August 03, 2004

Climbing Parnassus

I have noticed that there has lately been a great deal of discussion on the Well-Trained Mind bulletin boards about exactly what consitutes a classical education. The answers are generally vague and confused. In Climbing Parnassus Tracy Lee Simmons never actually defines "classical education," but his assumed definition is clear: Classical education is the study of Latin. And hopefully Greek. But mostly Latin. If you walked up to him on the street and said "Gee, you know, I'm following most of The Well-Trained Mind but we're not doing Latin ... we're still doing classical education, right?" he'd look at you as if you had three heads and purple hair.

The book is subtitled "A New Apologia for Greek and Latin." The study of Latin (and to a slightly lesser extent, Greek), he argues, forms the mind. It teaches us to be logical, precise, thoughtful and concise. On top of that, it exposes us to the finest of art, literature and philosophy, thus (hopefully) making us cultured. It frees us from fashion by teaching us how to think clearly and logically, and how to consider the real meanings of words. It exposes us to examples of the best in everything. It teaches us history, and root causes.

Whew. That's quite a bit for one little language. Simmons is willing to concede that there are other ways a mind can be formed in logic and precision of thought. He argues that these other ways do not also include the cultural and civilizing influences we encounter with Latin. Latin does it all.

Of course, one of the main reasons Latin has been largely dropped from schools is that it's hard (and apparently useless, though see my paragraphs above for his arguments against its uselessness). Yes, it's hard, but that's a large part of the point. It is hard, and hard work marks our minds and shapes our brains. Hard work teaches discipline. It teaches the meaning of real accomplishment, rather than feeling good about ourselves just 'cause.

I had to send the book back to the library today, so unfortunately I can't quote from it. The quote which struck me the most is actually from Aristotle. Having never read Aristotle, I had never heard the quote before. I can't find it online, but the gist of it is this: Aristotle talked about the differences between edcuation that is necessary for a democracy to thrive, and education that democrats like. Our schools have been focusing on education that democrats like for a century now. What can this mean for our republic, our democratic-like way of life? Classical education, Simmons argues, is what people need in order to accomplish the Greek ideal: one can only govern others (well) when one can govern oneself (well).

Climbing Parnassus also traces the history of classical education from its beginning through its changes and falling in and out of favor, to its arrival and near death in America. It's fascinating. He weaves his arguments for studying Latin and Greek throughout the book, so I can't point you to one part and say "here is the crux." If you are at all interested in classical education, just go read it. He's left me convinced that a classical education (meaning the study of Latin, Greek, and classical writing) is the absolute best form of education we can give our children.

All that's left is to figure out what I mean by that, and how best to do it. Simmons would say, I think, that The Well-Trained Mind is on the right track, but perhaps has the wrong focus. TWTM focuses on history and language. It follows the trivium and teaches grammar, rhetoric and logic, but you certainly can give a WTM-style education without touching a Latin text. Simmons argues that there's no reason why we should teach nothing but Latin, Greek, mathematics, history and geography before the age of 14. Memoria Press shares this philosophy: They advocate making Latin and math the main focus of your studies in the early years. Not that history, science and English grammar aren't important, but they are less important than math and Latin.

Is he right? I don't know. Yet. In the following months I'm going to do a great deal more reading on classical education, and of course I'll blog about my readings.

Oh - one more thought. Climbing Parnassus is not about classical Christian education. He writes from a very firmly secular humanist point of view. As I had just waded through several of Douglas Wilson's essays before tackling Parnassus, this point of view was welcome and refreshing. (Douglas Wilson actually says that classical education cannot happen without a religious framework; he's simply wrong.) He is not anti-Christian, nor anti-religious education, but he does analyze classical education from a thoroughly secular point of view.

I found an interview with him from NRO.

And here's another.

Here's a review of Climbing Parnassus from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

More articles are out there, but if you search, make sure you search on "Tracy Lee Simmons." Don't leave the Lee out. "Tracy Simmons" is also the name of a woman with a much more colorful career.

Posted by Steph at August 3, 2004 09:46 AM

Simmons has a good argument about governing others well only after governing oneself well. If you want an education based on Aristotle (and Plato/Socrates), then there are two things to focus on: logic and ethics. Logic sharpens the mind, ethics the soul. I don't know of anyone who doesn't start studying such things who doesn't either have (or develop) a major love for learning. Like most forms of "classical" education, most see it as liberal arts, and therefore pointless. Personally, I wish logic were taught long before college. How much more would children understand the abstracts of math (beyond the memorized rules) if they knew WHY it worked?

Now all you've done is make me want to pull out all my old logic books again.

Posted by: Mark L on August 3, 2004 01:27 PM

That's why I'm not good at math. I have no idea why it works.

Heh. You have uncovered our fiendish plan.

Latin first. We'll start logic games around the 5th grade, and formal logic in the 7th grade. A few years of logic will be followed by rhetoric and ethics.

You'll have to pull out your old logic books, because I'm going to need all the help I can get :)

Posted by: Stephanie on August 3, 2004 11:54 PM

HA! What began as a comment became a future-blog. So I'm not going to tell you here. :-p

I am, however, reeeeeely glad you posted this. Thanks!


Posted by: Dy on August 4, 2004 12:59 AM

Oh, goodie. I wonder if I still have my "Foundations of Mathematics" textbook. Start from scratch, develop inductive logic rules from observation, then natural numbers, then rational numbers, then real numbers. Also, the rules for mathematical operations and things like the Associative property. From there you get to find out that the rational numbers are countably infinite, and the real numbers are uncountably infinite (meaning they are bigger than infinity).

Does that sound like fun? Or does your head hurt?

Posted by: Mark L on August 4, 2004 11:57 AM

Hmm. Latin's important then. I guess I knew that a little bit, but you're right about WTM being more history and stages of learning focused. They do mention Latin as important and part of the process of training the mind. I'm quite intrigued now. I'll definetly have to ILL the book.

Posted by: Sarah on August 4, 2004 07:07 PM

Jeff explained all that to me once, about countably infinite and uncountably infinite. It made my brain hurt. It made sense after he explained it. I don't remember the explanation. lol

Sarah, do read it, if you get a chance. Right now I'm under the impression that TWTM is a kind of modern version of classical education, designed to cover all the modern bases. I'm trying to decide whether that's what I want or not.

Posted by: Stephanie on August 7, 2004 12:27 AM
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