Friday, October 6, 2006

A Review of "Climbing Parnassus"

I've really been enjoying the book so far, although I have to admit that so far is not very far. I haven't read beyond the introduction, lol. I've been a little sidetracked reading Dickens. This three books thing take some planning! ;)

Well, getting on with it. I've mentioned this before, but wanted to mention it again. Simmons is not writing from a Christian point of view. This book is entirely secular. That said, I'd also like to say that I really like Simmons' writing style. He comes across as intelligent, passionate, and yet surprisingly humble. Basically, in the light of the writers and thinkers he studies, he feels like an imbecile. He is not an imbecile, and I appreciate what he's had to share in the first thirty pages. Within the introduction he promises to give me that long awaited "history of classical education" and a glimpse into what Classical Ed looked like before the onset of the 20th century (yea!). He also addresses, toward the end of the introduction, the need to define classical education, as it's familiarity has slipped so completely through the mental fingers of modern readers. Yea, again.

Concerning the definition of classical education, Simmons points out that the definition of such an education is hard to come by these days largely because the term "classics" has come to encompass such a wide range (Dickens, Shakespeare, etc.). It is easy to see, he states, how a classical education "might refer to something not linked with the classical world at all" and be altered to basically mean the same thing as a traditional education (14). He doesn't disparage the use of the modern literature in education by any means. He recognizes this approach as a valid one, but it's not "classical"... really. Instead, he would categorize such an education as a Great Books education. He explains that the Great Books programs seek to "inform us of the best works of our civilization and to provide us with models for spotting ethical and aesthetic norms" (15). This reminds me of Hutchins' and Adler's term, "The Great Conversation". Their idea was simply that reading the original works of the great minds of recorded time was like taking part in a Great Conversation, coming face-to-face with the geniuses that have influenced all of humanity. The Greeks and Romans are not the focus in a Great Books education, but they are present. They are a part, not the foundation, of the conversation being studied.

I don't get the idea that Simmons would be particularly pleased with Susan Wise Bauer calling her book a guide to a "classical" education. He writes, "To many homeschoolers, 'classical education' simply means the opposite of what is going on in those dreaded public schools. We can sympathize with them. I will only say to all those good people that extending 'classical' to mark an approach or course of study without reference to Greek and Latin seems an unnecessarily promiscuous usage. But I am afraid we're stuck with it" (15). Now, I know that Bauer addresses the ancient languages, and that every four years a WTM child will study the ancient histories, as well. This is good, but it isn't what Simmons means. For him, the only pure definition is a curriculum grounded on "Greek, Latin, and the study of the civilization from which they arose" (15).

His definition is fairly narrow. His point is that his definition is the definition exclusively used before the demise of classical education in the early 1900s. Even now, within academia, it is the accepted definition of "classical". For instance, "Classical Civilizations" university courses cover the civilizations of the ancient Greeks and Romans. "Classics" may mean Dickens, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy; however, "Classical" has always been understood to mean Virgil, Homer, and Socrates.

Simmons sums it up beautifully when he writes, " Once classical education pointed to an elite course of instruction based upon Greek and Latin, the two great languages of the classical world. But it also delved into the history, philosophy, literature, and art of the Greek and Roman worlds, affording over time... a remarkably high degree of cultural understanding, an understanding that endured and marked the learner for life. Classical education was classical immersion" (13).

u u u u u

Simmons invites us to ask, with him: "Can this curriculum remain at all relevant in a world that measures success in stock averages and megabytes?" The answer, of course, is "yes" or that would be the end of our book ;) Simmons asserts that Latin and Greek are still incredibly relevant today for at least three (rather philosophical) reasons:

#1) The acquisition of language skills in Greek and Latin and the study of their cultures produce a transformation in the learner. Such endeavors literally change "who the learner is". Through grammar study the student learns the disciplines of concentration, hard work, and perseverance, etc. His character is strengthened and he is all the better for the hard work. This argument in favor of Latin and Greek grammar seems to be fairly widespread. Author Cheryl Lowe (Latina Christiana), for instance, extols the virtues of Latin as a subject, "...the mental discipline Latin instills in students makes it the ideal foreign language to study. Latin originated with the Romans, and their character pervades the language they created. 'The Roman', said R. W. Livingstone, 'disciplined his thought as he disciplined himself; his words are drilled as rigidly as were his legions, and march with the same regularity and precision.' " I have recently come across plenty of similar statements elsewhere in my reading. They all seem to say, with one voice, :"The grammars of Greek and Latin train the mind to think well". Period.

