Greek to Us: The Death of Classical Education and Its Consequences

December 05, 2008

Multiple Pages
Greek to Us: The Death of Classical Education and Its Consequences

The following address was given to the H.L. Mencken Club’s Annual Meeting; November 21-23, 2008.

On the evenings of October 10 and 11, 1999, the A&E cable network broadcast a list of “The 100 Most Influential People of the Past 1000 Years,” selected by a “Blue Ribbon Panel.” Some of the names on the bottom half of the list were rather silly: Princess Diana, the Beatles, Elvis Presley (who was ranked just ahead of Joan of Arc), but the top ten names represent a consensus on what has mattered most to us over the last 500 years.

Here they are in reverse order:

10. Galileo                                                      
9. Copernicus                                                  
8. Einstein                                                      
7. Karl Marx                                                   
6. Christopher Columbus
5. William Shakespeare
4. Charles Darwin
3. Martin Luther
2. Isaac Newton
1. Johann Gutenberg

This small group includes a poet, a theologian, a social philosopher, an inventor, a discoverer and five scientists. (Similar lists also privilege science.) The list includes atheists and believers, Catholics, Protestants and Jews. They are all Europeans and all men. The A&E narrative emphasized their curiosity and creativity. I noticed another trait they shared. They all studied Latin. They all had a classical education.

A larger list of significant cultural figures appears in Human Accomplishment, where Charles Murray developed a research strategy that analyzed standard reference works to isolate the 20 most influential figures in 21 areas. Of those ca. 400 figures, 30 stand out as especially influential. Nine come from the period before 1400 AD, while “eighteen of the remaining 21 who came after 1400 were concentrated in the three centuries from 1600-1900.” Sixteen of these 18 (except for two on the technology list) were classically educated. Of the larger lists of the 20 most influential figures in the 13 categories devoted to European culture, the majority were classically educated. Every figure on the lists devoted to “Western Literature” and “Western Philosophy” was classically educated—except for those who actually composed in Greek and Latin in the ancient world.

Let us move from past accomplishments to contemporary problems. In both The Bell Curve and Real Education, Charles Murray relates the story of SAT scores from their high point in 1963 to a nadir reached in 1980-81. After 1981 the average math scores rose again, while the verbal scores stagnated. Herrnstein and Murray wrote in 1994, “The steep drop from 1963 to 1980 was no minor statistical fluctuation. Taken at face value, it tells of an extraordinarily large downward shift in academic aptitude—almost half a standard deviation on the Verbal, almost a third of a standard deviation on the Math.” And it was not average students, but bright high school students who took the tests because they were planning to attend college who were responsible for the dramatic decline in SAT verbal and math scores. After the nadir reached in 1980-81 average scores on the math SAT improved and by 1994 had reached the level of 1967. In fact, in 1994, Murray noted, “the percentage of seventeen-year-olds getting 700+ in the SAT-Math had not only recovered from its low in the early 1980s, it had reached an all-time high.”
    
The SAT verbal scores, on the other hand, improved only slightly over the low point reached in 1981. This is a serious problem. What T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney says about himself is true of the elite: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” Murray argues convincingly that “The tools of verbal expression… are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.” The inability of our leaders to think soundly and speak persuasively affects all of us, because their decisions affect all of us. Leaders of a regime based on consensual institutions need the full panoply of verbal ability.
        
Murray prefaces his argument for the importance of “rigor in verbal expression” by commenting, “In a generic sense, I am calling for a revival of the classical understanding of a liberal education at the college level…but I am not trying to make a case for obligatory study of Greek and Latin or for a St. John’s College curriculum that consists exclusively of the classics.” When he discusses K-12 education, he recommends E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curricula and an expansion of “choice” through vouchers and charter schools. Tom Wolf calls this “a practical plan for literally reproducing, re-creating, a new generation of Jeffersons, Adamses, Franklins, and Hamiltons.” Whether Murray’s plan is practical remains to be seen. We know the education of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and most of the other Founding Fathers and it had nothing to do with school choice. It was what we now call Classical Education.

