What is to be Done? Samizdat Classical Education

The most effective thing that we can still do to conserve our civilization is raise and educate our own children in the way that they should go. Shortly after the Orthosphere began operating in early 2012, I posted an item about the superiority of homeschooling. But what about middle and secondary school? What about college?

Two of our most luminous and percipient writers, both themselves professors – Anthony Esolen and Roger Scruton – have recently posted on these questions.

In Classical Education Can Purge a Multitude of Sins, Esolen tells us how small upstart schools that focus on Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and the Canon of the West can water the parched roots of our culture.

In The End of the University, Scruton documents the latter day depravation of the original monastic institutions, and discusses his years helping establish samizdat colleges – literally, reading groups – in Communist Czechoslovakia.

Both essays are suffused with elegiac sorrow at the death of the glorious traditional Western institutions of education. Both are also quietly determined, hopeful, encouraged that the original mission of such schools lies still meet to our own hands, minds, and hearts. The West need not die with its ancient schools and colleges, and at their treasonous hands; for we ourselves are and may be more and more the West, and may teach its civilization to our own. It need not die. Nor therefore need high Western education. There is nothing preventing home schooling parents in a town or neighbourhood from joining together to found a Latin school for their upper division children, or an underground college focused on the Great Canon. The greatest cost involved would be time and attention, for as Scruton points out, not much money is needed:

… during the ten years that I worked with others to turn these private reading groups into a structured (if clandestine) university, I learned two very important truths. The first is that a cultural inheritance really is a body of knowledge and not a collection of opinions—knowledge of the human heart, and of the long-term vision of a human community. The second is that this knowledge can be taught, and that it does not require a vast investment of money to do this, certainly not the $50,000 per student per year that is demanded by an Ivy League university. It requires a handful of books that have passed the test of time and are treasured by all who truly study them. It requires teachers with knowledge and students eager to acquire it. And it requires the continuing attempt to express what one has learned, either in essays or in the face-to-face encounter with a critic. All the rest—administration, information technology, lecture halls, libraries, extracurricular resources—is, by comparison, an insignificant luxury.

This is how the Academy and the Lyceum got their starts. It is the original model of education: a learned man, with a book or two, and a circle of boys sitting at his feet.

How to begin? A parent’s association, that can start as nothing more than a series of earnest meetings in a coffee house (lots of great enterprises got their starts in coffee houses), or a living room. After a few meetings, a parent’s association might well find that it has become a PTA. Then, all that is needed is a church basement or two, and the rest is going to fall into place in the way that these things do: organically, and driven by the urgent exigencies of the moment – a supply of books here, a blackboard there, a microscope, some binoculars, a periodic congregation of minivans.

Easy for me to say; my kids have all graduated college. But then, on the other hand, the next generation of my family is already under way, and I may yet find myself pressed out of the retirement I see now beckoning to me, just a few years hence, and into service as an amateur professor to five or six kids of my grandchildren’s cohort.

I shall take Professor Digory Kirke as my model.

52 thoughts on “What is to be Done? Samizdat Classical Education

  1. Pingback: What is to be Done? Samizdat Classical Education | Neoreactive

  2. I think if you don’t use directly religious works but more like works that promote traditional values and virtues in a less direct way, you will not hit many walls. Whoever hates Marcus Aurelius or Shakespeare?

  3. I don’t want to comment on the homeschooling article because it is from 2012, but the last, social skills part sounds suspicious to me. How, exactly, would homeschooled children interact with peers from their age group? OK they tend to be from larger families, have siblings, but that is not enough.

    Should I imagine it not so literally as one school per home but more like informal neighborhood schools where 5 families have 20 kids and they all together go to Ms. Smith’s house 08:00 – 09:00 to learn math then to Mr. Taylor’s house 09:00 – 10:00 to learn history, is that more like that? Because that would work for socialization. Hardly ever interacting with anyone outside the family would not.

