Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Paideia in America: On the Impending Death of Classical Education

I am a fan of Classical Education, although I certainly never received it when I was in school. I sure wish I had. My compatriot and Editor at POLYSEMY, Matthew Dallman, is a huge fan of it, and is in fact undertaking his own version of Paideia with which he can then home-school his girls.

Some seem to think, and rightfully so, that this form of education is in its last throes. Too bad, that. To me, however, we need to spend less time lamenting that passing and more time constructing a postmodern Paideia that can prepare us and our children for the New World that we now live with, like it or not.

Here is the beginning of the article:

Paideia in America:
Ragged Dick, George Babbitt, and the Problem of a Modern Classical Education

(click here to view the pdf version)

We are sure that at the present rate, Greek
wisdom will be almost unknown to the general
public within two decades.

—Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer? ( 2001 ) 1


In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the prince's disappearance into the gloom escorted by his father's ghost convinced the night watchman that something was rotten in Denmark. And, indeed, it was. But for every Marcellus whose vision is encouraged by the sound and sight of Hamlet's dead father, there are as many more who are brave enough to eschew the evidence of their senses. This boldness is not limited to religious folk: there are as many visionaries of false prophecy as there are scolds and cranks. Some prophets––the simpler ones––compensate for the deficiency of their insight with an excess of busy energy. The more narcissistic ones console themselves by excusing their failures of persuasion on the basis of Cassandra's example. Apollo afflicted Cassandra by depriving her prophecies of the power to persuade; the god meant to punish her for refusing to share his bed. Modern narcissistic prophets actually believe they are similarly afflicted: some cosmic principle––the ineluctable law that history is doomed to repeat itself or the equally ineluctable consequence of Original Sin––makes the common man congenitally incapable of registering a prophetic warning. The prophet is consoled knowing that by design he is meant to be unheard. For such a man, the truest solace and surest proof of his calling lie in being unheeded; this attitude transforms his loneliness into a manly virtue.

The example of old men preaching the end of things is so common that it has aged into cliché. Hesiod might be the Western canon's earliest archetype of the voluble crank whose disappointments in life fuel the conviction that the world is going to pot. If the dating is correct, he might be older than Jeremiah. The survival of his Works and Days and the Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations proves, at least, that the sentiment is ancient. And the fable of Chicken Little might be even older. Pessimistic religion––millenarian Christianity comes to mind––is the heir of Hesiod's gloomy vision. In the hands of an optimistic secularism, the tale of Chicken Little is given a modern twist: instead of being eaten alive by Foxy Loxy, she is saved at the last moment by his unmasking. This happy version of the fable serves the didactic purpose of teaching “courage” to young children; less benignly, it warns against the opportunism of the conservative jeremiad.

At the close of America's twentieth century, the conservative jeremiad flourishes, both as an art and, thanks to Guglielmo Marconi and a lot of money, as a science––and the children of Hesiod and Jeremiah thrive as never before. If these prophetic moralists are to be believed, modern Western culture is, to quote from Hamlet again, “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed.” In spite of its material successes––or, perhaps, because of them––it is a deeply flawed development: “Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely.” And so the unhappy version of Chicken Little, the one in which she is eaten by the fox, seems more familiar despite the popularity of Walt Disney. The intellectual history of the West proves the immutability of the belief that the clock spring of culture is winding down. In this view, the Enlightenments of Europe and America represent merely a momentary arrest of the downward spiral. Certainly the libera­tion of Western culture in the nineteenth century and the violent wars of the twentieth, abetted by technology and modernity's organizational know-how, did not help matters. And if any equivocating Jeremiah survived the combined shocks of Charles Darwin, universal suffrage, trade unionism, and the rise of the New Deal, his equivocation was finally put to death by the laisser - faire morality of late-twentieth-century liberalism. The spectacle of free market economics, mass consumerism, and the emancipation of the individual convinced even the most sanguine Jeremiah that the world was, for sure, going to hell.

Not even the collapse of the Soviet empire was enough to dislodge this conviction. The twentieth century ended for America on 31 December, 1991, following the demise of the Soviet Union: on that date the last government functionary closed up shop and went home. A few years later, the world survived the advent of the second Christian millennium, but this piece of good news proves only that the dating convention is arbitrary and wrong. Just as America's twentieth century ended before the conventional calendar date, so the new millennium has not yet arrived––the world's continuing existence proves it. Faced with the erosion of Western hegemony over the rest of the world, today's prophetic conservative carries on Hesiod's and Jeremiah's ancient project. Scanning the expanse of modern Western culture, pessimism condemns our culture and yearns nostalgically for an imagined past. Today, two decades into the emerging century, we in America and the West are to believe that something is rotten here. And, indeed, it is.

Read the whole article.


PeterAtLarge said...

I was the recipient of a "classical education" at a British public (read "private") school. I learned a lot of things I have not used much in my life; and failed to learn a lot of things (like math!) I could have used. I value what I learned of language and literature, and attribute my love of words, and such skill as I have with them, to having learned how language works at ground level. The sacrifice, for me, was that my education taught me how to live in my head; it took me many years to discover that I had a heart.

Anonymous said...


I wrote up a couple reactions to Marrs' piece on my blog when it was first published:

Here, and in longer form, here.

I think the piece is worth the read, but has real problems in that it leaves out significant aspects of classical education in America, past and present.

Also, I would disagree that Classical education is, as you say, in its last throes. The case is rather that it is still the dominant template for education, by and large with one big, huge however: the heart of classical education was and still is the study of Latin and Greek, and that heart has been ripped out and we are left with a education curriculum today that keeps other areas of classical ed (math, science, literature, history, geography, fine arts, etc.). And with the heart ripped out, any tangible, palpable connection to the West's 2,500+ of recorded conversation (largely in latin and greek, and definitely influenced by both if in English, spanish, etc) goes along with it.

An education that flails from lack of self-understanding: that's the tragedy of the large-scale loss of Latin and Greek.

The good news is that classical education is making a comeback in homeschooling communities. And the extent the basic classical education template needs continual updating and sometimes refining (it does!), that organic process can and probably will take care of whatever "postmodern" stuff you are referring to.

Because classical education is, ultimately, a living tradition. And when it isn't, it dies.