Tracy Lee Simmons is the director of the Dow Journalism program at Hillsdale College and holds a masters degree in Classics from Oxford University. This article is an excerpt from his Climbing Parnassus, published by ISI (www.isi.org). Reproduced with permission.
Readers of English novels or American biography have often noticed the peculiar spectacle of young innocents getting carted off to school only to be cast into the thorny thicket of two ancient and difficult tongues: Greek and Latin. By threat of stinging rod, they were made to memorize the words and rules of two languages they would never speak. It was a curious affair. What was the point of it all?
Latin and Greek discipline and form the mind, but they can do far more as well. Taught with an aim to cultivate and humanize, they can render something more and greater to the intelligent, talented, and patient. While a classical education (defined by Latin and Greek language study) is not the only one worth having, its passing from schools and colleges has impoverished our culture and, incidentally, degraded our politics. The classical languages can shape and enhance one’s intellectual and aesthetic nature, shaping both the mind and heart.
The American soil, however, is not naturally fertile for classics, whose seed falls on hard clay. As another man of letters told us nearly eighty years ago, we as a nation possess a “weakness for new gospels,” a vital but hazardous trait, as we stand in danger of discarding both the good and useful in a quest for the dubious and untried. We pride ourselves on our capacity to reach far and entertain the fantastic idea. And we think ourselves more as doers than as thinkers. While others waxed about going to the moon, we went. We are forever on the move.
But this restless drive, which Americans are wont to think unique to us, also fuels the rest of the frenetic world, particularly in the West where – despite some multi-culturist claims – our civilization supplies the model most peoples around the globe wish to emulate. We spell Progress with a capital. Here the new is always better, the old worse; the new is always rich and relevant; the old threadbare and obsolete. Ours is the “shining city on a hill,” in John Winthrop’s memorable coinage, a city that could begin afresh because it had no past. We could start from scratch and travel lightly.
Yet, having crossed the millennium, we feel a few spiritual tremors. Impetuosity does not reflect. The super-annuated, ever-changing mind cannot speak to the whole of life. It cannot contemplate; it cannot assign value. It can drive us to build new roads, but it cannot explain where we want to go. It can build rockets to Mars and beyond, but it cannot tell us whether it’s wise to go there. It cannot answer questions it long ago lost the wisdom to ask. The life of the minds and souls it leaves are bereft of standards, those talking points of judgment which are acquired only with time and patient effort.
Intellectuals are not immune. Scratch a believer in bold new ideas and find a slave to fashion, proving the adage that the newest is always the most quickly dated, whether it comes from Madison Avenue or the Modern Language Association. Here is the spirit of El Dorado, the hope that riches and salvation wait around the next bend in the road. Old gospels lack the beckoning allure of the road not taken. But like the explorers in the desert, ever prone to mirage, we have had, along with remarkable discoveries, a few false sightings. And we are beginning to sense a certain lack of permanence in modern life. The new gospels have certainly delivered, but they have not saved.
Education, that vague and official word for what goes on in our schools, has also been a trinket on the shelves of snake-oil salesmen and a plaything for social planners in America for well over a century. They, too, have been driven by the spirit of ceaseless innovation. And we have paid the high price. The peddlers have shrouded the higher and subtler goals of learning which former generations accepted and promoted. These bringers of the New have traded in the ancient ideal of wisdom for a spurious “adjustment” of mind, settling for fitting us with the most menial skills needful for the world of interchangeable parts. They have decided we are less, not more, than the wiser people humanity might become. Instead of seeking to discern what an education can bring to us, we now ask what we can get out of it; there’s a difference. And the benefits accrued do not exist, apparently, if they cannot be measured – and measured by tools calibrated by craftsmen out to replicate themselves. Standards require standard makers.
Nonetheless, on the face of it, the question of use is a fair one. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead reminded us that any education not useful is wasted. An education, he said, must be “useful, because understanding is useful.” But what must we understand? If education must be useful, what uses are to be served? And, more importantly, are there different kinds of use we should acknowledge?
The modern mind, schooled to be practical, stands ill-prepared to wrestle with these questions because they are at bottom philosophical ones; our practicality has, ironically, rendered us incapable of answering them. So, while thinking ourselves a knowing and enlightened lot, we stand deaf to our own ignorance, which has become a white noise. Gilded degrees hanging on our walls bear witness to our certified smarts. But we have stood Socrates on his head: whereas the only thing that Athenian knew was that he knew nothing, the only thing we don’t know – and with far thinner credentials, it would seem – is that we know so very little.
We do not know, in other words, what more reflective ages have deemed the important things. And we don’t know them because they have not been taught to us, or gentle prods to our self-esteem have spurred us to consult only our druthers in deciding what’s worth knowing. We have adopted the leveling assumptions we’ve inherited – whatever works for you – and fed off the intellectual capital earned by others who, we presume, have already done the hard-thinking for us. We pride ourselves on self-reliance while following, uncritically, the roadmaps of others. For independently skeptical people, we ask few questions.
What we don’t know can hurt us. Given the world’s fixation on technology and all things financially gainful, that “grand old fortifying classical curriculum” requires not an uncritical re-adoption (to which there’s no chance anyway) but a systematic repraisal, if for no other reason than that so many men and women of centuries past, who established and refined the standards by which we live today, held that gem in such high esteem. Thus, we can regain some sense of history and our place along its timeline. Gratitude, according to Chesterton, is the truest sign of happiness in individuals. A safe corollary seems then that a happier society would feel a debt to the past and its treasures, and this debt would be paid gladly by those taught in the ways of respect and humility. For those without respect and humility stand to these riches as those without knowledge of geometry once stood before the gates of Plato’s Academy; they are forever excluded.
Such respect (if not always such humility) classical education fostered for centuries. It lent an anchoring to intellectual life and provided all educated people, as we now say, with a common set of references. Or, to switch metaphors, it placed a true north on our cultural compass. Rather than seeking new gospels, we should direct our gaze behind us so that we may more securely find our footing on the road ahead. If, in fact, “the past is prologue,” it is only the past that can instruct and guide us. The present is too close. And the future is but a haze of possibilities and dreams. The future does not yet belong to us.