Diverse Classics and Whole Persons
The Classic Learning Test responds to Matthew Freeman.
Matthew Freeman raises important questions about the relationship between classical education and diversity in his article, “Classical Education’s Woke Co-Morbidity.” He paints with too broad of a brush, however, when he implies that many in the movement to restore classical education, myself included, have been “immunocompromised” by woke theories. Hardly.
Freeman appears to disagree about which texts are appropriate for use in a classical curriculum. I argue that the whole point of traditional education is to arm a new generation with the tools they need to think critically for themselves, and that mission requires a selection of works diverse in subject and author covering the period from antiquity to the modern era.
Students well formed in the classical tradition are far less likely to fall for the political gimmicks of the present—regardless of whether those gimmicks come from one side or the other on the political spectrum. But who better to explain the nature of what it means to be classically educated than the classical world’s leading scholar? Aristotle’s conception of the educated man from 2,300 years ago is the exact opposite of the product from today’s single-subject specialization universities. He writes:
An educated man should be able to form a fair judgement as to the goodness or badness of an exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and the man of general education we take to be such. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus able to judge nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject.
In late antiquity, Boethius, a Roman consul and Catholic saint, synthesized the ancient methods, naming the trivium and quadrivium as the foundation of a universal education. By immersing young minds in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry—subjects, math aside, often ignored by today’s educational establishment—students would develop the discipline needed to advance to the study of philosophy, including the natural sciences, and, ultimately, theology. This systematic progression is quite distinct from the pursuit of trade specializations favored in factory-style classrooms narrowly tailored to produce computer scientists, accountants, lawyers, and hotel managers.
A classical education is naturally going to be broad if it encompasses “all branches of knowledge.” And the ancients themselves lived by this standard. One of the most striking things about the ancients is that they always sought to refine their understanding by disputing with one another, constantly testing new ideas. Consequently, their thought was anything but monolithic.
This tradition of intellectual diversity is featured in the “The School of Athens,” Raphael’s Renaissance masterpiece fresco in the Vatican. In it, Aristotle holds one palm toward the ground while the other grips his book on ethics as he debates with his teacher, Plato, who points toward the clouds. The one symbolizes Aristotle’s grounded focus on substance, while the other symbolizes Plato’s lofty ideas about form. The pair are surrounded by antiquity’s greatest minds, visually conveying how each has his own perspective on what’s most important. If they all thought the same thing, you wouldn’t need so many people crammed into the painting.
This is the problem with Freeman’s suggestion that some overarching theme or “unalterable lesson,” such as “hero worship,” defines classical education. Plato revered his teacher, Socrates, whom he portrayed as a hero only in the modern sense of the word. But Socrates wasn’t the “godlike Achilles” of Homer’s Iliad. He did not descend from the gods, and his followers did not worship him. His motivation wasn’t glory and personal fame. Though Socrates did march to war once, it is unlikely his enemies trembled before him on the battlefield. He was no Aeneas.
Epic heroes aren’t people who just stand up for, or die for, a cause. In Aristophanes, Socrates is at best a comic hero, lampooned as a fool living with his head in the clouds. In Plato’s telling, the comic poet’s words led to the arrest of Socrates. Aristophanes was not engaged in hero worship. It is unclear how Archimedes, Euclid, Galen, or Ptolemy ever did so, either. Should works that fail to conform to an arbitrary modern interpretation be excluded from a classical curriculum? The best minds, throughout history, have already answered that question.
Still, the choice of including one author and excluding another is difficult as a practical matter. I founded the Classic Learning Test (CLT) in 2015 to give parents and students an alternative to the SAT that respects the greatest works of the human mind from the classical era to the modern era. The choices we made in our author bank are available for anyone to review.
Few would dispute the place of greats like Homer on this list. Time is an effective selection mechanism, and a work that survives more than 2,700 years, handed from one generation to the next, must be something special. Less time has passed when it comes to modern authors, so decisions about their inclusion invites vigorous debate. That is why CLT created a board consisting of nationally recognized educational leaders to guide the process.