    • Home-schooled children interact with other people in the age-old, normal, social way. One point of home-schooling is to obliterate the mandatory, isolating, age-peer-only structure of the so-called public schools. I have been the humanities tutor for two siblings, one of whom has just been admitted to a very competitive university, for almost five years. Most of our work has been remotely negotiated by emails and the Internet, but we have met regularly, including last summer at my home in Oswego. At that time, I threw a social gathering at which the two young people “interacted” (terrible word) in an entirely competent way with those of their age-peers who were present as well as with people contemporary with their parents and with one or two non-related people a bit older than I am. The two children did this with more aplomb than most “adults.” Confining children to exclusive peer-cohorts is one of the worst distortions of modern education.

      Another issue: The kind of education that I am writing about in these comments is unafflicted by the bureaucratic carving-up of the curriculum into “history,” “literature,” “science,” “social studies,” and all the rest of those categories made up by Auguste Comte and his Positivist followers. It is simply not possible to teach Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid without teaching history as well as literature, moral philosophy as well as history, and compositional style at the same time as reading acuity. In a recent thread, I proposed the notion of “epistemological ecology.” Not dividing knowledge into artificial “departments” is an example of “epistemological ecology.” Confining each to its own “field” is a violation of “epistemological ecology.”

    • The notion that kids need to be sent to a big building full of kids under the supervision of paid staff is among the notions that they taught us all … in school. If it was true, then how did kids learn social skills before there were public schools?

      As Bonald often reminds us, we have to remember that almost everything we learned in school about man, society and history is wrong – much of it wicked, socialist propaganda deriving from the leftist cult that founded the public school system in the late 19th century.

      • Kristor, you put me in mind of a sincere protestation that I made recently to someone who refused to believe me. The fellow in question (another professor) asked me what I had learned in high school and college. Hand to God, I couldn’t – and can’t – think of anything (well, hardly) that I learned in high school or college, with the exception of being made aware of Nietzsche and Wagner by an extremely eccentric high-school English instructor who was in every other way a mountebank who should never have been allowed near teenagers. What I learned, I learned largely from books, then and later. I have learned a good deal from conversation with wise people, not least my dissertation adviser Eric Gans, but also my friends Dick Fader and Larry Klotzko. (Fader drinks in the bar, as do I; Larry owns the bar.) I could put together an entirely competent and inspiring college-level humanities faculty from ordinary people I know whose lifetime hobby of reading books has, in fact, endowed them with a higher education.

        Second-hand bookstores (there were quite a few in Santa Monica when I went to high school there) were more educationally formative than the schools that I attended.

        Let me further explicate my parenthetical “well, hardly” (see above). I learned French in high school and German and the Scandinavian languages in college. That is real knowledge. But as to what Professor X “taught” in “History,” “Psychology,” or “Whatever,” at UCLA in the early 1970s, I retain no notion, supposing I ever had one. Recently in box full of musty tomes I recovered my college history textbook. Reading one page was enough to make me close it in disgust. What lifeless prose! What tendentiousness!

        On the other hand, I still possess many books that I bought for twenty-five or fifty cents in the second-hand shops, and which have never been consigned to a box in the cellar.

      • Public school children are too often anti social and have terrible manners. My kids have no clue who virtually any celebrity is, thank God.

    • There are badly broken co-op models that homeschool families use instead of starting actual schools. That said, plenty of homeschool families aren’t able to even get access to the broken co-ops, and it is a challenge to get them around other adults and children who aren’t family, and that challenge is downplayed for essentially tribal/ideological reasons.

  4. The massive, “public” college or university is a sprawling, shapeless self-parody that pulls the strings of the primary and secondary schools like a puppet-master – and which, like the rest of so-called public education, produces no educated public whatsoever. It is designed to produce, and it produces, sheeple. Higher education parasitizes the economy, ensconces sociopaths in sinecures, and rehearses within its boundaries the police-state that the liberal regime at large wishes to impose on the entire populace.

    My old friend Steve Kogan once pointed me to passages in Eighteenth-Century memoirs that describe what actually educated people recognize as actual higher education. In the French memoirs, it is often a single priest who mentors the memoir-writer in the classics, while also informally catechizing him – or her. In the English memoirs the same role is enacted by the tutor. Instruction begins in early adolescence and is generally concluded by age nineteen or twenty. It is rigorous and yet informal. It is intimate. The beneficiary has a good grasp of the Greek and Roman classics, often in the original languages, a clear sense of the historical record, and a feel for what is called proper sentiment.

