5 Good Books on the "Why?" of Classical Education

Climbing Parnassus by Simmons

This was one of the first books I read about classical education, and I will confess that at first I didn’t quite “get” it. It seemed elitist, and a little oddball and frankly boring. Then, after doing some other reading, I read it again, and then I read it a third time, and only then did I “see.” Like so much of “classic literature,” you really need to have some background knowledge in order to get the full meat of the argument. I’ve chosen some of my favorite, more accessible quotes that I think make some good points about classical education.

“…the kind of citizens we wish to create and the kind of polity we wish to engender. For education is never neutral. Embedded within any course of study lie assumptions about what people ought to know, and about human nature itself: Are we Man or Machine? Education is, in the end, an auxiliary of philosophy — an embodiment of aims and ideals.

Humanism is “the belief that man is more important than his environment or his possessions; and that his fundamental business is not to understand [physical] nature, though that is one of his problems, nor to earn a livelihood, though that is one of his duties, but so to lead his life as to make the best of human nature and above all of what is characteristic of, peculiar to, and highest in human nature; or, as the Greeks put it, to achieve the arête [or ‘excellence’] of man.”

Matters of ethics, morality, and politics jostle as the vita beata, the good or happy life, is delineated, as it so supremely was during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in Greece, an age that, according to Livingstone, “had to face the questions which — now veiled now visible, now remote now insistent — constitute the eternal human problem: what should men believe about life, how should they live it, in what state of society can the good life be best lived, [and] how can we create such a state?”

Closing of the American Mind by Bloom

This is another book that I stumbled through the first time I read it, and came back to again and again. While I’m not alone in having serious problems with his conclusions, the general line of his argument is difficult to ignore and worth considering. If you think of education as shaping future citizens, then thinking about how society should be is key to determining what education should be.

Allan Bloom died young, of AIDS, and had he lived, would no doubt have been an irascible curmudgeon, but his book made me think, and eventually I concluded that I believe in moral objectivism a la Kant: there is a limit to human behavior, that some actions are simply intolerable, no matter when, where, or how they take place.

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance.

Relativism is necessary to openness

The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.

…when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?

Men must love and be loyal to their families and their peoples in order to preserve them. Only if they think their own things are good can they rest content with them. A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths—to justify these attachments. And a man needs a place and opinions by which to orient himself.

Consider This by Karen Glass

To be honest, I’ve never been particularly attracted to Charlotte Mason style classical education. It seemed awfully soft around the edges, a sort of slacker-style education. My first encounters with it didn’t do much to change my mind. Sit around and read good books? That’s all?!

As I’ve become a more experienced homeschooler, and stepped a little away from my innate dislike of formal literature and literature analysis, I’ve become more aware of how our perception of current society is shaped by the books we read, even those set in the past. With great power comes great responsibility, and so I’ve become even more selective about choosing books in our homeschool.

Thinking about how literature shapes us, I picked up Consider This at exactly the right time to be receptive to ideas like:

answers to such questions as “what shall we teach and how shall we teach it?” begin with a much more fundamental question: “what is a person?” or perhaps the wider, “what is man?”

Her first two principles assert that “children are born persons” and “they are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

… education should create a metanarrative (or worldview) for children which will make sense of the world and create a standard of conduct by which they will desire to live.

A Defence of Classical Education by Livingstone

This was one of the first books about classical education that made innate sense to me. I later realized that most later arguments for classical education (including those in Climbing Parnassus) echoed this book, albeit from points of view that I didn’t necessarily understand at the time I read them.

Livingstone was writing at the height of the switch from classical education to “modern” Romantic education in the US & UK. All the current arguments about conceptual understanding versus procedural knowledge and utility versus background knowledge were derived from these first shots over the bow–only nowadays there’s no one left to coherently argue for the classical side. We must go back to the original debate to find our arguments.

It’s relatively short, and free of charge, and well worth flipping through. If my daughters reaped the benefit of classical education as per my favorite quote, I would be a happy woman:

Lord Morley says somewhere: “An educated man is one who knows when a thing is proved and when it is not. An uneducated man does not know.”

pg. 22

Norms and Nobility by Hicks

While I have serious qualms with many parts of this book, I think that there are some worthy arguments in this densely written book about the purpose and content of classical education. Hicks is a professional educator at private school, and his experience weighs in on his arguments. I am less impressed by the second half of the book wherein he actualizes his ideas. Generally, I finished this book unsatisfied with his supports and conclusions, but intrigued by the thread of the arguments.

The sublime premise of a classical education asserts that right thinking will lead to right, if not righteous, acting. … modern books on education which lay off this difficult premise by treating the mastery of thinking skills and the understanding of basic ideas in our Western (or any other) intellectual tradition as if they were sufficient ends of education. I cannot accept this. Nor am I convinced that an education aimed exclusively at the formation of a rational man will automatically assure mankind’s happiness or goodness.

pg vi

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