Jefferson and Adams had heard their good friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, plead for the elimination of the Classics from education in favor of mathematics, science, engineering and Christianity. When they answered him, they emphasized the close connection between language and thinking. A rich vocabulary and a command of grammar are essential for effective writing and speaking. Latin and Greek are the sources for English vocabulary in many important areas, such as law, medicine, science, philosophy, politics and theology, and provide a solid grounding in grammar. Literary, historical and philosophical masterpieces written in Greek and Latin are the historical bases of our culture and are best understood and appreciated when read in the original languages.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther made a similar point about the ancient religious texts of the Bible. He wrote in his open letter To the Councilmen of all the Cities in Germany (1525), “The languages are the scabbard in which the sword of the Spirit is sheathed.” Luther’s defense of the ancient tongues encouraged Protestant educators to make the Humanist curriculum the basis of education in their countries, including the United States. Latin was fundamental in this curriculum. That is why I wrote a decade ago, “We need to know Latin if we want to think like the Founders.” I could have mentioned most of the great figures of modernity.

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The greatest figures in the Scientific Revolution, for example, were classically educated: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and most of the other figures found in Charles Murray’s eight lists of scientific achievement in Human Accomplishment. They had studied ancient texts and could read and write Latin. The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was very self-consciously a return to the ideals and even the texts of ancient science. Copernicus was well aware that he was reviving the heliocentric hypothesis of Aristarchus of Samos from the Third century, BC. The atomic theory used by Newton in his optics was based on Gassendi’s brilliant philological recovery of ancient Epicureanism. Galileo quotes Plato’s Meno and Timaeus over and over again. The education of scientists remained classical through the time of Linnaeus in the 18th century and Charles Darwin in the 19th.

Sceptics object that they had no choice. The case for vocational or technical training was made in the late 18th century by men like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush.

History does not usually allow us to study events with a true control group. There is an exception to this situation in 19th century Germany, where there were two distinct educational paths. One led from the old Classical school, now with more Greek added, and culminated in the classical or humanist “Gymnasium,” from which students then went on to the university. The other path was devoted to math, science, technology and a modern language (usually French) and led to the technical high school or “Realschule,” from which the student went on to a professional school or a job in industry. This critical mass of technically trained graduates working in factories protected by the tariff spurred German industrial growth in the generation that preceded World War I.

The decades on either side of WWI witnessed brilliant work in Physics: the concept of quanta, the theories of special and general relativity and the development of quantum mechanics. One might expect that the most important work in these fields would be done by graduates of the technical school system. Nearly the opposite is true. Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr were classically educated. Einstein attended a Swiss technical high school, but he had spent his first six years at a classical school, where his sister remembered his best subjects as Mathematics and Latin: “Latin’s clear, strictly logical structure fit his mindset.” Heisenberg wrote, “I believe that in the work of Max Planck, for instance, we can clearly see that his thought was influenced and made fruitful by his classical schooling.” Heisenberg insisted that his own insights into nature came from his classical education. Its combination of math and physics with language instruction led him to read Plato’s Timaeus in Greek. He was impressed by Plato’s rational appeals to understand nature mathematically rather than as a purely physical reality: “I was gaining the growing conviction that one could hardly make progress in modern atomic physics without a knowledge of Greek natural philosophy.”
        
When we review the story of SAT scores from the high point in 1963 to a nadir reached in 1981, after which the verbal scores experienced only slight improvement, we may want to add one factor to those usually discussed. 1962, the year before the SAT high point, marked the year of the zenith of enrollment in high school Latin in the United States, when 728,637 students enrolled in high school Latin. The decline in Latin enrollments tracks the decline in SAT-Verbal scores. Latin has never regained its position as a “more commonly taught language,” just as SAT-Verbal scores have never gotten back to their 1963 level. If the relation of high school Latin and SAT-Verbal scores is significant, we may note that the decline in measurable achievement was most striking in good students and it was precisely good students who tended to take high school Latin.
    
