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Renaissance Humanists: A Classical Education for Citizenship

The medieval trivium has been central to the American classical education movement of the past three decades. For many of us it is our defining concept, our method against public school madness, even our child psychology. And so it may surprise us to discover that in a book subtitled An Introduction to the History of Classical Education, the trivium is not once mentioned. The title of this book may also surprise us: Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators. Don’t worry, this isn’t the secular, atheistic humanism of our own day. The original humanists, the Christian humanists of the Renaissance, were teachers who revived a love of the Greco-Roman classics and of the early church fathers—and they didn’t do it through the trivium. No, they were determined to replace medieval education with what they believed were more classical aims and methods, and it was only through their labors that classical education survived as long as it did into the modern age.[1] However we may feel toward them for dethroning the trivium, let’s hear them out and see if we can learn from that greatest of classical revivals. What follows are some highlights from the above-mentioned book and Studies in Education during the Age of the Renaissance, both written by William Harrison Woodward around the turn of the twentieth century.

The first thing you might notice upon leafing through Woodward’s books is Latin and Greek: they’re everywhere. Latin was the language of instruction in humanist schools, and ideally it was spoken at home also. The head teacher of John Calvin’s school in Geneva, Martin Cordier, wrote a series of conversational Latin dialogues, and in one of these a boy says of himself and his five-year-old brother, “Our schoolmaster speaks nothing in English except for explanation’s sake, and we don’t dare speak to our father, unless it be in Latin.” Martin Luther’s scholar-sidekick Philip Melanchthon went even further and taught Greek to his elementary-age students.

More generally, literature was supreme in humanist teaching. Granted, some teachers used mathematics to train reasoning ability, and Italian humanists valued athletics and social graces such as music and dancing. But the core of a humanist school was Latin and Greek literature: oratory, drama, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. To us this might seem a narrow curriculum, but the humanists justified it by pointing out that in human life we act first of all in a moral sphere, and nothing prepares us to act well in that sphere like good literature, where we see virtue and vice played out in other lives and we learn to love the one and hate the other.

But more than individual virtue, the humanists had a vision for all of society. They brought up their students to be good citizens, serving their city and country just as well as serving God. Erasmus, the “prince of the humanists,” dreamed of healing the national divisions and corruption of Christendom by recreating the idyllic culture of the early Church. To that end, he called everyone to a pure worship and imitation of Christ. By the end of his life, he had fallen tragically short of his goal, as he witnessed the Church split apart and European nationalism rise to violent heights.

Erasmus was not alone in failing to achieve the aims of humanist education. In northern Europe, Melanchthon and others never quite sold classical education to the merchant middle class, who doubted the usefulness of years of Latin and Greek to their sons who would take over the family business someday. The merchants’ sons tended to have a short stay at humanist schools, before their fathers sent them elsewhere to be apprenticed and to learn European vernaculars. In Italy this problem was less pronounced only because Italians understood that a classical education was best suited for professionals who needed Latin (clergymen, lawyers, and doctors) and for the upper classes (the princes, who had the leisure to study ancient wisdom). Although the humanists deeply influenced European schools for centuries to come (think British public schools, German gymnasia, and early American universities), their vision of a classically educated society did not extend beyond the upper classes.

How can we learn from these aims of the humanists while avoiding their shortcomings? How can we give our students a classical education that will prepare them to be good citizens? We can start by asking how the responsibilities of a citizen today are different. For example, science was not in the humanist curriculum because there wasn’t yet any coherent body of scientific knowledge, and that worked out fine because the scientific advances of that time didn’t much affect the average person. But now we constantly hear of the ethically dubious ways in which industries find new uses for science; and as we unthinkingly consume a stream of advancing digital technology, a premonition grows within us of lost humanity. These are moral issues, so a classical education’s goal of training morally wise citizens is still relevant. But wisdom in a modern society has new demands that we cannot hope to meet simply by copying a template from a former age, be it the trivium or the humanist curriculum. We must meet the idols and the demons of modernity head-on by helping our students connect the dots between the classical tradition and virtue in the modern world.

We already adjust in various ways: we re-interpret the trivium as a method rather than as its original content, and we add modern literature and math and science to the curriculum. But it might still be helpful to think about our ultimate aims, what they mean concretely in our society, and how we should teach accordingly. What do our students need to be good and wise citizens?

[1] For details on the transition from medieval to humanist education, see Renaissance Schooling in Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300-1600 by Paul F. Grendler (Johns Hopkins, 1989), chapter 5: “The Coming of the Studia Humanitatis,” pp. 110-141. Grendler precedes this chapter with the following summary: “Curriculum revolutions are rare occurrences. Education resists change so successfully that Western civilization has witnessed only a handful in three millennia. The Greeks and Romans established the earliest known form of Western education. After the ancient rhetorical curriculum fell with Rome, medieval men created a new education based on logic and Christianity which retained a few elements of Greco-Roman education. A third educational revolution occurred during the Italian Renaissance, when pre-university schooling based on a thorough grounding in the Latin and, to a lesser extent, the Greek classics began. The Italian humanists and the northern humanists who followed established the studia humanitatis to train students in eloquence and wisdom. A Latin education based on the classics became the norm for the sons and a few daughters of the elite, and those from the middle class who hoped to rise, in Italy in the fifteenth century and the rest of Europe in the sixteenth century. The humanist educators succeeded so well that the Latin humanistic curriculum lasted until well into the twentieth century.”

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