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That great English writer, G.K. Chesterton once claimed that: “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death (Chesterton).” An astute observation. It is a maxim that the monolith institution of education would do well to contemplate and observe. This does not mean education as the act of learning, but the way by which one learns what one learns. As with many other institutions, the established method of education has been demolished. The combined arrogance of the living masses has said, “Why respect the dead? Why use the established methods?” But then forgotten to address adequately the equally important question: “Why not?”

The progressive living have questioned the slower dead, and eventually find that the democracy of the dead answers back implacably: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me (Job 38:2-3).” 

Before proceeding to definitions, the purpose of this paper should be clarified. It is not to argue that classical education should be reinstated exactly as it was, nor that all modern methods have no worth. The purpose of this paper is to show that the classical education should not be dismissed so quickly, and at least the fundamental methods and spirit of it should be resurrected. Now, on to definitions.

To define method. Method is that which education (the institution) uses to teach students. It is the model used. It is the structural backbone of the process—the set of rules by which the game is played. These rules may be strict, or loose, but they are rules nonetheless. The structure may be complex or simple, but nonetheless it is structure. One of these structures, one of these sets of rules—a “tradition” and “democracy of the dead”—that has fallen by the wayside is the classical education. The form of education that the vast democracy aforementioned learned by. The form in which some of the most formidable minds ever were forged and sharpened. Beginning perhaps with Socrates, and continuing down through the ages. The founders of the United States were trained in this way, authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and war heroes such as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Classical education also needs to be defined. It has been established that it is a time-honored method of learning. Tracy Lee Simmons says of classical education:

We find that, in an instructed age, the old regimen needs not only defending but also defining. Once classical education pointed to an elite course of instruction based upon Greek and Latin, the two great languages of the classical world. But it also delved into the history, philosophy, literature, and art of the Greek and Roman worlds, affording over time to the more perspicacious devotees a remarkably high degree of cultural understanding, an understanding that endured and marked the learner for life. Classical education was classical immersion. Students in the great and exclusive Public Schools of England were once made to learn far more about the archons of Greek city-states and emperors of Rome, and commit to memory far more lines of Greek and Roman poetry and drama, than they ever had to learn about Tudors and Stuarts, about Chaucer and Shakespeare. But the languages never took second seat: mastering them came first, and doing so became the crowning achievement of a classical education. Why? Because knowledge and information were not quite enough.

Classical education did not set itself to instilling knowledge alone; it also sought to polish and refine. And neither rigor nor beauty in one’s use of language obtained firmly without Greek and Latin. Together they provided both a mental gymnastic and a training in taste. (Simmons 3).

For centuries, the Greek and Latin languages have been integral to an education—to a classical education. It is asked why study Latin which is essentially dead, and the old forms of Greek? It certainly is not economically practical, and won’t likely lead to a six-figure salary. It’s not progressive. It certainly doesn’t fit with the modern, ever more career oriented, education. M.D. Aeschliman comments:

Isaac Kandel was an English Jew who emigrated in 1908 from England to the United States, not out of persecution but out of a desire for more education and employment opportunities, like my own father from Geneva about a decade later. Highly educated at Manchester in the classics, German, and the new field of education, he went to America to do a doctorate in education at Teachers College, Columbia University, the national and international center of the “Progressive” educational movement identified with John Dewey. For twenty subsequent years, first as a doctoral student and then as a professor at Teachers College, Kandel was an appreciative “Progressive.” But in the 1930s he began to worry about the central tenets of the increasingly dominant educational Progressivism: a naive faith in the child’s capacity to direct his own learning; a derogation of books and learned traditions; a hatred or contempt for the civilized past and its achievements, including organized religion and ethics; a simplistic faith in the capacity of the natural-science paradigm to direct all personal and social growth; social and political utopianism; ethical relativism; and perpetual experimentalism (Aeschliman).

“A derogation of books and learned traditions.” This sounds eerily familiar. “A hatred or contempt for the civilized past and its achievements” or the “democracy of the dead.” Now a certain amount of progressiveness in education is acceptable, especially within certain fields. The field of science for example is quite fluid and so it is natural and acceptable that what is taught and even the method of teaching should change over time. However, methods in certain fields of education should not be so quickly razed, namely the fields to which a classical education applies: rhetoric, literature, history, language, and logic. Rhetoric, literature, history and language are all taught today, but in vastly different ways than of old. Logic is taught, but not nearly as much as it used to be.

The classical education trained the student how to think. Through a rigorous grounding in the aforementioned disciplines—through a training in formal logic—one learned to exercise the mental faculties in the way that Socrates, Plato, and many others did. As Simmons put it, it was a “mental gymnastic.” The classical education was about addressing problems by a certain method. It is a sort of strength conditioner, but also a lens by which the student views the world. The classical education was about learning the Greek and Latin languages and the history connected to them. It is this attitude: “Come now, let us reason together… (Isaiah).” Let us reason together by a well proven method. Let us reason together as Socrates reasoned, as Aristotle reasoned, as Tolkien reasoned, and as Chamberlain reasoned.

Perhaps this is too much to ask in the current age. But at the least, the classical education could involve a thorough grounding in the history, the thought, and religion of western civilization, for the classical education is by nature a product of the west. Whether the current western institutions like it or not, the classical education is their inheritance.  The directed, mental gymnastics program—the inheritance—was rejected and replaced too quickly and too violently with, “a naïve faith in the child’s capacity to direct his own learning.” The democracy of the dead has been silenced by the oligarchy of the living.


Works Cited

Aeschliman, M.D. “Why We Always Need Socrates: Some Unfashionable, Unprogressive Thoughts on  Teachers, Teaching, Curriculum, and the Theory of Knowledge, with Reference and Thanks to Socrates, Pascal, and C.S. Lewis.” Journal of Education (2007).

Chesterton, G.K. “Ethics of Elfland.” Orthodoxy. Print.

Isaiah. Isaiah. ESV. Crossway. Print.

Job. Job. Crossway. Print.

Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Print.