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The Road Not Taken

An older kind of humanistic education made for a common frame of reference, a sense of unity and respect for others.

The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today, by Eric Adler (Oxford University Press, 2021) 256 pages. 

A notable weakness of American post-World War II intellectual conservatism was its preoccupation with politics. For William F. Buckley Jr., who did more than anybody to create movement conservatism, the great prize was the presidency. Few movement conservatives understood that, in the long run, society is shaped not by politics but by culture—the moral-religious and intellectual life, literature, theatre, the arts, movies, television, and so forth.

For those who are familiar with the evolution of America’s culture, the social and political developments in the last half-century should have come as no surprise. What explains the decline and fragmentation of America is obviously a long story, but it involves the gradual rejection of beliefs and character traits previously central to Western and American civilization. Street violence and “cancel culture” are only the most recent manifestation of a revolutionary spirit that has long festered within the American mind and imagination.

Eric Adler, a professor of classics at the University of Maryland, has published a book that throws much light on what happened to America. The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today deals with a controversy over the teaching of the classics and humanities that came to a head in America in the decades around the turn of the previous century. The consequences of how that controversy turned out are everywhere to be seen today.

A few historical philosophical observations will set Adler’s book in context and explain why it is directly relevant to understanding America’s current predicament.

From the colonial period forward, the kind of college curriculum that gave America’s educated elite their outlook on life was heavily influenced by what was taught at Oxford and Cambridge, which put heavy emphasis on the ancient Greek and Roman classics. Those who wished to gain admission to Harvard had to know Greek. The teaching of classical languages was integral to imparting what were considered central insights into human nature in ancient works. American higher education also had a strong religious ingredient, partly to prepare students for the ministry. In the minds of the Framers, the notion of republicanism was as tied up with Greece and Rome as it was with the Bible.

The humanities-oriented curriculum was to convey what civilized human beings must know about higher, non-utilitarian values. Members of professions, such as clergy and lawyers, had to learn first of all how to be human beings, how to contend with their lower natures. Humanistic discipline was seen as fostering moral character, which was indispensable to personal responsibility and political self-government.

In the writings and correspondence of America’s founding generation—even those of Thomas Jefferson, with his strong Enlightenment leanings—references to ancient Rome and Greece, including quotations in Greek, were common. The education of Americans at the time has been described as “classics, classics, and more classics.”

Adler’s book begins with a helpful historical and terminological survey of the emergence in the Western world of the idea of classical studies and liberal arts as forming part of the core of education. Adler traces and explains different ideas of “the humanities.” Moving to American shores, he demonstrates the central role of classics and humanities in education from the colonial period onward.

The heart of the book is the account of the profound disagreement between Charles W. Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, and Irving Babbitt, who studied at Harvard and became an instructor there in 1894. Eliot had been a chemistry professor, and he wanted a generally skills-based, utilitarian education. He ardently advocated abandoning the old humanistic liberal arts curriculum in favor of free election. By 1887, Greek was no longer required for admission, and by the end of the nineteenth century Harvard had gotten rid of not only a classics requirement for the A.B. degree but all general subject requirements, except a course in English rhetoric. Eliot’s view of the curriculum had a prominent Darwinian element. He viewed undergraduates as customers in an academic free market and the university curriculum as a marketplace where there should be a survival of the fittest.

A prominent contemporary critic of Eliot was the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), James McCosh, a Presbyterian clergyman and philosopher. The free elective system encouraged not liberty but sheer laziness and licentiousness, argued McCosh. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison noted that the system was popular among students because it made their lives much easier.

The most profound critic of Eliot and what he represented was Babbitt. In his view, too many on the Harvard faculty were draining central subjects of their larger humane significance. They engaged in mind-numbing explorations of highly specialized topics. A two-semester course by a famous Shakespeare scholar dealt with everything about Shakespeare except what his works had to say about the human condition. In Literature and the American College (1908), Babbitt exhaustively criticized both President Eliot’s elective system and what he considered the intellectual poverty of much Harvard scholarship. He scorned what he called the pedantry of the “philological syndicate” in Greek and Latin and other languages. He advanced a broad and penetrating defense of the humanities set within an entire philosophy of life. Babbitt found it absurd that in the selection of courses colleges would give greater weight to the inclinations of immature undergraduates than to a consensus regarding where to look for human wisdom that had evolved over millennia.

