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Examining Classical Education

Who is a Classical Education for?

Classical education has a reputation for being elitist, a form of learning for the upper classes, used to keep their positions in society. As one who grew up nearly poor by American standards and who has spent his entire life in the lower middle class, I find myself both sympathetic and scornful of that view: sympathetic because there is no doubt that if I had gone to Phillips-Andover* I would have been given a more rigorous education, scornful because I have still been able to devote my life to seeking and spreading a classical education.

Some people contend that classical education is only for the smart, whatever that means, but Cheryl Swope and Charlotte Mason and others have shown that people who argue this way have reversed the equation.

The real problem, especially today, is not wealth, talent, or even access, but desire.

Who is a classical education for? I contend that it is for anybody who wants one, but there are plenty of people who don’t. Much of me doesn’t. Allow me a moment on the couch while I psychoanalyze myself and see if any of these excuses or distractions explain why others might not want a classical education.

First, it’s hard work, not in the way that bending over and lifting things is hard work, but in the sense of it never stopping annoying you. Every minute of the day I realize I hardly know anything, about history, math, literature, philosophy, science, theology – about anything. By far, the most impressive thing about me is the vast range of my ignorance. Classical education never lets you forget that because it takes knowledge so seriously.

That makes it emotionally difficult. It’s a lot easier to say you graduated Summa Cum Laude than to admit you don’t know anything. It’s also a lot easier to just be done with school and not bother pressing on into a more mature learning mode that keeps reminding you that you didn’t learn all that much at school (which is not a slam on school – just a realization that every adult learner discovers).

Second, being a Christian I believe some things that the pre-Christian form of classical education was unaware of and some that it even denied. There has always been an interesting conversation taking place between the followers of Homer and the followers of Moses and of Christ. They offer two different approaches to wisdom, two different views of man, two different paths to virtue.

And each of those dichotomies is absurd. Among the Greeks and Romans there were many paths to wisdom and virtue. Among Christians there are too. And there is one path shared by all. It’s hard to figure it all out. A lot like life. Which leads to my next point.

Third, and I think this is the hardest one, a classical education perpetuates the examined life. This puts it in direct conflict with two groups of people: those who are secure in their authority and those who want that authority. In other words, everybody. And me with myself. Those elements of my life that are comfortable and explained away are comfortable. I’d like to keep them that way. Other parts of me are greedy and hasty. I don’t want to slow them down.

My hang-ups seem not to be unique.

Most business leaders, for example, don’t want a classical education because it challenges all the assumptions on which modern business enterprises operate. Can a business justify making products lacking in beauty or truth? Does providing employment or lowering prices justify disrupting a community’s traditions and lifestyles? Maybe it does. A classical education demands that you think about these questions, but business people don’t have time for that. They have a bottom line and it’s at the bottom.

On the other hand, can you imagine a politician engaging in an examination of his or her assumptions? Can you imagine a Senator or president being forced to define his or her terms? Can you imagine two politicians having a debate in which they actually identified what they agreed on before specifying, clarifying, and defending the point of difference? Can you imagine challenging the assumption that over 300 million people can be governed intelligently by paid for people far from home? Maybe they can. But classical education will bring up the unmentionable for discussion.

A classical education would slam the breaks on change and progress because Socrates would be constantly forcing people to justify and examine their advocacies, but it would also undercut the powers that be because he would be perpetually tripping them up over their assumptions.

But that’s really a big part of the point. A classical education is not about the distribution of power, it’s about the cultivation of wisdom. And wisdom requires an endless, principle-driven engagement with reality in all its glories and burdens.

We have no patience for that nuanced engagement. If we are of the left we want the state to simplify it for us. If we are of the right we want either the military or the so-called private sphere to settle things.

There is not and there can be no settling of things. It is in the disorder of the world as it is, not the artificial structures we impose on children’s minds at school or anywhere else, that we learn to live in the world as it is.

There are principles that stand up to examination. One, for example, is that you can count on the human impulse to transfer the consequences of decisions to others. And when you do, you reject both a classical education and wisdom. And your life will be a waste of time.

It was, after all, Socrates who got to the heart of it all when he declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

* That’s a made up name, sort of.

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