August 25, 2008

Peter's Take on Classical Education

One day I was looking at a website devoted to classical education. We've dabbled in this philosophy, and in fact, Peter's 9th grade private school describes itself as giving a classical education. So I asked Peter, now three years out of that and on his way to the University of Chicago, what he honestly thought of what we affectionately call "reading dead white guys." He had great comments, so I asked him to take over my computer and write it out as post for my blog. So here you go, my first guest author:

"First off, let me say that I like classical education. It's a lot of fun reading what brilliant men of the past had to say, and it's often illuminating to learn the origin of the ideas we all accept.

That said, I have a serious problem with groups who claim that studying the classics is a panacea for our (undeniable) educational malaise. We need better education, of course, but only a very narrow conception of education could conclude that our main goal should be to get kids to read Euclid.

Everyone knows that the Italian Renaissance was a time where classical scholarship was prized above nearly anything else. Therefore, we would expect the world's most brilliant men to come from that time period, right? Wrong. They actually wrote very little worth reading. They were so focused on studying the past that they forgot to think for themselves. It took the anti-classical movements of science and the Enlightenment to do anything to increase the world's knowledge.

We know far more about the world now than we did even a hundred years ago. Science is the most obvious example, but even in fields like philosophy we find great strides in, for example, formal logic. An education that ignores this plain fact will produce students more fit for the Middle Ages than the 21st Century.

"But," the aspiring classicist might rebut, "didn't Thomas Jefferson learn in exactly the way you're criticizing? I wouldn't be too disappointed if I ended up like him." Of course. But there are many things to consider when comparing yourself to Thomas Jefferson. First, he was a brilliant man. There were many people in his time who had the same education and didn't have nearly the success he did. I have no doubt that he would have been able to succeed with any form of decent education.

Second, he lived in a time where knowledge hadn't progressed much beyond what we would call "classical." In fact, many people we now consider The Great Authors were nearly contemporaneous with him. Jefferson called John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton the "three greatest men the world had ever produced," yet Locke and Newton wrote their great works well under a hundred years before Jefferson would have studied them. If we want to emulate Jefferson, we'd better study Dewey, Russell, and Einstein, not Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras.

So, is studying the classics useless then? Not at all! As I said in the beginning, many of the world's great authors truly were great. Also, since we live in a world with classical roots, its fascinating to learn where our ideas originally came from. But that's only a beginning. A true education has to progress beyond the classics, just as the modern world has progressed beyond the classical world. Sure, study Aristotle's logic, but then read some modern criticism of Aristotle's logic, and study modern formal logic. Read Freud, but then read what modern psychologists have to say. Appreciate the genius of Newton, but then appreciate the genius of Einstein, Schrödinger, Feynman, and the people working on the cutting edge of string theory, loop quantum gravity, solid-state physics, and all the rest.

Read the classics. I guarantee you'll learn a lot. But don't stop there. We have more knowledge today than we have had at any point in the past. It would be foolish to limit yourself to the knowledge of our ancestors."


Michelle Glauser said...

I am currently studying for the literature GRE, so I've been asking some of the same questions. I guess if I prove I know the classics well enough, I can go into less-explored areas. We'll see.

Jena said...

good luck on your exams! It's good to have that stuff as a background.

Heather said...

Excellent points. I would also suggest reading books by authors with differing views in order to better understand both sides of the same coin.

Laurie said...

Very good points and well thought out! There's a great quote out there (that I can't locate or remember who said it first) that goes something like, "It's possible that an entire education can be obtained simply by reading books". If my mother had followed a 'learning only through living books' method, I'm sure I would have loved it. Having said that, I would have missed a lot if I'd been stuck in reading only the classics (though probably I'd have been better off than the public school education which I did receive! LOL). Good points! :)

Deborah Niemann said...

I teach college speech, and that is one of the most eloquently written things I've read in a long time. (Yes, you do have to write essays in speech class.) I would love to have you in my class, but I don't teach at U of C. When people talk about the the need for "standards" in homeschooling, it makes me laugh because standards have done nothing for the public schools. The worst thing about college freshmen is that most of them can't think critically or analytically.

Okay, I'm going to hop off my soapbox and run over to my own blog, before I get carried away here.

I would say good luck, but you won't need luck. You'll do great in college! And your professors are so lucky. [sniffle, sniffle]

Anonymous said...

Great post! I enjoy many classics, but I love reading specialist, Jim Trelease's quote that I heard at a a conference a few years ago, "Classics are fine, but don't you think any quality books have been written recently?"
He said this in response to classroom teachers insisting that their students read so many classics each year. Jim's basic philosophy is that we want them to love reading, and we shouldn't be so particular about what they choose to read.

At A Hen's Pace said...

Bravo, Peter! A well-stated case that I agree with entirely!


Anonymous said...

An excellent argument. And you write well, Peter. I'm a former university professor and if half my first year students wrote as well as you, life would have been so much better.

I particularly like your point about how Jefferson probably would have done well whatever education he got. This is an important point when "ranking" schools or education methods based on student outcomes. There are so many other factors that influence how well students do that it is problematic to use student outcomes purely as an indicator of the quality of the school/curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Peter, thanks for your perspective. I have just started homeschooling my 10 y.o. daughter. Your points will help me as we continue on our educational journey together.

Amanda said...

Hi Jena! I just found this fabulous post by Peter, and thought he made some excellent points. I've been reading a lot about classical ed lately, and wondered if his school emphasized classical languages and math as well as lit.

The authors I've been reading place more emphasis on the benefits of the *process* of learning Latin and Greek, rather than just the usefulness of them (though of course they're useful if you speak English). They also emphasize mathematics as a foundation for later studies of science. I know there are different takes on classical ed, just wondered if he had thoughts on that perspective. :)

PoeticExplosion said...

Latin was a required course at the school, and I think they also offered Greek as an elective. Math was also required, and I actually had a truly wonderful math teacher. (There wasn't anything particularly "classical" about the math, though.)

I firmly believe that learning any language is inherently useful, even if you don't actually use it much. In that sense I am all in favor of classical languages. That said, I'm not convinced that learning Latin is better than, say, learning German. It depends on the interests of the student. (For me, order of importance is probably German, then Latin, then French. But that is because of the specific topics I'm interested in.)

I also believe learning math is inherently beneficial, and it's also super important if you plan on doing any science. It's interesting, though, that even the most hardcore classicists don't think we should teach math directly from the Greek math treatises.

(Also, re-reading this post with the benefit of a few good history of science classes, I'd like to retract some of the more shamelessly progressivist language. I wouldn't necessarily say we "know more" than previous generations. The point still stands, however, that the Greek perspective is not the only useful one.)

Copyright Information

All of the written content and photographs on yarns of the heart are protected under copyright. But feel free to link my content to your blog anytime. I love connecting around the net! And if you have any questions, just contact me at yarnsoftheheart [at] gmail [dot] com. Thank you!
Clip art courtesy of and Pure Clip Art