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.
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.
Something is amiss in higher education and has been for some time. Unfortunately, this something amiss in higher education has also steadily trickled down to primary and secondary education, so infected them that these too are now permeated by the same ailment — or, rather, ailments. As Hanson and Heath (the two authors of this book) and a number of other brave souls have pointed out, these ailments, though they come in a variety of forms, can be narrowed down to three basic categories: multiculturalism, vocationalism, and careerism. Tackling each of these and the symbiotic relationship that exists between them specifically in the Classics departments of America’s universities, Hanson and Heath do a great deal to diagnose while also providing some excellent advice for a future cure.
Multiculturalism has, of course, brought havoc to nearly all of the American education system, ironically doing the most harm to those it was supposed to help. Rather than empowering African American, Hispanic, and other minority students, however, multiculturalism has further disadvantaged these students by denying them access to the knowledge that would make them education and successful denizens of Western Civilization. As Hanson and Heath show, multiculturalism has harmed all of us by denigrating the civilization that we are the inheritors and whose thought world we continue to live within while heaping up a large and steamy pile of sophisms about the history of the West and its relation to other civilizations.
Vocationalism may be the ailment in American education that has entrenched itself the deepest. It now runs from the kindergarten all the way through the doctoral program. There is a constant and consistent focus on what makes money rather than on what is good, true, and beautiful. Classics has been one of the majors hardest hit by this focus on vocationalism as the refrain of “how will you make money with that?” has steadily worn down the numbers of students willing to pursue a costly college degree in a field that, they are continuously assured, they will never be able to earn a sufficient income with. Damned be the truth that a man with a BA in Classics will undoubtedly prepare anyone to be a fast learner with solid interpersonal skills fit for nearly any job in business or education.
Tied closely to these ailments, and, in a sense, providing the filth upon which they feed, is careerism. It is remarkably difficult to find a professor or even a K-12 teacher who is not focused on their career above the needs of their students. The professor seeks an ever decreasing course load in order to pursue ever more specialized (and therefore ever more irrelevant) research that no one will read. The K-12 teacher kowtows to the educational authorities’ latest pedagogical fads and buzz words, teaches to the test, and dumbs down the curriculum so everyone will pass. The result is a woefully undereducated, distracted populace that can handle only “Greek Mythology in Cinema 101” rather than “Introductory Homeric Greek.” And the fate of the Greeks — and the civilization they gave us — is sealed.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in an insight into the profoundly depressing world of modern academia. But, remember, it’s not all doom and gloom: the light of the end of the tunnel is you, if you so choose.
Plutarch was a Roman author who lived in 46-120 AD. He is most famous for the many biographies he wrote about important people of the Greek and Roman worlds. The selections below are about Sparta and are from his “Moralia,” a collection of short stories and sayings.
35. [In Sparta], when the time had arrived during which it was the custom for the free boys to steal whatever they could, and it was a disgrace not to escape being found out, when the boys with him had stolen a young fox alive, and given it to him to keep, and those who had lost the fox came in search for it, the boy happened to have slipped the fox under his garment. The beast, however, became savage and ate through his side to the vitals; but the boy did not move or cry out, so as to avoid being exposed, and left, when they had departed, the boys saw what had happened, and blamed him, saying thatit would have been better to let the fox be seen than to hide it even unto death; but the boy said,”Not so, but better to die without yielding to the pain than through being detected because of weakness of spirit to gain a life to be lived in disgrace.
36. Some people, encountering Spartans on the road, said, “You are in luck, for robbers have just left this place,” but they said, “Egad, no, but it is they who are in luck for not encountering us.”
37. A Spartan being asked what he knew, said, “How to be free.”
55. While the games were being held at Olympia, an old man was desirous of seeing them, but could find no seat. As he went to place after place, he met with insults and jeers, and nobody made room for him. But when he came opposite the Spartans, all the boys and many of the men arose and yieldedtheir places.Whereupon the assembled multitude of Greeks expressed their approbation of the custom by applause, and commended the action beyond measure; but the old man, shaking his grey-haired head and with tears in his eyes, said, “Alas for the evil days! Because all the Greeks know what is right and fair, but the Spartans alone practice it.”
69. Another, passing by a tomb at night, and imagining that he saw a ghost, ran at it with uplifted spear, and, as he thrust at it, he exclaimed, “Where are you fleeing from me, you soul that shall die twice?”
71. Another, in the thick of the fight, was about to bring down his sword on an enemy when the recall sounded, and he checked the blow. When someone inquired why, when he had his enemy in his power, he did not kill him, he said, “Because it is better to obey one’s commander than to slay an enemy.”
- Why did all of the Spartans at the Olympic Games stand up in 55? Answer in a sentence.
- In a paragraph, describe the sort of virtues the Spartans practiced according to these selections from Plutarch’s writing.