Freeman rightly recognizes New St. Andrews College and Thomas Aquinas College as exemplary educational institutions. Had he looked at CLT’s advisory board with greater care, he would have recognized that senior representatives from both institutions help guide CLT. Does every individual on our board endorse every single choice made regarding these authors? No, but they do all agree on the direction of the author bank as a whole. This tension can be seen in the response of New Saint Andrew’s President Ben Merkle’s response to a tweet where I mentioned his involvement in the CLT author bank on Twitter.
As with classical thought itself, the classical education movement itself is not monolithic. Friendly disagreement within our community stimulates debate and keeps the movement vigorous. It may be surprising to some, but there are Democrats who love the tradition as much as Republicans do. They share a common desire for future generations to be well educated. It would be a mistake to exclude natural allies over their views on issues not relevant to education.
There is also disagreement over the scope of classical education. One could quite reasonably limit one’s study to the works of the Western world. After all, this is an inexhaustible store of wisdom that no individual could come close to exploring fully in a lifetime. Yet the great minds of the canon chose the more diverse path.
St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t limit himself to the Christian thinkers of the medieval era. He read Islamic philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna in Latin translations, as well as the works of the great Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides. St. Thomas published treatises refuting the errors of these non-Christian thinkers while generously incorporating their insight into his own books.
Unless St. Thomas recently became the patron saint of wokeness, the inclusion of Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides in a classical curriculum doesn’t portend a sudden turn to the political left (or to the right, for that matter). Again, to be educated is to be exposed to the wealth of human experience.
In their time, however, St. Thomas and his colleagues at the University of Paris stoked great controversy by seeking wisdom in pagan authors. In an order issued on the third anniversary of the eminent theologian’s death, the archbishop of Paris banned the teaching of several of St. Thomas’s key propositions. Fortunately, the condemnation didn’t stick, and St. Thomas was eventually recognized as the universal teacher, in the words of Pope John Paul II:
A quite special place in this long development belongs to Saint Thomas, not only because of what he taught but also because of the dialogue which he undertook with the Arab and Jewish thought of his time. In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them.
Regarding secular topics, the reading of authors whose ideas conflict with conservative values also generates controversy—especially the likes of Karl Marx. Placing Marx alongside greats such as Dante and Newton is not an endorsement of Marxism. Rather, it is a recognition that one cannot comprehend the modern era without an appreciation of his ideas and his outsized influence on history. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” Sun Tzu wrote. “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” An educated man needs to understand Marx to have any hope of defending against his modern adherents.
Oddly, as Freeman objects to the teaching of concepts of equality in his essay, he dismisses it as the “product of liberal Protestantism.” While the Declaration of Independence’s endorsement of equality can perhaps be sourced to Protestant ideas, the concept of equality is timeless. Demosthenes, the ancient Greek orator, wrote of the equality that all Athenian citizens enjoyed before the law:
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It is ordained that the law must be of universal application, and also that laws of contrary purport must be repealed…. If a man disobeys any of these directions, anyone who chooses is empowered to indict him…. [The law] forbids the introduction of any law that does not affect all citizens alike,—an injunction conceived in the true spirit of democracy. As every man has an equal share in the constitution generally, so this statute asserts his equal share in the laws.
Equality is not necessarily specific to either liberalism or Protestantism. It is a feature of democracy, and an idea worth exploring for understanding the American founding. And anyone who understands the ancient concept of equality before the law has no difficulty identifying the modern liberal’s sleight of hand in converting the concept into equality of outcome.
Freeman is far from alone in his apprehension over considerations of equality and diversity in classical education, as this is a topic worthy of extended conversation. Lest there be any misunderstanding between us, I invite him to come on Anchored, the Classic Learning Test podcast on education and culture, for a lively debate on the topic, in which we would surely find common ground. If he still thinks the CLT is immunocompromised by the end, he is free to put on a mask to protect himself.