The Gregory Jay Blog

Why we use the classical model of education

Today I was asked the rather simple question of why I decided to use the classical educational philosophy when it came to home schooling my son. I answered the question but don't think I did it justice as I don't think I was very convincing. The main reason for this is that although I have read and thought at length about it I have never actually produced an apologia for classical education neither spoken nor written. Seeing as I did so badly with the spoken defence I'll try the written here and see if I can do any better. At the very least my writing this will help me to get it straight in my head - I hope.

The main thrust of my reasoning was that classical literature (including Latin and Greek literature) was the most important factor in a child's education as it supplies the knowledge of the ideals of the civilisation of which they are a part. That the systems, organisations and institutions existing within said civilisation were created to uphold the ideals that are found within classic literature. I don't think I put it as succintly as that but that was what I was driving at. I use the classical education philosophy as the civilisation is its heart. The focus on history, ancient languages, literature and historical documents give rise to the a deep understanding of the civilisation that created them.

Classical Education and Civilisation

Without first mentioning the idea of civilisation, the argument above looses some of its force.

Kenneth Clark in his magnum opus 'Civilisation' said of it "What is civilisation? I don't know. I can't define it in abstract terms-yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it."

Most people can relate to this sentiment. When I was young I would often find myself looking up at the vast church spire of St. Mary's just outside the family business in Stamford. So tall that if I looked up at it for more than a moment it would feel as if it was falling down on top of me. Though I didn't know it at the time I was recognising that which I couldn't define. The same could be said when I visited the Roman ruins at Vindolanda by Hadrian's Wall. Seeing the towns foundations still there after two thousand years and solid enough to walk on. The church, the bakery, the tabernae all still recognisible gave me a strong sense of history and of timeless civilisation.

For the most part people live squarly within their civilisation but we live within a huge contradiction in the west. On the one hand most people see the role of traditional Western culture diminishing and becoming less and less important and yet on the other it is literally all around us. Vanishing congregations accross the UK tell this story quite succintly. There is a church in every village and yet they are all empty. The Church I was married in in Baston doesn't open every Sunday anymore. In fact none of the churches in the area do, instead they take it in turn to open and put on a service. The congregations of three villages and a market town are now only enough for one church to open up.

The ancient Greek and Roman authors have been stripped from our curricula long ago. So much so that neither my parents nor my grandparents would have ever read Aristotle, Aristophones, Cicero or even Caesar. And most young adults in the UK wouldn't know Homer from Aesop.

You would think that although the Ancient authors and Christianity are being ignored that at least English literature must still have a a place in the minds and hearts of the population! I'm afraid that this has already slipped out of the popular conciousness and soon will go the way of the classical authors - the remit of specialists only. A GCSE in English Literature (a 2 year secondary school course) requires the study of one novel, one poem and one play! A poem, a play and a novel for two years!? After which a pupil can obtain a General Certificate of Secondary Education in English Literature. That's all it takes! And so, of English literature most have the knowledge of one Shakespeare play (we did Twelfth Night,) a poem (We studied Philip Larkin) and one novel (For us it was Of Mice and Men, which is not even English literature, it's American!)

So What?

Why does it even matter that the people of the west have less and less understanding of traditional culture whether it's Classical authors, theology or English literature? Those things are all becoming less prominant and so less important in our societies, right? This is the common misconception, that somehow we can remove ourselves from our culture. It is not possible. We are what we are because our culture makes us what we are. We can learn our culture and actively be a part of it, we can disagree, refute it and fight against it or we can be unknowingly influenced by it but we can not choose to be outside of it. It is a part of us whether we like it or not.

When we accidentally push into a queue because we didn't see someone was in line and we realise and either apologise or just stand there feeling a little guilty, it is The Golden Rule working in our subconcious. I can tell you from 15 years in China that people here do not feel this.

When we watch a movie with a terrible but charming villian we are seeing Milton's Satan brought to life whether or not we know it.

When we complain about the government's spending we do so because of the expectations of governemnt that have been left to us by the classical authors. It is unescapable.

The people who think they oppose the traditional ideas of our culture or civilisation in almost all cases just prefer certain parts of Western Civilisation to other parts. We all do. Western Civilisation is far from perfect and so there is plenty to dislike and plenty that still needs to be improved. Very few people seriously disagree with the prominent political, economic, philisophical and ethical ideals of the west. Those of democracy, capitalism, freedom and the ethics of the Judeo-Christian religions. And none of those that do disagree are moving to Cuba, China or North Korea to escape such ideals, in fact most of the traffic seems to be coming the other way.

In fact, when people rage against traditional values in an attempt to make society more fair towards one minority group or another they use traditional values to do so. They do not use Chinese values or Native American values, no. They find the values they agree with within Western Culture and then remind the culture of these values. This happened with slavery. Slavery goes against the traditional values of the West. Man is created in the image of God and so to enslave man is to disrespect God. The West relies on the ideal of freedom which also cannot tolerate the idea of slavery. And so to destroy the idea of slavery we only had to look within our own culture. A similar argument can be made of the Transgender issue of today. Those seeking 'fairer' treatment for Trans people are using arguments which originate within our own culture, whether or not the are aware of this is the main issue.

If we are going to be influenced and compelled to use our traditional values and culture, it is better for us to understand it then to have it working on us without our knowledge.

This is what I meant to say...

Greg is a true Sinophile, fluent in Chinese and proficient in Tibetan he is a homeschooling Dad that also consults on the side. You'll often find him cigar in mouth, book in hand, waiting for someone to finish their work or for the coffee to brew.