The most important moment in a blogging career comes surprisingly close to the beginning. By the time a blogger has published a dozen articles, he will have already developed a decent sense for what people want to read. When he looks back over the first twelve articles, he will quickly be able to size up what made the popular ones popular and what made the unpopular ones easy for everyone to pass over. And then comes the temptation to only write what people want to hear.
Social media has given rise to a host of seasonal debates among American Christians. Is Christmas too commercialized? Was Christmas originally a pagan holiday? Is Easter still a pagan holiday? Should Christians celebrate Halloween? Should Protestants celebrate Lent? Of course, in any debate over such questions there is also a healthy contingent of people who prefer to not take a position, but to scold everyone engaged in the debate about manners and “more important issues.” For my money, the scolds are usually the most sanctimonious of all, but who am I kidding?
Parent: There’s a lot of changes at school this year.
Gibbs: What’s changed?
Parent: All of a sudden, several upper school classes are beginning the day with catechisms. The school has switched from offering Spanish to offering Greek. The report cards at this school used to be fairly straight forward, but I hear that’s changing this year.
Gibbs: I see.
Parent: Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I have to ask: are you just experimenting on my kids? So much is in a state of flux.
With classes resuming next week across the country, it seemed a good time to revisit the most common delusions which beset American classical institutions. It seemed prudent to bypass those delusions which are commonly acknowledged (grades, grade levels) among classical educators in media outlets such as this and to move directly to second-tier delusions which often go unaddressed. As such, I offer the following five observations.
Given how many classical educators attended public school when young, most classical schools have progressive “hangovers” as Dr. Christopher Perrin sometimes puts it. A progressive hangover is simply a body of assumptions about education which is uncritically and unknowingly derived from modernist philosophy, as opposed to classical or Christian philosophy. Renewing classical education necessitates slowly overcoming this hangover and rooting out all the false beliefs about education which we don’t even know we have.
Around ten years ago, David Bentley Hart maintained a column at First Things wherein every Friday, he wrote about some issue which had little to do with his more well-known interests (patristics, philosophy) and more or less constituted a diversion, a flight of fancy, wherein some relatively trivial or mundane matter was discussed with a good deal of sophistication, but also with a very light touch. The typical Hart essay made known his thoughts on Origen or St. Gregory of Nyssa, but on Fridays, Hart commented on The Little Prince, The Matrix, or Renee Fleming.
Student: I wanted to talk about my grade in your class.
Gibbs: It’s too high, am I right? You want to protest grade inflation?
Student: Very funny. Actually, I just wanted to point out that I have an 89.2 in your class, but this is only because you counted the Modernism quiz we took last week as a quiz. Based on my calculations, if you counted the Modernism quiz as a test, I’d have a 92 in this class.
Gibbs: And if I weighted that quiz as classwork, you would probably have an 85.
Student: But that quiz was really hard.
A curious number of students at classical schools believe that history is “names and dates,” and this sad fact will be obvious to any teacher who has tried to teach history without using an 800-page McGraw-Hill textbook. Having taken a few standardized tests, classical students know that “the plain of Shinar” and “The Dutch West India Company” are the answers to “history questions,” and thus they get nervous when information about terms like these is not referenced during history class. When most students think of history, they think of a survey course, not a deep dive.
From a certain standpoint, classical education is just about the least faddish thing possible, because human beings have been reading Plato for well over two thousand years now. On the other hand, classical education is not simply “reading Plato.” Classical education is also sports programs, Land’s End uniforms, Spring formals, mission statements, and parent-teacher conferences, and it is from a position amidst all these things that the question, “Is classical education just a fad?” is a bit harder to answer.
I would like to argue the classical educators should own up to a common understanding of what the word “classical” and “classic” mean. Rather than explaining classical education in terms of Dorothy Sayers and three stages of learning— which makes Sayers out to be little different from Freud, Piaget, or any of the other 20th century theorists who were always reducing childhood to a sequence of stages— classical educators should happily admit that “classical” connotes “old things” and not be embarrassed by it.
Fellow on a train: What line of work are you in?