At the same time, Babbitt insisted that civilization had to be continually invigorated if it were to avoid rigid or routinized traditionalism. Ancient wisdom needed to be rediscovered by each generation for itself in its own time and place. Sound tradition would incorporate new discoveries and shed elements at the margins that were no longer essential to the higher life.

A question that Adler does not explore is whether Babbitt would have placed quite the same emphasis on the ancient classics and languages had he faced something like the very different educational milieu of today. For students not aspiring to special expertise, might translations of central classical works now be sufficient and improve the chances of their being included in teaching? It is relevant that Babbitt was fully aware of weaknesses in ancient thought, such as a propensity for over-intellectualization of moral questions and dry formalism.

Babbitt’s criticism of the elective system was but one aspect of his wide-ranging challenge to developments in the Western world that he believed threatened the survival of civilized life. The danger came from two closely connected forms of what he called “humanitarianism,” one sentimental, one scientific. Both discounted or denied the need for moral character for a personally and socially unifying discipline. The moral-spiritual life of the West was being undermined by scientism and, at least as much, by a self-applauding, self-deluding sentimental quasi-spirituality.

Babbitt argued that human nature is divided between higher and lower potentialities and that the imagination plays a major central role in shaping human conduct, for good or ill. The central purpose of education is to anchor the imagination in the accumulated wisdom of the ages and to nurture the kind of character that is conducive to a life worth living. Borrowing a term from Edmund Burke, Babbitt calls the highest guide to action “the moral imagination,” which he contrasts with the “sham vision” of Rousseauistic dreamy imagination. Babbitt warned that this kind of flattering but morally corrosive pseudo-spirituality generated dangerous utopian expectations and was incompatible with civilization in general and American constitutionalism in particular.

One of the many strengths of Adler’s book is to demonstrate that Babbitt was no reactionary, as his often careless critics alleged. Babbitt very consciously argued about central existential questions in a way he hoped might persuade honest modern skeptics who wanted proof and evidence rather than arguments from authority. He wanted key insights from the old Western heritage to be restated in experiential terms. Babbitt was also far ahead of his time in recognizing the need in a globalizing world for approaching religious and moral questions in an ecumenical manner. He was, Adler believes, a thinker for his time—and ours.

Adler attributes the sharp decline of the humanities in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries primarily to the spread of technocratic-utilitarian attitudes among educators but also to the intellectual narrowness of the humanities’ defenders. A telling example of intellectual feebleness has been the argument that studying Latin is a good way of honing “critical thinking,” as if mastering Latin were a kind of gymnastic exercise. Taking their cue from academic trend-setters, classicists have tended to pursue philology or other insular topics. The defense of the classics has thus been left to narrow specialists with little appreciation for the classics as an indispensable source of wisdom.

Classicists succumbed to the push for specialization that was imported from Germany, together with a fondness for the doctoral degree, toward the end of the nineteenth century. Adler might have noted that this import was not really of German idealism. What American educators were in fact imitating was a blend of German scholarly rigor and positivism. It was a break with earlier German philosophy that was transforming humane subjects into specialized fact-gathering, dating, and classification.

Adler’s book is focused on describing and assessing developments in American education, not politics, but it is not difficult to see how the developments he discusses have contributed to social fragmentation and the disintegration of American constitutionalism. Whatever their flaws, the earlier humanistic curriculum and corresponding wider culture made for a common frame of reference, a sense of unity and respect for others. A different kind of education at all levels has progressively eroded the traditional American heritage that made constitutional self-government possible. Our present education and culture is on one side narrowly utilitarian and technocratic and on the other side trendy, ideological, idiosyncratic, dilettantish, presentist, and downright dissolute. One wonders how American society will be able to maintain itself once the remnants of its older culture have faded away.

The Battle of the Classics will be of special interest to students of education who care about the humanities and the classics, but it may also be an eye-opener for general readers who are wondering how it happened that America started abandoning the traditions that shaped its Constitution and liberties. Based on meticulous research, the book may go further into the nooks and crannies of its subject than will appeal to some general readers, but it deals in a most enlightening manner with developments in American higher education of large and enduring importance, and it is lucidly and engagingly written. Adler evinces a breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding that is becoming rare in today’s academia.

We are not likely to see a broad eleventh-hour return to ancient wisdom in American higher education. This cause, for the foreseeable future, will be confined to a very few institutions that consciously defy dominant trends. Whatever is in store for education, however, readers of Adler’s thought-provoking study will learn much about America, and may understand better why her magnificent constitutional order is crumbling.

Claes G. Ryn is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His many books include A Common Human Ground, now in paperback.