Classical education and how governments want to kill it ...

Classical education and how modern politicians have killed it
In Ancient Greece, two strands of thinking in education were current in what we know as the Classical Age, from about 500BC: that of Sparta, where education was the business of the State and sought to breed a resilient warrior citizenry, and that of Athens where education depended on the free choices of parents and aimed at producing intellectual maturity. As we shall see, it was the spirit of Athens that then dominated our approach to education until relatively recent history.

A Christian classical education, such as later led to the creation of the late medieval and renaissance universities was first seen in Alexandria, at the heart of the meeting of East and West, in about 190AD. Here St Clement, very much of a disciple both of Jesus and of Socrates, established what could probably be called the first Christian academy, educating boys and men, mainly, but not exclusively, for the priesthood. They studied the Trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric, followed by the Quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, leading to studies in philosophy and theology. We also know that Clement attached great importance to sport and dance. These had been central in the Greek education of boys: gymnastics for the body, music for the soul. The imagery of the hymn which may have been sung by the boys at the school is strongly suggestive of a circle dance:

Holy shepherd of the flock divine,
king of unspoilt youth,
Lead the way!
The footsteps of Christ
Are the track to Heaven.
Word who always was and is and ever shall be,
Life immeasurable,
Unfailing light,
Compassion's very source!
Craftsman forging virtue
For the holy lives
Of all who sing to God.
Christ Jesus,
Heavenly milk pressed from your Bride's sweet breasts
To nourish tender mouths of sucklings with grace and wisdom:
the guileless take their fill with reason's milk,
the dew of your Spirit.
All together dance and sing
Our simple praise and heartfelt song
For the Christ the King.
So may we pay our holy fees
For schooling in the way of life.
Dancing in the ring of peace
We are the simple escort of the young Pantocrator.
Race sprung from Christ,Wisdom's own people
All praise together the God of our peace.
Creator of all things.

(Trans. Canon John Mooney. For Original Greek text see Le Pedagogue, Livre III, pp. 192ff.. in Source Chretiennes, Editions du Cerf, Paris, 1970.)

This text, to me, breathes a warm gust of Christian Hellenism across the centuries: many of the enduring educational themes of the ancients are there but with a new freshness and clarity of purpose.

This truly classical education within a Christian context was expounded in great depth in Clement's work The Pedagogue, a fascinating, if somewhat rambling synthesis and history of education from the viewpoint of Hellenic Christians, and the first real Christian handbook for teachers. It was not, however, a tremendous success; at least not in the intense and thorough form envisaged by Clement. The stress of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of Islam in large parts of the Empire in the East, the destruction of libraries, the mistrust of classical civilisation by some Christian clerics, general political instability in the vacuum created by the collapse of imperial Rome; all of these things contributed to the classical tradition's being somewhat sidelined for a time. In outposts of the Roman empire, such as in much of Britain, people suddenly abandoned the cities as they had done when Mycenaean civilization collapsed in Greece towards the end of the second millennium BC.

And yet, before imperial Rome sank another great man arose to ensure that the ideals of a classical and Christian humanism would not be forgotten. Augustine, a Roman of the fourth century, was a professor of classical rhetoric who became a Christian and then Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In Augustine's day, scholars speculated about whether Virgil had read Isaiah, and this itself is an interesting indicator of how many in the Graeco-Roman world were already looking to the Jews and to their sacred literature with an air of expectancy. We know, however, that Augustine had read Isaiah and Virgil, and in his Confessions, and in the City of God, the two worlds meet completely and a fruitful synthesis is attempted. St Paul, with his obvious familiarity with Greek philosophy and worship (seen as pointing to Christ) and even his positive references to athletics had shown long before the supposed Platonist hijack of the second century that a continuity was achievable, and that is why he converted so many Greeks.
Now Augustine, with all the weight of his spell-binding rhetoric and learning, as Homer had done at an earlier stage, now set a seal on the direction of "the great conversation" for at least the next thousand years.

