"Anyone setting out to defend what Jay Albert Nock once called 'the grand old fortifying classical curriculum' -- essentially Greek and Latin -- does so knowing that he flies the tattered flag of a lost cause." Tracy Lee Simmons begins his book "Climbing Parnassus" with this appraisal, and proceeds to raise that banner over the beleaguered barricades of classical education.
The triumph of the campaign against Western Civilization may be seen at our own school. OSU offers no courses in the languages that began our culture, preferring to spend its resources on courses like "NFM216 -- Food in Non-Western Culture," "PHL599 -- 002 -- Feminist Epistemology," "EXSS475 -- Power and Privilege in Sport," and "WS299 -- Witches, Midwives, and Healers."
Against such anti-intellectual debasement of education, Mr. Simmons sets a robust vision that challenges students to greatness. For though few students have the capacity to excel, "When aims are pitched high, even a partial failure leads to ultimate success. The climb itself builds muscles, even if we don't reach the top."
Most everyone agrees that education in America is a mess. But the solutions generally offered (from the left -- more money; from the right -- more accountability) don't consider that the problem may not lie in the execution but in the ideal.
Few today consider the radical difference between today's educational methods and curriculum and that of classical education. Many cannot even define a classical education: the study of the great languages and literature (from the poetic to the philosophical) of Western Civilization.
"Climbing Parnassus" makes its case in clear prose, and relying on authority beyond the author's own, it regularly bolsters its case by citing luminaries spanning from Plato and Socrates to T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. Simmons' first task is to critique modern education, and in this, as he warns in the preface, "A few forbidden things."
The second supposition Simmons rebuts hails from all sides of the political spectrum: the appeal to utility that would, Emerson said, "abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage." The majority of the book is addressed to this objection to classical education.
Those portions of the university that have not been corrupted by the anti-intellectualism of subjectivism have been turned into job training programs.
Students learn a trade instead of learning.
Even if the critics are correct, and the classics have no practical value, this is no argument for neglecting them. Mankind's lot would be poorer without Homer and Virgil, Plato and Cicero, just as it would be if roses and rainbows vanished from the earth. The pure pragmatist would give us everything we need for life except a reason for living.
However, the classics are far more than a means of sating our aesthetic urges. They are not an adversary but an ally of the hard sciences, for if the classics cannot "build new roads and bridges," science cannot "explain where we want to go."
Simmons makes the case for the classics by examining the history of the study of these dead languages and their poets, philosophers, and orators. The rigor of classical learning develops minds, "No one bothered with what we call skills of 'critical thinking,' which came naturally to anyone successfully navigating this course of study."
Both Harvard and Yale, when established, required mastery of Greek and Latin for acceptance. Simmons lauds our Founding Fathers as perhaps "the wisest, best-read public servants to preside over any government since ancient times." I shudder to think what course history would have taken had they been given a modern education.
Studying Greek, Latin and their works is an intellectual exercise regime second to none. There is no need to create a new form of education that will produce intellectual, self-controlled, virtuous citizens. For the model has been "inherited from antiquity, rediscovered by men of the Renaissance, and sustained by the brighter lights of the modern world. The curriculum ... already existed ... It was classical education."
But this education provides more than a gymnasium for the intellect. "Classical education provides keys to understanding Western civilization." It imbues students with a historical perspective and a base for our culture. For instance, those who wish to understand the Federalist Papers would do well to begin their journey in Greece and Rome.
I have been convinced. My quest to provide myself with the thorough education that OSU (despite the pretensions of the bacc core) will certainly not impart has neglected the tongues in which our civilization began. However, I am now searching for a good Latin primer.
Mr. Simmons may be tilting at windmills, but this one, at least, he has unhorsed.