Norms & Nobility, chapter 1, I
I come from the Town of Stupidity; it lieth about four degrees beyond the City of Destruction.
David Hicks opens his chapter with that quote from John Bunyan. I love it. I come from there, too. But, like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, I hope I have turned my back on it and am heading for a much better place.
In the first sentence, Hicks says, "The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education..." and he goes on to explain how. I am going to say that it takes a brave man to write that--to say the the educational system that produced Matthew Arnold, Winston Churchill, JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis perverted classical education. The so-called classical schools of England did not produce whole generations of Tolkiens and Lewises--those men were exceptional. (As Cindy points out, Lewis is the one who wrote about "men without chests"--people who do not care.) What they did produce were generations of aristocrats who had little interest in books and knowledge--they absolutely killed dead any interest in intellectual pursuits, let alone the pursuit of wisdom and virtue.
David Hicks declares that "classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth." I said in my last post that language skills as an end in themselves were no better than upholstery, but in fact, language must be the means by which classical education takes place, because only through language can we explore the ideas, ideals, stories, and philosophies that must be considered.
I think it is very important to explore the idea that classical education does not belong to a specific time or place. There is a reason it is called "classical," but it is worth considering whether or not that is really the best way of referring to it. For convenience sake, we must, but the fact remains that the spirit and methods of classical education, as well as its most desirable outcomes, can take place without ever conjugating a single Latin verb or declining a Greek noun. That sounds like heresy in some classical circles, but I don't think I'll be burned at the stake for saying so. Greek and Latin were so important to the Renaissance thinkers because all the books were written in those languages. If you couldn't read Latin, then you couldn't read, period. The primary reason they invested the effort into learning the ancient tongues was so that they could read the ancient books (the only books around). Then, they wrote in Latin as well, so that their contemporaries from every country could read and respond to their ideas. By the time you get to the Victorians, they were laboring over tedious Latin and Greek language exercises, but not reading extensively the literature of the ancient world, missing out on the feast because they spent all their time polishing their forks.
I think learning Latin and Greek as languages might play a role in a classical education, but learning Latin and Greek will not give you a classical education. Instead, David Hicks gives us three essential attributes of classical inquiry, and all them may be (I might even venture to say must be) accomplished in your native language.
The first of the three, and the most important one that needs attention if you have young children (elementary age) is that of general curiosity. Specialization is the enemy of classical thinking. The whole spectrum of knowledge, including history, religion, the nature of man, the natural world, and the spiritual realm, are of interest to the classical thinker. David Hicks is beginning to describe what he means by classical inquiry or dialectic, and he is going to spend more time on it later, so I'm not going to say more about it right now.
Instead, I'm going to point out two specific ways in which Charlotte Mason's philosophy fits into this framework that David Hicks describes. First, "education of the conscience" is a topic she addresses directly in several places, and she gives explicit examples of how certain stories and even novels can be called into service in this cause. I can't find a short, coherent quote on the conscience, but those who have read CM's work will recall that she mentions it frequently. (Vol. 6, pg. 131, but the whole chapter for a better overview if you want to pursue it.) CM links the conscience (the normative "ought") to the will, as well, because knowing what is right to do is not the same thing as doing it, and it is still the will to act out right knowledge that is the goal of the classical tradition.
The other point where CM's ideas suit the classical ideal is in her choice of curriculum--basically, there is no area of knowledge which can be neglected.
...all I have said is meant to enforce the fact that much and varied humane reading as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is, not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods. This and more is implied in the phrase, 'The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.'
It was also one of Charlotte Mason's pet ideas that adults rarely develop interest in any areas to which they had not been introduced as children, and for that reason, it was the responsibility of the educator to put the child in touch with as many areas of thought and knowledge as possible, to allow him to develop relationships with every area of knowledge, to "set his feet in a large room."
This is another way in which the celebrated "public schools" of England perverted classical education--they narrowed the topics of study exclusively to ancient Greek and Rome, their languages, their cultures. (I once read the autobiography of a Victorian-era girl. She mentions that her brother could draw accurate maps of the ancient world, but was unable to locate Scotland.) One of the reasons that analytical, utilitarian science was able to trump humane letters in the educational realm shortly afterward was precisely because those schools offered such a narrow curriculum.
General curiosity--not narrow specialization--is the first attribute of classical inquiry. That is so opposite to what our modern culture expects and even demands that it is a formidable hurdle. But the description of what education looks like without classical inquiry is so grim, I think we are better off heading straight for the hurdle and falling over it head first than settling for...what we have. David Hicks says,
....human experience tends to be dealt with narrowly and reductively, broken down into isolated, unconnected units; students ignorant of what questions to ask are presented with uninvited and consequently meaningless information; and there is no basis for making moral and aesthetic judgments or for attaching learning to behavior.
I'd much rather be from the Town of Stupidity than residing there still.