Why America Needs the Classical Tradition

in The Devil Knows Latin

by E. Christian Kopff

Published in 1999 by ISI Books
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
Wilmington, Delaware

Paragraphs selected from chapters VIII and IX: The Classics and the Traditional Liberal Arts Curriculum, and The Ghost Dance: Liberalism in Crisis.

“Now, it is one thing to say that the founders of our country were classically educated and thought that form of instruction worthy enough to recommend it to posterity. It is quite another to assert that a classical education is good for Americans today. Why should we, who live two centuries later, want our children to have the same education as Thomas Jefferson and the rest? (p. 97)

“One of the best books in English on education [is] Albert Jay Nock’s Theory of Education in the United States (1932). As Nock saw, there are a number of very good reasons why a liberal arts education in our society must be grounded in the study of the languages, literatures, history, and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. First, the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean provided the basis of American education from the Colonial and Revolutionary periods through the nineteenth century, and indeed into the first half of the twentieth. (Greek fell from its position of educational preeminence before World War I, but Latin remained a “more commonly taught language” until the 1960s). Anyone who reads Jefferson’s literary commonplace book or who peruses the correspondence of Jefferson and Adams will realize just how deeply imbued America’s revolutionary leaders were with knowledge of antiquity. (p. 98)

“The commitment of educated Americans to the classics continued from the eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century. Given [the] classical subtext of American history, then, not to receive a classical education is to suffer a kind of alienation not much appreciated these days but nonetheless real: an alienation from our own history. (p. 99)

“There is a yet more important reason we should receive a classical education while in our youth. Such an education provides, in quite pure form, true education, as distinct from mere training. (p. 99)

“This distinction between education and training is Nock’s and it is a compelling one. According to Nock, education is the study and mastery of a body of knowledge which is formative in character. Training, however, involves the learning of information aimed at the solution of an immediate problem or the accomplishment of a specific goal. Now, both training and education are important for a society. But anybody can be trained to do something. (The complexity and difficulty of the jobs will vary, of course, from short order cook to brain surgeon.) Fewer students today, however, know how to profit from education; perhaps fewer are capable. This becomes clear once the nature of education is grasped. The goal of education is to produce thoughtful people who have at their disposal a wealth of general knowledge, and who, in the light of this knowledge and with the courage to face facts, can judge matters of significance in a disinterested manner. Obviously this kind of formation is limited to the few who possess the character, the talents, and the stamina to be educated this way. A society without trained workers will not get its work done. A society without educated citizens will collapse in times of crisis and will wither away in times of ease and prosperity. Simply put, a civilization without educated citizens will cease to be civilized. (p. 99-100)

“Nock said the following about the “formative character” of the study of the ancient world, words that perfectly summarize the value of paideia ([i.e.,] using the classics as the foundation of education):

The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity; every department, I think, except one–music. This record covers twenty-five hundred consecutive years of the human mind’s operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit’s operations. If I may paraphrase the words of Emerson, this discipline brings us into the feeling of an immense longevity, and maintains us in it. You may perceive at once, I think, how different would be the view of contemporary men and things, how different the appraisal of them, the scale of values employed in their measurement, on the part of one who has undergone this discipline and on the part of one who has not. These studies, then, in a word, were regarded as formative because they are maturing, because they powerfully inculcate the views of life and the demands on life that are appropriate to maturity and are indeed the specific marks, the outward and visible signs, of the inward and spiritual grace of maturity.

“Few students today have the desire to undergo such a maturing experience. It demands more effort than most young people are willing to make. Paideia is beyond them. (p. 103-104)

“So what is to be done? How are we to improve the education of our children?

“A college curriculum is based on and develops the curriculum of elementary and high schools. Children need to start with the old three R’s, the use of the alphabet and numbers. The list of subjects to study after that stage, to quote Abraham Lincoln, is short and sweet, like the old lady’s dance: Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Other subjects, including history, mythology, English vocabulary and syntax, even the basics of our government, can be taught in connection with those subjects. Later we may want to add the study of modern languages. Good secular schools may want to offer European languages, e.g., German, French, Russian, or Italian. Religious schools, of course, will insist on Hebrew. But the principal goal of all language study must be the command of significant literary works in their native languages and an understanding of those languages’ respective roles in our common culture. Oral and written proficiency have their place, but they must take a back seat to formative knowledge. (p.109)

“This view of language education is not a visionary fantasy. Children before puberty learn languages easily, especially if the languages are related to their own language and culture. The advantages of a classical language curriculum are enormous. Even students who do not go on to college, who do not finish high school, will have learned an enormous amount of English vocabulary, because most English words come from Latin or Greek. Although the most commonly used words in English are not of Latin origin, the vocabulary of the professions and of serious discourse on most matters is ancient in its origins. Likewise, the masterpieces of our language and important books that are being published now are written in a heavily Latinate English. So those who go on to college to study for the professions and to read the great books will be well prepared. (p. 109-110)

“But what about computers and the physical sciences? Should they be part of the curriculum in the early years? The use of the computer should be learned the same way the knowledge of English should be learned, at home. As for the physical sciences, my impression is that good science is based on good mathematics. If we hope to have our children comprehend science at the university level, we should teach them as much mathematics as we can. Math is the blood of science; the more they learn the better. Besides, the science that is taught in the best university science departments is usually the latest results of a professor’s research, which often has moved far beyond what is found in a high school textbook. The elements of mathematics, however, will not be rendered obsolete by further research. (p. 110)

“Some physical scientists assert that they have no need for a liberal arts education, rooted in the study of language, but they do. Increasingly, younger scientists have lost track of the historical and ethical basis of our civilization, and that is a serious problem. Science is not spun out of the minds of individual scientists. It is, on the contrary, the achievement of a tradition of research fostered carefully and slowly for millennia. Moreover, if they lose touch with their own culture, scientists suffer from the lack of a narrative structure to frame and render their professional lives morally sensible. The effects on scientific ethics can only be devastating. (p. 108)

“We talk much today of valuing creativity. If such an attitude is to be more than talk, we must face the fact that creativity is found in tradition. An educational curriculum founded on Greek and Latin gave us Jefferson and Adams, Burke and Samuel Johnson, not to mention Aquinas and Calvin, Michelangelo and Bach, Copernicus and Newton. Educators have developed curricula and texts that can be used to teach these languages at all levels, from preschool through college. The materials are out there, lying in the warehouses of the Cambridge and Oxford University Presses. We have in our hands the making of a reactionary revolution of excellence. Do we have the will to give our children their heritage? (p. 111)

“Thinking within a tradition is creative. Indeed, it provides the only basis for creativity, because what we call creativity in philosophy and literature is really the humane reconciliation of old problems with new insights. Moreover, certain traditions have shown themselves able to respond creatively and positively to foreign insights and visions–for example, the tradition that extends from Homer through Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas. Great works of literature, from Plato’s Symposium to Augustine’s Confessions to Dante’s Commedia, have been written utilizing these foundations. Indeed, whole societies have been built on them. (p. 92)

“However, handing down the torch of human understanding is a risky business…. For our society to survive, we must escape from a rapidly imploding liberalism to a tradition of ethical reasoning that can provide the basis for consensus and progress. And that is possible, if we return to our religious traditions. As Lord Devlin told us in his Maccabean Lecture in 1959, “No society has yet solved the problem of how to teach morality without religion.” So we must “get religion” again if we want ethical discourse in this country.” (p. 94)