I can accept this. It makes complete sense to me. I have heard it said that there is no language known to man that has the logical structure and rigor of Latin. I have also heard it said that there is no other language known to man that has the expressive ability, the innate beauty of Greek. If nothing more, it would certainly be helpful to have a decent Latin background simply to better understand the higher works of our own culture. Sam is reading C.S. Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress as I type. A significant portion of the chapter titles are in Latin along with several Latin snippets per page. Lewis references classical authors and thinkers throughout. That book is the perfect case in point. If we're going to introduce the Great Books to our children before they leave our homes, a working knowledge of Latin and Greek will greatly add to their enjoyment and understanding of these works.

So am I going to add Latin to my kindergarten curriculum? Not in the foreseeable future. This is not the time. Even back in the day children first learned to read and write well before wrestling with Latin. Right now I want them to learn to love learning and to play together in the grass. We are seriously considering adding Latin to our curriculum around third or fourth grade, however. I am becoming more and more convinced of the mental benefits and character training that Latin provides. I can appreciate all of the reasons given so far for pursuing the Latin and Greek languages. Now, the histories and literature - those I'm still working through...

Well, I've established Simmons' views on the logical benefits of learning Latin & Greek. I've also basically accepted those views. Latin and Greek grammar seem to be very effective in training the logical mind. Grammar - check. Now what about those pesky issues that come along with the classical literature and histories???

This brings us to Simmons' second reason for maintaining the study of "dead languages" in modern times...

#2) Through Greek and Latin literature the child is consistently challenged with the noblest thoughts and deeds of men. As Simmons puts it, "Unguided by such an aim, education loses its true character and finds itself degraded to servile training for the world's daily drudgeries. Liberal (classical) education civilizes. It transforms us. We are better for having run its course" (30). Whereas the classical grammars train the mind to think logically, Greek and Latin literature train the mind to think nobly.

"Tis education forms the mind,

Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined."

- Alexander Pope

I'm having difficulty with the assertion that the Romans and Greeks are the fount from which the "noblest thoughts and deeds of men" flow. Admittedly, my difficulty springs from the fact that I am a Christian. I do not mean to say that there can be no value in the heroic acts and noble deeds of the unbelieving. Homer's men have plenty worthy of emulation. But, can I say that the deeds of Odysseus are the most noble ever on earth? Of course not. Nor can I say that Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, or any other classical thinker gave the world its greatest thoughts. The idea of supplying my children with the inspiration and model of the noblest deeds and thoughts is deeply attractive. For me, however, it seems that these thoughts and deeds must come first from the heroes of the Bible and Church history, followed by those of our own country and then, finally, other civilizations. The Greeks and Romans seem to deserve a higher place than some and a lower place than others. When my children are older, I want them to be well acquainted with the classical Greek and Roman works. I think they have their place. However, I believe the heroes of the "Christian culture" can supply all that the classical heroes may supply in a secular sense - and more.

The narratives of Gideon, David, Paul, Peter, and the scores of noble missionaries who have served the Lord with undaunted courage are surely more than sufficient. Surely they provide an imagination with the food of truly noble and great deeds and thoughts. If that is the purpose we are after, do we necessarily need to approach that purpose through primarily Latin and Greek literature? It seems to me that the ends do justify the means in this instance. In my mind, the Christian heroes I have mentioned more closely approach the ideal of the "noblest thoughts and deeds of men". They give the young mind the same visions of greatness as the classical epics, but they do so within a Christian context.

