GUEST OPINION: Which classics?

By on January 28, 2014

JACKSON, WYO – By Brian Carr, Director, AOTON

That Jackson and Teton County have parents interested enough to supply demand for a new school based on time-tested pedagogy is testament to the community, as well as to the the proposed school’s founders and supporters. Good job, I say.

Still, some hesitation remains, at least for a grizzled classical scholar like myself.

Defining classical education and hoping to conscript Greek and Roman legacies only to mean all that is good and beautiful, worthy of emulation and adoration, is an act tantamount to chasing an ignis fatuus. These will ‘o wisps have historically caused man to misplace his ambitions and chase vain hope. Nietzchse in 1885 cautioned philosophers and intellectuals alike about the “rainbow bridges of concepts” spanning the distance between classical ideals and our modern expectations.

Studying classics means entering an ambiguous world capable of shaping both character and intellect. Nobility lives in the pages and thoughts of history, literature, and tradition, and it lives with such potency that a single encounter with its strength is often enough to beguile students for life. But just beside nobility (and other laudable ideals), intransigence, depravity, authoritarianism, and the shivering aspects of disorder shine with equal splendor. Panglossian tutors are cautioned against supposing their young students will not be enticed by these other classical ideas.

Christian schoolmasters from Late Antiquity onwards have all wrestled with this ambiguity. Greece and Roman educational methodologies (hardly a body of teaching composed of a single approach, but still …) shaped students with sharp minds and receptive sensibilities. Language was (and is) a plaything to a philologist, and Romans embodied order and law as much as Greeks did science and philosophy.

But Aristophanes and Ovid seeped in with Aristotle and Justinian. This delighted young minds with comedy and exotic myth, while troubling headmasters. Both St. Jerome and St. Augustine had their scruples with pagan literature and ideals. But they persisted, well aware that rewards of classical learning outweigh the risks, especially if the untidy tidbits of Greece and Rome can be cleaned, snipped off, or hidden away. Jerome and Augustine both talk about these approaches.

And so it is with classics in Jackson, Teton County, and the nation. Its teachers will teach a chosen, vetted system, and by doing so, perhaps expose the fuller body of classical learning and tradition to misrepresentation and omission. Students will perform well on tests and be humane. Parents will swoon. But the classics themselves will be incomplete. They always are. The classics always present a flip-side to a chosen educational approach, but especially when the focus of the approach is on what is best and brightest. The alternative forever seems dangerous and off limits, and students will inevitably enter where it is hinted they should not go.

Today’s classical education movement will familiarize students with Latin and try to imprint upon young minds inclination to do what is right.

A resurgence is underway that claims American parents and teachers are tired of an educational system that leaves kids baffled about the world, unable to manipulate data with acuity, and seemingly bankrupt of basic ethical reflection. The modern system has failed, and in its place a movement hopes to build a new aedificium to verum, bonum, and pulchrum—a palace of education dedicated to truth, goodness, and beauty.

The bricks used to construct it will be salvaged from history — Plato, Aristotle, Homer and their epigoni that have run rampant throughout the Western Tradition for nearly 3,000 years (think Virgil, Horace, Dante, and so many more); the mortar will be as resurrected from the past as the bricks — the trivium will make its appearance back in our schools and by doing so baste our kids in a slurry of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The classics have a tough performance ahead of them, and if teachers truly use the classics in their curricula, teachers will fail to produce what progressive educators and parents bargained for. As point of fact, they will get much more, but the kids that come out of a truly classical education system will be far from simply whitewashed in Western culture.

It is not, however, because preparation of young minds in Greek and Latin literature — the studia humanitatis — will not provide enough rigor to exercise the intellect and enough emblems to motivate action; it is rather that the classics instill skepticism and relativism more than progressive adherents of an adopted, medieval pedagogy really understand.

Classical education is a morass of challenging and competing points of view. For every upright Roman patriot like Marcus Atilius Regulus (of “stick-it-to-the-Carthaginians” fame), there is a downright opportunistic personage (Alcibiades) who muddies the otherwise clear waters of classical tradition’s hero-making power. More often than not, the classics show the oddity of their greatness amidst the horror of the particular men and women who comprise its literary and cultural histories. Even Socrates, the apparent hero of the current classical school movement, is a troublesome figure. Socrates fawned over young men, despised democracy, and had little need of general education for the elite; Socrates brought philosophy down from the heavens, using it to examine life, morals, good, and evil. This was no small accomplishment and its one among many for this seminal philosopher. And there are always competing claims among which classics teachers use.

Classics, it turns out, is a body of knowledge less like a placid lake; it is more a pot of effervescent contradictions, the drinking of which doesn’t bolt the student’s mind to truth, goodness, and beauty. Classics makes a student strong not because they fasten our eyes on an unwavering apogee of achievement; they make us strong because they train our gaze to be quick yet thorough, incisive and divisive.

We should all support the classical education movement and the Classical Academy Polly Friess plans to establish here in Jackson. I believe it will offer a suitable antidote to the educational stagnation sometimes ignored in our publicly-funded schools. But in goodhearted, scholarly disagreement, the classical education so far chosen for Teton County is not the classics of Greece and Rome; it is medieval in its heritage. It is instructive, reflective, and powerful in its own way, but it is nonetheless classics absorbed and modified by monks and scholastics who were as unsure of what to do with the educational power of Greece and Rome as we sometimes are.

The classics are more than Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light.” We in Jackson will do well to remember this.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Guest Opinion edited for length.

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