Classical: A Word In Need Of A Common Sense Definition

Jul 21, 2019

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?

Gibbs: I’m a classical educator.

Fellow: What’s that mean?

Gibbs: Well, when you hear the word “classical,” what are the first things which come to mind?

Fellow: I suppose classical things are usually old things. Ancient Rome. Statues. I also think of classical music, which is old music, and I’ve heard that classical music is really good— and it probably is— but I’m not really into it, even though I probably should be. Or maybe “classical” is related to “classic,” as in “classic cars” or “classic rock.” So perhaps “classic” means something which is old, but still kind of good.  

Gibbs: To be quite frank, I could not have defined the word “classical” any better myself. Would you mind humoring me by answering another question?

Fellow: Why not?

Gibbs: Supposing your understanding of the word “classical” is spot on, what do you suppose a classical education is?

Fellow: I suppose it’s an education that centers around old things and old music.

Gibbs: That’s half of it. But go on.

Fellow: I can’t. I don’t know what else to say.

Gibbs: A moment ago, you said that you’ve heard “classical music is really good,” and that this judgement was probably true, but that you nonetheless don’t like classical music. And then you said something really fascinating. You said, “I probably should” like classical music. How come?

Fellow: If everyone says it’s good, it probably is.

Gibbs: Lots of people say Post Malone’s music is good, though. There are songs of his which have well over a billion streams on Spotify.  

Fellow: That’s true, but Post Malone doesn’t seem much like Beethoven.

Gibbs: Agreed. How come?

Fellow: Because when I hear a song by Beethoven or Mozart or whoever, I always think, “I should probably like this.” But no one has ever heard a Post Malone song and said, “I should probably like this.” People like Post Malone’s music immediately, but if they don’t like it immediately, they would never say, “I should probably like this.”

Gibbs: Why not?

Fellow: By the time you learn to like Post Malone, everyone will have moved on to something else. However, if it took you ten years to learn to love Beethoven, at the end of it all, everyone would still be listening to Beethoven.

Gibbs: So, if you learned to love Beethoven, there would be a community of Beethoven lovers waiting for you in the end?

Fellow: Yes. But a moment ago, you said, “Lots of people think Post Malone is good,” which is true, but it’s hard to imagine many of those people are old people. There’s probably not a lot of people in their 40s and 50s listening to Post Malone. Not many grandpas listen to Post Malone, I bet. On the other hand, when some performance of a Beethoven piece comes on PBS, there are always many different kinds of people in the choir and many different kinds of people playing in the symphony.

Gibbs: So only a narrow segment of society listens to Post Malone?

Fellow: Probably not Catholic priests. Probably not CEOs.

Gibbs: So, there is something which Beethoven shares in common with Catholic priests and CEOs, but not something shared between Post Malone and Catholic priests?

Fellow: Yes.

Gibbs: What is that?

Fellow: Beethoven and Catholic priests and CEOs don’t have much in common. But they’re all human.

Gibbs: Why do you think people still listen to Beethoven?

Fellow: I don’t know, but if all kinds of people listen to Beethoven, then it makes sense that he would be popular for a long time.

Gibbs: Why?

Fellow: Because there will always be all kinds of people. That sounds strange, so let me try to explain. If only young people listen to Post Malone, eventually they’re going to grow up, then they won’t listen to his music anymore.

Gibbs: Why not?

Fellow: Because people in their 50s don’t listen to Post Malone. If people in their 50s don’t listen to Post Malone now, then the people in their 20s who like him now will eventually not like Post Malone, because they will eventually get to their 50s.

Gibbs: What about Beethoven?

Fellow: If people in their 20s like Beethoven and people in their 50s like Beethoven and people in their 80s like Beethoven, then there’s always going to be people who like Beethoven. If you like Beethoven when you’re 25, you can keep liking Beethoven for the rest of your life.

Gibbs: Interesting point.

Fellow: Do you teach Beethoven’s music to your students?

Gibbs: Yes, classical schools are interested in teaching students to sing and play the music of Beethoven, and to enjoy his music, as well. But a classical education is not simply an education in old things. I try to help my students love old things, because old things are hard to love, even though you know you should love them.

Fellow: If you don’t love something, how do you learn? The human heart can’t really be governed. The heart just kind of does what it wants.

Gibbs: Well, let me explain. Tell me a food you don’t particularly care for.

Fellow: I don’t like coffee, actually. Weird, I know.

Gibbs: Do you wish you liked coffee?

Fellow: Yes, because I don’t like tea either, and so there’s nothing for me to drink when my friends “go out for coffee,” which they do all the time.

Gibbs: You could order hot chocolate.

Fellow: That’s a drink for little kids.

Gibbs: What’s wrong with little kids?

Fellow: Nothing, but I’m not a little kid.

Gibbs: You are not far from the Kingdom. Let’s say that you had a rich old uncle who owned a very profitable coffee empire, and that he wanted to leave you his coffee empire when he died, but could not do so given that you don’t like coffee. Let us also say this uncle is very old and that he comes to you one day and says, “I will give you one year to learn how to love coffee. One year from today, I’m going to hook you up to a lie-detector and ask you if you love coffee. If you do, I’ll give you a million dollars and leave you my coffee empire. If you don’t love coffee, I’m giving the empire to your brother Frank.” How would you spend that year? How would you try to learn to love coffee?

Fellow: First, I would learn as much as I could about coffee. I would read many books about coffee. I would learn the different kinds of coffee, then try each kind. Perhaps some are easier to like than others. I would drink coffee every day. Not a lot, but a little. I would drink a little in the morning, a little at lunch, a little at supper. I would try adding milk and sugar to it, but then gradually add less milk and sugar until I was just drinking black coffee. I would try to wean myself onto it. I would also go to places where people like coffee. Perhaps their love of coffee would rub off on me. I would spend every day in a coffee shop. I would put posters of coffee beans up in my house. Are there any people who are famous for loving coffee? Or famous for brewing the best coffee? Perhaps I would put photographs of those people up in my bathroom. I know that all sounds quite strange, but if there was that much on the line, I would do it.

Gibbs: I would do the same thing. That’s a fine plan. And that’s more or less what classical education is.

Fellow: But you’re not learning to love coffee, right?

Gibbs: No, but we’re learning to love things that last, like Beethoven.

Fellow: This might be a weird question to ask this late in the conversation, but why?

Gibbs: Because classical educators believe that virtue follows from the love of lovely things.  

Fellow: What is virtue?

Gibbs: It’s what makes a human being last. If you don’t love things that last, you won’t last, because people become like the things they love. If you only love passing and ephemeral things, like Post Malone, then you will become a passing and ephemeral man. You’ll be a hundred different men before you’re forty years old, and you won’t be any of those men for very long. Then you’ll turn 40 and ask, “Who am I?” and there won’t really be an answer to that question. People who don’t know who they are don’t know what to do, and people who don’t know what to do usually end up doing terrible things.

Fellow: Don’t you ever study new things? Some new things are good.

Gibbs: Some new things are good, but we can’t be certain which new things are good until they’ve lasted.

Fellow: Why not?

Gibbs: Americans love to brand things “instant classics,” because they want to believe they are capable of making art which will endure, even though very few Americans have an interest in art that has already endured. The art which is easy for us to love today will be difficult for people to love later— but, as you said earlier, there will not be any incentive to learn to love it later.

Fellow: Because?

Gibbs: Because nobody alive will love it.

Fellow: Do you convince many students to love good things?

Gibbs: I believe a classical education makes it easier to love good things, even if a student hasn’t entirely given himself over to good things by the time he graduates.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or it's leadership.

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