The cultural achievements of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the modern age are many, but none of them is as significant as that momentous and humble openness of the Early Church to the weight of human experience and learning that preceded what they saw as God's total self-revelation to man in Christ. It was an attitude quite remote from the prophetic traditions of the Old Testament. Perhaps it was precisely the belief in the Incarnation, and the optimistic view of human nature propounded by Paul that made it possible for Christians to hold fast to so much of 'the best that known and thought in the world' (Matthew Arnold’s phrase) and to add to that store. Perhaps more remarkable still was the openness of the whole area around the Mediterranean, subdued by the Roman Empire, to this new chapter of man's history. For despite the persecutions of Domitian, Nero and others, a new idea and culture - for the first time in human history - took control of man's destiny not with armies but with argument.

Later reforms within this Christian tradition can all be seen as efforts, more or less efficacious or reasonable in themselves, to restore the freshness and vigor of Christianity as it was at this time of triumph. The scholastics revived the classics and gave a new impetus to the study of Aristotle and Plato (under the aegis of a now long dead Muslim philosophical school), the excesses of Renaissance neo-paganism were corrected by the Reformers and their excesses, in turn, tempered by the Counter-Reformers.

At the beginning of the modern age, then, we see a western Christendom where Christian humanism is the norm of education on both sides of the Reformation divide, so that the Ignatian Paideia of continental Europe and the grammar schools and public schools of England, all train young men in roughly the same disciplines and essentially with the same view of man and his history. More importantly, both sides generally believed that education was for the betterment of the human spirit, not merely to prepare men for war, or trade. True enough, many received more training than they did education, but the distinction between the two was clear, and everywhere, for nearly two millennia, the State had been keeping out of education.

Sister Miriam Joseph CSC, a leading Catholic educationalist in 1940s America, explains: "The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant - of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business - and to earn a living. The liberal arts [that is, the Trivium and the Quadrivium], in contrast, teach us how to live; they train a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth" (in The Trivium.) That is a description of education that no serious western writer or thinker would have disputed from the time of Constantine until the eighteenth century. But they speak in a very different language to that of most educationalists ever since.

The impact of Rousseau, writing in the eighteenth century is still felt today in pedagogical circles. He promoted (in Emile ou de l’Education) the hugely successful (however erroneous) idea that we have nothing of objective value to teach our children. They will, he suggested, teach themselves, given a little encouragement. His Confessions paint a picture of a young man motivated by a profound egotism and self-righteousness often attributed to religious people, and yet he was in fact someone who had left religion behind; the first in a long line of modern `victims' of the seminary system who proceed to make a living out of burning what they once adored. He consigned his own illegitimate children to an orphanage and took no interest in their education whatsoever.His influence, and that of the other philosophical thinkers of the siècle des lumières, had an important part to play in the thinking behind the French Revolution, followed by Communism and Nazism in the twentieth century. They all tended to a view of man that rejected completely the Christian chapter in man's story.

There had been previous attempts to short-circuit back to Antiquity, by-passing Christianity, but these modern attempts have been especially thorough. Such movements do not so much seek to put man back in touch with an older, purer truth, so much as to deracinate him completely, so as better to control and manipulate him. One educational thinker, Matthew Arnold, wrote that a man out of touch with what has been called “the great conversation” would be a “stranger to the human condition”, and it is this state of disorientation that any cunning dictator will want to foist on his followers. Hitler, Stalin and Mao are striking examples, but our modern politicians are still playing the same game.

In this climate of wholesale rejection of the continuum of the classical tradition as it had been mediated by the Church, it is no surprise that all the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries promoted the role of the state as educator. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can observe that they all have their similarities with ancient Sparta, described by Hitler as “the first National Socialist state.”

Ferdi McDermott, founder of StAR, is founder and Principal of Chavagnes International College, a British Catholic boarding school in western France. Together with Robert Asch, co-editor of StAR and Professor Anthony O’Hear of the University of Buckingham, he will be leading a course on The Great Books, this summer in France. For details:


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