Why Bother with Classical Education?

My post on the increasing simplicity of high school texts sparked some debates this week on the tangled interwebs. Several people readily admitted that education standards have decreased over time, but not all viewed it negatively. So what if students no longer read Plato or Homer? Not everyone is cut out to be Socrates—now hurry up or be left behind, the postmodern train is leaving!

These conversations inevitably led to the same question: what is the actual purpose of education? Going beyond whether Twilight qualifies as good literature (which forever remains a decided “no” in my universe), this fundamental issue of why educate is the ground on which curriculum wars are waged. Are we simply trained to fill cogs in the societal machine, or should we be formed in virtue to enhance our personal liberties?

From Aristotle to Locke, education has served a crucial role in fostering virtue and perpetuating enlightened freedom. Whatever common assumptions may be, protecting our natural rights takes more effort than voting every four years and grilling hotdogs on July 4th; liberty must be instilled to survive, and the duration of any free society is dependent upon each generation’s renewed commitment to its preservation. Applying this conclusion to education, students must learn to think critically, to understand how their freedom was established and the means best suited to preserving it.

In her essay The Lost Tools of Learning, the 20th century novelist Dorothy Sayers argued that modern education has lost its vision and no longer fulfills its true end in this regard.

 Although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning … We have lost the tools of learning—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole.

Students may bypass Polybius’ theories of government while learning well and succeeding in life, yet Tocqueville’s ominous predictions of soft despotism become plausible if citizens are not broadly trained to critically reflect on their surroundings. Students should first be taught how to think, according to Sayers, while learning particular specializations of knowledge becomes a secondary end.

In this light, support for classical curricula emanates from a genuine concern for liberty and human flourishing, rather than a manifestation of intellectual snobbery. Such education has simply proven a consistent means for creating and preserving free societies over time, and should not be abandoned at the whims of utilitarian pop psychology.

The old (education) was a kind of propagation—man transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.

-C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man