Countering “woolly-minded relativism” with Classical Studies

I recently posted about a new liberal arts college for England.

Thanks to rogueclassicism I found an article on the site of Times Higher Education which will be of interest to many of you.  My emphases and comments.

Reading Aristotle can roll back the tide of relativism

By Matthew Reisz

A leading educational researcher has called for a revival of “classical education” that goes beyond television documentaries, popular books about Socrates, GCSEs in ancient civilisation and the promotion of Latin as part of an International Baccalaureate.  [Promotion of LATIN.]

Speaking at the Institute of Ideas Education Forum this week, Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby, argued that we are not “on the verge of a second Renaissance”.

The enthusiasm for Classics among politicians such as Boris Johnson or Michael Gove was largely a result of misty-eyed nostalgia for their own “public or grammar school education”, he said.

What this tended to miss out were the things that made the classical tradition genuinely important. Prominent among these was ancient philosophers’ commitment to “objectivism” – “seeing things as they really are” – and an attendant “recognition of the need for a constant struggle against subjectivism, superstition and backwardness”[Is it too late for public education?  I wonder.]

The core values of today’s universities, continued Professor Hayes, are “counter to the classical spirit”.

We find “a woolly-minded relativism that allows management to have their values, marketing (to have) another (set of values), teacher training departments another, academic faculties another”, with “lecturers left to try to ignore or subvert these while pursuing their own values. This subjective muddle keeps going because there is no challenge to it.”

It is here that some of the great classical authors can play a vital role, Professor Hayes said, arguing that students should be “trained in the tradition of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Plato destroys relativism in two pages,” he continued. “Classics teaching often focuses on accuracy of translation, which means that even those who know Greek can miss the point.

What really matters is the rigour of thinking, which is a central feature of Greek philosophy. That is the aspect largely missing from current education and that most needs emphasising at the present time.”

Professor Hayes is due to develop his analysis in greater depth on 23 July as part of the Institute of Ideas Academy, a three-day residential event that aims “to take a stand for the value of the content of education instead of fixating on object and process”.

“A better understanding of a classical education,” he suggested this week, “would require us to demand it for all pupils and students” – provided it is based on “the defence of objectivity, criticism and intellectual detachment against subjectivity, compliance and the promotion of popular fads and fashions“.

In a warning against tokenism, he concluded: “What is on offer in schools today and any development of it, without the classical outlook of struggling to ‘see things as they really are‘, will be mere dressing up. We might as well have potential students turning up for interview in togas.”

And learn Latin, too.  Lots and lots of Latin.

Note that this is coming from secular educators.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. BLB Oregon says:

    This piece reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ account of studying under William Kirkpatrick (“The Great Knock”). Kirkpatrick was an avowed atheist, but he taught Lewis to back up his opinions with sound reasoning. He threw Lewis into the deep end of Greek and Latin poetry, too, and Lewis thrived on it. Still, Lewis realized that education and moral formation are anything but the same thing: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

    It is not enough to add classical rigor to public education. If the values taught are false, relative, or non-existent, then the whole enterprise will turn out a rotten result. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to inject better values into a school system than those that exist in the families sending the students. The exception, I think, only proves the rule. The improvement of schools and the improvement of the moral sense of society have to go hand-in-hand. One won’t progress signifcantly without progress in the other.

  2. Pachomius says:

    I just don’t think Latin is enough. You cannot revive the classical man and expect him to stand on only one of his legs. Latin, yes, but Greek too! After all, Virgil is all well and good, but poor second to Homer, and the Romans produced, frankly, pretty terrible philosophers and mainly awful playwrights (Plautus’ farces are particularly excruciating, but the absurdities of Senecan tragedy can’t be overstressed, either.)

    That said, I’m gloomy about the effect of this, here in the UK. The “English Baccalaureate” is riddled with problems as an idea, not least of which is that it is going to effectively push an already somewhat squeezed Religious Studies almost right out of the classroom . Also, we can’t get teachers to teach French to any level of competency, and we’re drowning in materials for that.

    Latin, by contrast, is rather lacking on that front, and given that the standard text in the UK is the Cambridge Latin Course, I see the kids getting about as far as “caecilius in horto stat. caecilius ridet. caecilius demens est.”, and that’s it. Goodness knows what they’d get for Greek – “loose not the north wind, O general”, and so on, probably.

    And that’s before the teachers’ unions get their hands on the syllabus for either language. I believe I’m right in saying that the Latin exam syllabus in the UK hasn’t changed since 1913. It’s important, also, to remember that this is strictly Classical Latin, and secular at that – I think the latest author we did when reading for A-level [taken at 17-18, now] many moons ago was Claudian, and that was only in passing. The major component was Ovid, Virgil and Tacitus, with bits of Horace, Caesar and other poets (or Livy or Cicero if you were unlucky).

    At GCSE (taken at around 16), we read a mix of things, including Catullus – none of his more… ahem, explicit works, but there was at least one rather mushily sentimental poem directed toward a young man. So, don’t imagine this is a policy likely to bring good Christian values back necessarily. We might just get a more classical mode of decadence, if the idea takes off at all.