I have slipped some from the second point into the third. They are, in my defense, closely related. Simmons points out that the literature of a nation expresses the culture of a nation. I prefer that if any culture is to pervade the education of my young children, it be one saturated with God's Word. It must be the culture of that nation whose home is Heaven.

We're still considering the three main reasons that Simmons considers a heavily classical curriculum to be of modern value. The first point, that learning the classical languages trains the mind to think logically, I've bought into. The second point, that classical literature and history betters the student by constantly exposing him to the "noblest thoughts and deeds of men" I have rejected. Christian heroes offer my children more than Homer ever could because they are founded in the Truth that comes only through Jesus Christ... sadly, a truth the Greeks and Romans spent their whole lives searching for in vain. (Here, perhaps, is the most valuable classical lesson for the student). It might make it easier to think of this second point as the "what" of Simmons' argument for upholding the Greek and Roman cultures (he considers them the noblest in recorded history). In the third, we see more of why the presentation of these thoughts and deeds was so vital in the classical world.

#3) A classical education is meant to "enculture" its students. The Greek word "Paideia" symbolizes the Greek ideal of education, which could never be separated from a deep identity with and cherishing of the culture. Simmons writes, "Paideia was about instilling core values, enunciating standards, and setting moral precepts." Here the roles of the classical mythological and historical heroes are in full play. The legends of long ago were intended for the betterment of the students who applied themselves to the lessons of agony, bravery, victory, discipline, honor, and valor. They were intended to give a solid, cohesive foundation for what all of these virtues must entail, what is to be held - across the land - as the highest and most honorable achievements of mankind. The ancients sought to instill these values early on in the education of the young, for the cultivation of the individual mind and character... but, they did so with a specific aim in mind. This is critical in my estimation. "They filled their children's minds with 'useless' information, by rote, with one purpose among others: to make them members of a people, to make them one" (emphasis mine). The perpetuation of the state depended upon the unity of vision among its citizens.

Read those last several sentences again, please.

Now, maybe this is a completely random observation, but does this idea of making children memorize certain material by rote in order to "make them one" and unite the vision among citizens creep anybody else out? Ummm... Aryan race anyone? Heard of Hitler? Or what about prison camps "enculturating" POWs to make them turn from their home beliefs and allegiances? If you think I'm off here, go on, read the bit about the purpose of their rote memorization again. The noblest thoughts and deeds of men don't always end up rosy, do they?

Anyway, I digress :) Back to Simmons. I'm not trying to "enculture" my children with Roman or Greek ideals. Those that coincide with Christian ideals... great. But if the goal of heroes and epics is to make my child a little Hellene... not interested. Here, again, the place of the ancient heroes, mythologies, and histories must take a subordinate place to the ancient Israelites and Christian models. I am certain that the children can and will be better for encounters with Achilles, in his place. I have higher thoughts concerning their encounters with Martin Luther and George Washington. If "enculturation" is truly a goal of education, I would have them spending a large percentage of their time with the great minds of our Christian heritage and our nation, as well as those of the classical world.

If any of you have been eagerly awaiting my next entry concerning Climbing Parnassus, I apologize for the long time in coming. Figuring that most of my faithful blogging friends wouldn't mind a week or two without Tracy Lee Simmons and lots of talk about Latin, though, I felt free to take a little break :)

I have finished the book now, but I took down notes as I went and have a couple of last thoughts before I move on. If I remember correctly, I finished summarizing and discussing Part One of the Simmons book in my last CP entry. So, here are a few thoughts from my journal about Part Two of the book :)

Part Two of Climbing Parnassus is basically a synopsis of the history of classical education from the time of the Ancient Greeks to modern day. That's a good 2,500 years to try to summarize in one section of one book. There's a lot of material. It was a much easier section to read than the first, though, simply because it was written on a "then this happened" level. Not too much demanded from the reader mentally - which is nice sometimes ;)

Just as Part One emphasized the argument in favor of true, classical education based on how it forms the mind and character of the student, so Part Two argues in favor of CE based on the testimony of time. Simmons is attempting to demonstrate how generation after generation - from the ancients until a mere 85 years ago - wholeheartedly accepted the glorious attributes of a Latin and Greek education. Latin and Greek language studies have ruled the highest Western education standards for over two thousand years - until now.

