First Things First: Classical Languages and the Soul, Part 1

Jul 8, 2020

“When am I ever going to use this?” This question has plagued educators for generations. Students constantly demand a justification for the utility of their studies. No subject is immune from this assault. Technocrats would rather replace Algebra II with Microsoft Excel. Grammar can be shortened or eliminated because we learn to speak before learning grammar. The fine arts are especially vulnerable to the “starving artist” trope; you can’t eat art. Yet a true education will resist this creeping pragmatism and reach for higher ends. 

A classical education is comprised of three essential elements: math, great books, and the liberal arts. Math and great books are the matter or content; the liberal arts are the form of a classical education. Traditionally connected with the great books and the trivium are the classical languages, Latin and Greek. The classical languages were the means by which the great books were encountered and the trivium arts were taught. While the classical tradition preserves the first three elements, the languages are fighting for survival. Their current viability depends solely on pragmatic benefits such as raised SAT scores or increased grammar and vocabulary.

In part, these reasons are offered because of the latent tension in classical education. On the one hand, it seeks to justify itself on its own intrinsic value. Classical education trains the soul in wisdom and virtue. Knowledge and moral action are goods in themselves. There is no need to expound upon their monetary benefits. On the other hand, classical education defends itself on grounds of utility. It trains careful thinkers who can become doctors, lawyers, and scientists. It creates leaders and professionals, improves standardized testing scores, and sends students to prestigious colleges. Classical students are well equipped for an active life. In recent years, the defense of classical languages has rested entirely on argument of utility.

This tension is typically described as the conflict between the contemplative or active life. Most authors (Aristotle, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Thomas) conclude that the contemplative life is higher than a life of activity, productivity, or consumption, but that we must live a mixed life in order to survive. After all, a man must have means if he is to have leisure. While the goods of the soul are higher, the goods of the body must still be provided for.

Thus, classical education is always fighting a battle on two fronts. On one side it resists the pragmatic, money-obsessed education of the modern educational establishment. Schools should do more than create cogs and consumers. Education ought to liberate the soul to know and love goodness, truth, and beauty. Thus, schools teach calculus even though a programming language or Excel might seem more practical (they aren’t). History is valued for its normative role in moral formation, not because of its ability to forecast the future (it can’t). There is much more to human existence than money or power. 

Yet the other side, although less pressing in our current context, is also a danger. This is where one might swallow the reductio and proclaim, “Use? Of course there’s no use to a classical education.” There is no practical value to learning and shouldn’t be. Reckoning knowledge only in terms of its cash-value destroys art or joy. We are not cogs in the machine. Such an approach ignores our current place in the saeculum—this present age—and the necessity of working for our bread (cf. 2 Thes. 3:10). 

In light of this tension, schools should clarify their vision and goals, recognizing which sort of life they want to promote, and then balance their objectives accordingly. An education which does not teach students to enjoy good and beautiful things is not an education at all. Contemplation is higher than activity. As Thomas writes, “knowledge of the greatest things is worth more than knowledge of the slightest things.” The ability and desire to enjoy communion with God is the highest gift an education could bestow, yet there are also lesser joys with no pragmatic value—preparing a lavish, time-consuming meal, enjoying a work of art, reading soul-nourishing literature—these are the delights of human existence. As C.S. Lewis said, government exists so that a few friends can enjoy a cigar and talk about a good book.

Classical education prioritizes goods of the soul yet recognizes our students must also live in the world. They need skills and abilities to provide for themselves and their families. In order to have leisure, we must work. A classical education which does not fit them for a life of activity has failed them. A strong foundation in the liberal arts (even extending into college years) is the greatest way to prepare students for a life of faithful service in the world. All human beings think and reason; all speak and persuade. Yet some perform these activities with intentionality and skill, while others act mindlessly and poorly. The liberal arts are portals to truth, goodness, and beauty, yet they are also fundamental human skills. 

A classical education best provides for the mixed life of a student—balancing the contemplative with the active. Yet it recognizes that the goods of the soul are higher than goods of the body. The pressing danger of modern education is that it allows the descriptive, immediate, and practical to swallow up the prescriptive, transcendent, and eternal. In the next installment, this tension will be applied more directly to the study of the classical languages.

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman teaches at Charis Classical Academy in Madison, WI.

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

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