who have a diverse enough educational background and a cosmopolitan enough attitude to teach these subjects effectively.

But the difficulty is worth it. When every voice is heard, we are all richer for it.

 

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 by proposing my own solution to the problem.

The Education of W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 2 of 6)

From fairly early in his childhood, Du Bois resolved to dedicate his life to disproving the popular social and scientific theories of the innate inferiority of African Americans. In his classic 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois records his memory of the incident which precipitated this resolution.[10] Du Bois, raised in the mostly white but integrated and fairly tolerant small town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, writes that in his early years he never directly encountered race prejudice. His first experience with it, he writes, came from a little white girl who was new to the town and therefore unfamiliar with its tolerant ways. One day, the boys and girls of his class in school decided to exchange greeting cards with each other. “The exchange was merry,” writes Du Bois, “till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others.”[11] Feeling suddenly excluded from the world of the other children, Du Bois writes that he felt compelled not only to prove that he was worthy of being considered their equal but sought even to excel them in every way, to prove his own superiority over his white peers. He continues,

That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way.[12]

It, in fact, became “Du Bois’s life objective,” writes Shanette M. Harris, “to win the prizes of European Americans.”[13] It was this resolution to prove his equality—even his superiority—over his white peers and so to disprove their theories of his racial inferiority that became the driving force in his pursuit of education for himself.

        Such was Du Bois’s drive to succeed that his high school principal Frank Hosmer, writes Du Bois in Dusk of Dawn, one of his several autobiographies, “suggested, quite as a matter of fact, that I ought to take the college preparatory course which involved algebra, geometry, Latin and Greek.”[14] Such a suggestion is, of course, altogether remarkable when one considers that it was made in 1880, when most universities in the United States were closed to African Americans and only a handful of colleges for African Americans existed.[15] As Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis has pointed out, such a suggestion can only be attributed to a recognition on Hosmer’s part of Du Bois’s “supercharged ambition.”[16]

It was this same supercharged ambition which would lead Du Bois, following his high school graduation, to Fisk University, a liberal arts college for black students in Nashville, Tennessee, and from there on to Harvard University and the University of Berlin as he continued to set his sights continually higher, each time with the goal in mind of vindicating his race against those who had claimed people of African descent to be inherently inferior. Du Bois would have been the first black person to be granted a Ph.D. by the University of Berlin, then universally considered the leading university in the world, had his funding not been cut short one semester short of completion by his white American sponsors who had begun to doubt the usefulness of allowing an African American to attain such a distinction.[17] Du Bois instead returned to Harvard, becoming the first black person to earn a doctoral degree at that university, though continuing to view it as a sort of second prize.

        While a graduate student at Harvard, Du Bois applied himself to courses of study which he believed would be the most efficacious in vindicating and uplifting African Americans. Initially, he was drawn to the natural sciences; Du Bois writes that he was especially “interested in evolution, geology, and the new psychology.”[18] He found it difficult to see, however, how specializing in such subjects would allow him to directly participate in the racial uplift he had set as his goal. As he explains it, while “the triumphs of the scientific world thrilled” him, “on the other hand the difficulties of applying scientific law and discovering cause and effect in the social world were still great.”[19] There was at that point, however, no Ph.D. in the social sciences available at Harvard. Du Bois instead turned to philosophy and eventually to history. While he studied under William James and George Santayana, two of the greatest contemporary philosophers of his time, Du Bois, seeing more potential for future employment and application of the subject of history, opted to write his dissertation and earn a Ph.D. in history instead. Du Bois explains, “turning my gaze from fruitless word-twisting and facing the facts of my own social situation and racial world, I determined to put science into sociology through a study of the condition and problems of my own group.”[20] In order to counter the various theories of African and African American racial inferiority, writes Du Bois, he wanted “to study the facts, any and all facts, concerning the American Negro and his plight, and by measurement and comparison and research, work up to any valid generalization which I could.”[21]

[10] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1903), 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Shanette M. Harris, “Constructing a Psychological Perspective: The Observer and the Observed in The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 243.

[14] W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept [1940], in W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1986), 564.

[15] W. E. B. Du Bois, “A Pageant in Seven Decades, 1868-1938,” W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, 7.

[16] David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009), 29.

[17] Ibid., 106.

[18] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, in Writings, 590.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 591.

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.

Education and the person

At the heart of the debate over education in the United States and elsewhere in the modern world is a debate over the nature of a human being. On the one hand, there are those who deny that there is any such thing or assert, at least, that if such a thing exists it is malleable. The purpose of an education from this perspective, then, must be to shape the raw human material into the desired mold. In the 20th century, this model became the dominant model in American public education. The education system has seen its task as one of making the human being into the desired product: a worker, a consumer, and a “good citizen.” On the other hand, however, is the traditional approach to education, which sees the task of the educator not in making the person, but in leading the person along the path of discovery of self and world. As Russell Kirk points out in his essay “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” the purpose of a liberal education is “not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.”

The disappearance of the classics from public school curriculums and even from institutions of higher education across the United States is both a symptom and, in turn, a reinforcing cause of the current crisis in education. If human nature is malleable, the classics can safely be ignored. What does Socrates have to do with the modern world? In addition, with the theory that human nature is amorphous necessarily comes the elimination of any notion of an ideal human. If there is no human nature, there can be none who represent the greatest embodiments of or elucidations upon that nature. As a result, the very notion of classics can safely be discarded.