Since the two World Wars and the rise of industrialization, there has been an ever increasing focus on utility and the "here and now". Education has never been as skills focused as it is today. Simmons is not denying the need for specific skills in modern society, but he is mourning that these skills are not built upon the solid foundation constructed by the Classics. Not even our best and brightest are educated in the time honored, tried and true, paths of Latin and Greek. The purpose of education has changed completely. Where it used to be about forming the mind and man, now it is about production. The goal of education used to be the betterment of society through the betterment of the individual, now it is tangible production for the almighty dollar and a "success" that falls far short of anything that greater minds have envisioned as ideal. Again, we can't completely dismiss training in skills, but when our nation's best young minds are educated purely for a career, the traditional view of education is lost. In the past, Classical Education's beneficiaries strongly upheld and defended its rigors, praising the sweat that made them who they were. A few voices were still trying to keep the Classical tradition alive until its final (and nearly complete) fall in the 1920s.

This should make us stop and consider: Latin and Greek have been missing from American education, in particular, for only 85 of the last 365 years - and these are the most recent 85 years. Our generation, our parents' generation, and that of our grandparents are the only generations in American history to experience a higher education devoid of the classical heritage.

Classical education will save no souls. It is not The Answer to the declining morality of our nation. But, in the same sense that food for 3 million starving in Africa is desirable and noble - a strong education for the hungry young minds in our own nation is something to be sought after. Education is a powerful tool. It will not usher in the kingdom, nor will its "enlightenment" enlighten enough to make a difference beyond this life. But, it is a powerful tool. We could argue the value of anything worldly - governments, economies, philanthropic endeavors. Everything void of Christ completely misses the boat of what really matters most. But does that mean that such things do not matter at all? Wouldn't your life be far different if you could not read? If you had no mental ability to consider the Scriptures? What if you could not even get through a paragraph of Calvin's Institutes intelligently? What if, in twenty years, the pastors in the United States can't even do so? Aren't we slowly approaching that point already?

Education matters far more than many serious, conservative Christians are willing to consider. May the Lord give us wisdom to be longsighted, and to train up this generation He has placed in our hands as one well-prepared and well-suited to the tasks before it.

If I went back through the book, I'm sure I could come up with a clearer outline for Simmons' points in the last section of Climbing Parnassus. Sitting here, without the book, though - I recall it only as a general plea to heed the evidence and arguments presented in the previous sections. A call to arms of sorts. Simmons reminds us of what we have learned and challenges us to action. Latin and Greek form the mind, even form the whole student as he must diligently apply himself to their study. The benefits of an education centered around Greek and Latin have long been accepted and these two languages - along with their ancient cultures - have been the foundation for traditional education for two millenia. We have only recently parted with them, but can we not recall the "lost tools of learning"? Will we hear the wisdom of history, teaching us that "modern" does not always mean "improved"?

Simmons is, toward the end of the book, asking his reader to seriously consider the weight of evidence tipped in favor of resurrecting a traditional, classical education. We, as modern Americans, have shirked such an education because it is too laborious and not useful enough. But, we are one of only a few generations to believe so. Education is more than a career, a paycheck, a list of memorized facts. True education, at its best, reaches for all that is higher, better, and nobler. It cultivates the mind and leaves us improved. One of my favorite quotes from the book sums up so nicely the significance of our current refusal to embrace antiquated ways, I think I'll end with it.

"Let us not forget that the adoption of the test 'What is it good for?'

would abolish the rose and exult in triumph the cabbage."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

***It's interesting to note what even early Yale and Harvard, charged with the duty of training Puritan pastors, held as their academic admittance criteria: thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Cotton Mather, a well known Purtian preacher, was steeped in the classics and wrote original prose in Latin. It used to be that every well educated man could (and did) read the classics in their original languages... even strong, Christian leaders like Mather and Edwards. Food for thought.***