  3. Kathy C says:

    I am frustrated at the lack of integrity in argument these days. Politicians and journalists don’t even try to speak honestly. They will routinely throw up a straw man argument, knowing very well that they’re distorting the issue and not caring that this is reprehensible. Their opponent won’t know enough to rebut it, and if they do know how to do that, their opponent won’t care, having no shame at all. If we tried to teach the classical rules of debate now, they probably wouldn’t be understood or agreed to. After all, who are you to say that any form of argument is improper? What counts is results!

  4. Leonius says:

    But they don’t want the prols to think!

  5. abasham says:

    Public schools aren’t completely beyond hope in this regard. My public high school offered two levels of advanced placement Latin classes, and the teacher was widely regarded by many students as among the smartest teaching at the school. A pretty decent number of students took a few years of Latin at my high school.

    Now, I realize my school definitely wasn’t the norm. Where would school districtss find enough Latin teachers if they wanted to do what my school has done? Thats would definitely be a challenge.

    As with pretty much all school issues, it turns out charter schools and Catholic schools would do a whole lot better, don’t you think?

  6. MattnSue says:

    Well, there’s some success on this side of the pond too, as shown here in a public – or at least charter – school in Philadelphia (and first in Boston). I agree with those who wrote that Latin isn’t a “magic wand,” but it is a required “leg” of the school stool. On it’s own, it’s little better than no support at all, but when added in with an appreciation of classics, discipline, and logic (all of which, along with Latin, support each other as well as the overall education), then you have some steadiness beneath you to support an complete education. I also think it helps that in my above-linked story, we’re looking at same-sex education, but that may be a debate for a different day.

  7. Mr. Reisz hits the nail on the head: ““What really matters is the rigour of thinking…”

    I love the expression, “wooly-minded relativism.” Minds raised in such an environment are not well-trained, and seem only capable of fuzzy thinking!

    I studied Latin in college, as well as Spanish, German, Italian and French. When you study other languages, you invariably study other literatures. Such study requires discipline, and engages your mind and enlarges your world and perceptions; you do not just sit there in the classroom, passively putting information into your short-term memory bank, regurgitate it upon exam, and then move on, forgetting it the rest of your life if possible. Sadly, so much of what we call “education” consists largely in this latter type of “learning.”

  8. rgarcia149 says:

    What is a good self learning Latin course? I’ve tried but the decelntions and the cases (which is basically IT) kill me. I only want to read Latin; my ambitions is not to become a Cicero in speech and writing, just be able to read with certain proficiency and accuracy.

  9. rgarcia149 says:

    Sorry I meant the declentions. My computer tried to correct the word.

  10. rgarcia: Allow me to assure you that declensions and cases are useful when reading Latin… if you want to understand what is written or said.

  11. Makes me happy I did a classics minor :)

    rgarcia: Check out Latin: An Intensive Course from Moreland and Fleischer.

  12. Martial Artist says:

    @Father Zuhlsdorf,

    You asked:

    [Is it too late for public education? I wonder.]

    I would venture a guess that it may well not be too late, but I suspect that what it would require is for the nation (even if done on a state by state basis initially) to move to a consensus that the parents of each school-aged child annually receive a voucher sufficient to pay for that child’s tuition at an accredited school of the parents’ choosing in their locale. It could be a publicly-operated school or a privately-operated one, secular or religious. At the present time in most larger cities in the U.S., I would suspect that the annual per pupil cost of publicly-operated schools is among the very highest group, so I would think a voucher amount equal to what the publicly-operated schools of the specific locale cost would be sufficient. Those who want to send their children to the grade and location equivalent of a Choate would have to supplement that amount. Most parents would not.

    To ensure that the Rule of Law obtains, i.e., that we treat everyone as equally as possible, parents who choose to home school should be given a voucher in an amount equal to the per-student cost of textbooks and classroom supplies (and possibly lunch, if that is provided gratis in the public school.

    If we were to do that, the publicly-operated schools would either correct their deficiencies or go out of business, providing some reason for hope. If we don’t do something along those lines, then I think it probable that it will be too late not solely for the publicly-operated schools, but perhaps also for the future of this country as a whole.

    Even as an Austro-libertarian Catholic, I can see a case for the public funding of education. I just don’t see any justification for a publicly-operated monopoly in education. The arguments for public funding of K-12 education used to justify the public schools, seem to me to apply equally, if not more so, to equal public funding of privately operated schools.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  13. albinus1 says:

    Still, Lewis realized that education and moral formation are anything but the same thing

    IIRC, this is basically the point Plato makes in the Gorgias.

    When people ask me what the practical value of studying the classics is, one of the answers I give (or, rather, part of the answer) is that ancient education was based on teaching rhetoric — the art of speaking and writing persuasively. For that reason, ancient literature is permeated with rhetoric; virtually everything the ancients wrote — not just forensic speeches — was slanted in some way. After reading ancient literature for awhile, one gradually acquires the habit of constantly asking oneself, “What is this guy trying to sell me?” Not a bad habit of mind to carry through today’s media- and advertising-saturated world.

  14. tioedong says:

    Professor Mary Beard discussed the trend to dumb down the learning of classics HERE and here.
    The good news is that more and more college level courses are available to self educate folks in critical thinking: at Itunes U, on Youtube, as podcasts, or from commercial sources (e.g. the Teaching company).

  15. Dave N. says:

    I would second M. Hallman’s suggestion of Moreland and Fleischer–I don’t think there’s a better course out there.

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