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Four Corruptions of the Classical Tradition

The classical tradition has been polluted by four streams of thought, each of which is ultimately rooted in conscious or unconscious antipathy to the human soul.

Naturalism, which took its educational form as Utiliatrianism, is a rejection of anything transcendent. It arose in the 17th and 18th centuries out of the fear that somebody might learn something that everybody else can’t easily see for themselves. It leads to the idea that learning is measured by its usefulness and validates itself, for the most part, through measurable assessments.

During that time, but mostly in the 19th century, classical education was betrayed from within by the philologists who turned studying Latin and Greek into rigorous linguistic study, more or less for its own sake. Classical education became a specialty for a narrow section of the scholarly world, whereas it had once been the ordering pattern of learning.

Imperialistic classicism has corrupted classical education from within at least twice: once in the Roman Empire when all learning was oriented toward the worship of dea Roma. Within this context, much good was done, but the soul was displaced for the empire.

The second time was under British Imperialism, during which the Etons and Harrows provided a rigorous classical education to their students so they could rule the world.

Now, I would hate to think what it would have been like if those British Imperialists had received an American education, though it would certainly have brought the Empire to an end much more quickly, but classical education should not be subjected to the “needs of empire”, Roman, British, or otherwise.

Finally, the fourth and currently most popular corruption of classical education is a vague, watered down pragmatism currently found under the name, liberal education. The proof that the modern “liberal educator” is disconnected from the tradition of liberal education is in the almost ubiquitous use of the term “general education” as a synonym for “liberal education.”

A liberal education was one rooted in the seven liberal arts, the arts of free people, not general arts, the arts of a confused people.

We’ll do well to distinguish classical education from utilitarian, philological, imperial, or “liberal” education. In varying degrees, each has much to offer. But until an education is oriented to the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the very present souls of actual people living in real times and places, it cannot be happily measured against the classical ideal.

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