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