I understand why it is hard for advocates of academic rigor to take foreign languages seriously today. Greek has virtually disappeared. Latin has lost the presence it had in the early 1960’s. The dominant foreign language in high schools is Spanish. Before the cultural catastrophe of the late 1960’s, mastery of a foreign language was part of the standard high school curriculum and a prerequisite for admission to good colleges. Bright students developed a mastery of verbal expression. Ordinary people understood the challenges and rewards of knowing foreign languages.
    
That understanding not only improved the quality of “precise thinking at an advanced level,” but influenced popular culture. It is the basis for one of the funniest episodes of “I Love Lucy,” where a Parisian policeman, who knows French and German, communicates with the monoglot Lucy by talking to an inebriated prisoner who knows German and Spanish and so can talk to Lucy’s Cuban husband, Rickie, who knows Spanish and English. It is a superbly achieved comic presentation of foreign languages as a means and barrier to communication. In Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion the ability of two aristocrats, a German officer and his French prisoner, to communicate with each other in English and so hide their thoughts from their men provides both humor and heartbreak.
     
In Real Education, Charles Murray sees the direct connection between “correct understanding of the meaning of individual words,” grammar and syntax, “mastery of the rules of reasoning” and finally “understanding the principles of rhetoric.” This connected and coherent verbal curriculum is the late ancient and medieval trivium—grammar, logic and rhetoric—that survived in the Humanist curriculum that was then developed by the Reformers for Protestant countries and by the Jesuits in Catholic lands. (The quadrivium includes the non-verbal arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.)

It is the curriculum that created the modern world. It has been revived and is fundamental for contemporary Classical educators. They know a lesson that was accepted for centuries and is now ignored at enormous academic cost. Grammar is fundamental for other important intellectual activities.
    
Few people can understand grammar by studying their first language. They need the discipline provided by rigorous study of foreign languages. It is vain to pin our hopes for improving communication on university writing programs, which were created to remedy deficiencies, not produce excellence. Writing programs cannot succeed at teaching high standards in communication unless their students already command “the tools of verbal expression.” Only rigorous study of foreign languages can give that to most people.

Classical Education as practiced in the United States over the past 15 years is the most up-to-date, cutting edge development in K-12 education. It is also the oldest, most tried-and-true alternative on today’s educational scene. Its current incarnation began when Calvinist minister Douglas Wilson read an essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” a witty defense of the medieval Seven Liberal Arts written by Dorothy Sayers after World War II. Wilson turned the ideas in Sayers’ essay into a curriculum based on the arts of language found in the late ancient and medieval trivium. Schools with a classical curriculum are often associated with traditional forms of Christianity, but there are also non-religious classical charters, which are public schools. Some Classical schools concentrate on the trivium, but many espouse the entire liberal arts curriculum.
    
Charles Murray describes clearly and powerfully the challenges that face American education. To overcome them we need all the help we can get. Classical education is the most successful curriculum ever developed, whether measured by its results in literature, art, music, science, philosophy, law or politics. Greek and Latin have provided the vocabulary for these important areas. Studying Greek and Latin trained the minds of those who practiced these subjects. Reading works composed n Greek and Latin transmitted the cultural legacy that was the soil in which they flourished. Latin is the language of such central modern works as More’s Utopia, the Augsburg Confession, and Newton’s Principia. Works in Latin formed the styles and provided the content of the writings of America’s Founding Fathers. What I wrote ten years ago remains true today: America needs the Classical Tradition.

E. Christian Kopff is professor of Classics at the University of Colorado in Bolder. He is the author of The Devil Knows Latin and has recently translated Josef Pieper’s Tradition: Concept and Claim into English for ISI Books. He is a contributing editor at Taki’s Magazine.

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