The irony here is markedly obvious, however. Faculty members of university humanities departments across the nation bewail the decline of majors in the humanities, while obstinately remaining blind to the causes of the destruction within themselves. By undermining the criteria by which certain books can be held up as the greatest literary achievements of mankind and extolled as classics of enduring value and significance, these professors have undermined their own existence as employed teachers of literature.

The result is that an ever increasing number of students are coming from public schools where the emphasis is on, as the newest curriculum fade phrases, it “college and career readiness.” These students then enter colleges and universities to seek degrees in fields which are seen as the most promising for a future career. They are trained, not educated, to enter the workforce and become “productive.” The means by which this can be achieved are twofold. There is, first, ignoring the question of human nature altogether. The student is instead distracted with a focus on technology and vocational training. The second is to indoctrinate the student along the way with a desire to be a “good citizen,” a person who fits into the mold of whatever ideal the state currently espouses.

All of this is, of course, a distortion and, often, a destruction of the human being. Man is not primarily and merely the producer, the wage-earner, or the voter. Each of these is, in fact, a perversion of some aspect of authentic human nature. Man is not merely a producer, but a creator, an entity with curiously and imagination. He is not a wage-earner and a voter, but a political animal, a creature made for social cooperation and communion with his fellow creatures.

If true liberal education is to be revived in the United States, the first step in the process is a restoration of a traditional understanding of human nature. It must be understood first that human nature is immutable. It must first be understood that Plato was the same sort of thing we today are. We must realize, as Russell Kirk says, that “Aristophanes and Socrates retain high significance for us” and that “Thucydides and Plutarch” have can teach us “much about our present time of troubles.” Only after the immutability of human nature has been established and accepted as fact can man at least fulfill the dictum at the heart of human life: “know thyself.”

It is only from this stance that the proper means and ends of education can be pursued. The educator, and the institution of which he is a part, must acknowledge and celebrate the immensity and permanence of the thing before them: the individual human being. It is then that the educator may set about discovering this thing rather than haphazardly and brutally attempting to force it into a mold into which it will not fit.

 

Virtues or Values?

Central among the numerous problematic features of education in the United States today is the movement away from the idea of virtue and the embrace of the alternative but decadent notion of values. Although the difference between the two ideas may seem slight at first, the contrast becomes evident upon examination of the respective definitions of the terms. Value, on the one hand, implies an arbitrary and temporary emphasis upon a certain object or activity. The “value” of a dollar, for instance, has declined significantly over the last century. The “value” of gold, however, continues to climb. Value is the worth attributed to something by individuals or some consensus among a certain group. Virtue, on the other hand, refers to moral and ethical standards whose value never fluctuates. A virtue is as good in one place and time as it is in any other. Cowardice, for example, is never virtuous; in other words, cowardice is never the good, right, or fitting thing. Courage, on the other hand, is never not a virtue; it is, in short, always and forever the right thing in all situations in all places.

It can be seen from this contrast why the idea of virtue has been replaced by the notion of value by modern educators. The notion of value fits into the prevalent idea that morals are culturally contingent, that, contrary to logic, a thing can be good in one place and not in another. The very existence of virtue, on the other hand, implies two further theses against which the modern mind rebels. The first implied thesis is that human nature is immutable, meaning that it does not change over time nor from culture to culture. There are, therefore, certain ways of “being human” which conform more closely than others to human nature and are more fitting and right. These necessarily are also more conducive to human happiness and development. The second thesis, even more troubling for the modern mind, is that if virtue does indeed exist there must necessarily be an eternal, transcendent, and objective standard which forms the foundation for virtue and, of course, an eternal, transcendent Standard-Giver beyond this. If virtue is everywhere and always good, good is not merely a matter of taste but a matter of the Good, in what might be called the Platonic sense.

Throughout most of the history of the philosophy of education, the constantly emphasis by wise thinkers has been about the formation of the young through virtue. Early Christian theories of education in particular emphasized the aspect of virtue in arguing for the proper Christian stance toward pre-Christian literature. In his treatise addressed “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” St. Basil the Great launched an extensive argument that the primary means by which Christian “young men” could “derive profit from pagan literature” is in drawing from those writings their lessons in virtue. “Since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours,” he says, “and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more still by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature.” Basil’s near-contemporary St. John Chrysostom, wrote an “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children” in which he exhorts parents first and foremost to “exercise this child’s soul in virtue.” In his “Letter to Laeta,” St. Jerome exhorts a young mother to care for her daughter Paula by centering her education from a young age in exhortations to and exhibitions of virtuous behavior.

One of the most famous examples of liberal learning among the Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, presents some special insight for the current situation of modern education. In his Confessions, Augustine wonders “what did it profit me, that all the books I could procure of the so-called liberal arts, I, the vile slave of affections, read by myself, and understood?” The rhetorical question here put has great implications for the modern movement away from teaching virtue in education. Although Augustine was extraordinarily well-educated, he found himself unable to discern what whether what he read “therein was true or certain.” He was unable to differentiate truth from falsehood because his own education lacked in the instillment of virtue. He, like so many children being educated in American schools today, was filled with interesting facts but unable to establish the meaning of these facts for his life. He, like them, was unable to find truth because the nature of the education he had received denied the very existence of truth in the proper and complete sense. Augustine was able to recover from the trauma of his education and discover truth later. How many American schoolchildren today will be able to do the same?