    The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries saw a book-market for these informal educational arrangements. I was not being cute when I added the “her” to a previous sentence. Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686), a discussion of the then much-bruited hypothesis of extraterrestrial intelligence, which remained in print in new editions for a century, was written for the edification of young women. Fontenelle’s book takes the form of conversations between a priest and a seventeen-year-old girl on the announced topic.

    One of the myths of modernity is that education is an esoteric undertaking that can only be carried out by trained specialists in gigantic state-supported institutions whose physical plants and grounds are larger than any Greek city-state of the Classical period. The basis of education is a carefully – that is to say, historically – vetted shelf of books. The mentor need not be better versed in the books than the student. He only needs to be older and wiser and willing to take the lead in active reading.

    • Thank you, Joseph. I had the privilege to be affiliated with the Kirk Center during my decade in Michigan. I have even sat in Professor Kirk’s chair in the Kirk Library! Alas, Kirk left the Beast, but I remain in its belly, doing what I can and what I may.

      • Well, that Professor Kirk would find Kristor agreeable company, as well, but I meant the fictional one that Kristor mentioned. I guess that Kirk is a good name for a hero in all manners of life (James Tiberius obviously included).

  5. The June issue of The Atlantic concludes with the question “Which current behavior will be most unthinkable 100 years hence?”

    David Dennett replied (p. 96):

    Unsupervised homeschooling. When we come to recognize that willfully misinforming a child — or keeping a child illiterate, innumerate, and uninformed — is as evil as sexual abuse, we will forbid parents to rear their children as possessions whom they may indoctrinate as they please. They may teach their children any religious creed they like, but only if they also teach the uncontroversial facts about the world’s religions so their children can make an informed choice when they grow up.

    The animus expressed in Dennett’s remarks converges with the attitude of the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest union, which resolved:

    —- B-82. Home Schooling. The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. When home schooling occurs, students enrolled must meet all state curricular requirements, including the taking and passing of assessments to ensure adequate academic progress. Home schooling should be limited to the children of the immediate family, with all expenses being borne by the parents/guardians. Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education should be used.

    The Association also believes that home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools. —

    By forbidding parents to involve anyone but the immediate family in their homeschooling efforts, this 2011 resolution would empower the state to prevent the kind of unsupervised academy that Kristor proposes, so the latter would indeed have to be an underground activity. The parents would have to be licensed and supervised by the state.

    And the crowning touch of spite comes in the last sentence. The same union that would urge children need public schools, would deny homeschooled children the chance to participate in school music, etc.

    One must not underestimate the sheer villainy of much of the opposition to Christian homeschooling.

    • “One must not underestimate the sheer villainy of much of the opposition to Christian homeschooling.”

      Indeed: The NEA is a sociopathic organization.

    • It’s no surprise that Dennet said that about homeschooling and religion. He’s one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.” Go figure.

  6. Here is C. S. Lewis, in Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State (originally published in The Observer, 20 July 1958; reprinted in God in the Dock, ed. by Walter Hooper):

    I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind’. But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticise its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer? Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few. I know. Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none. [p. 314]

    … The Swedish sadness is only a foretaste. To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death — these are wishes deeply ingrained in white and civilised man. Their realization is almost as necessary to our virtues as to our happiness. From their total frustration disastrous results both moral and psychological might follow. [p. 316]

  7. See also C. S. Lewis’s 1955 essay Lilies That Fester for more that is highly relevant to education. This essay appears in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, and elsewhere. I quote from a Harvest (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) paperback, p. 42:

    … the pupil is now far more defenceless in the hands of his teachers. …He has hardly ever been alone. The educational machine seizes him very early and organizes his whole life, to the exclusion of all unsupervised solitude or leisure. The hours of unsponsored, uninspected, perhaps even forbidden, reading, the ramblings, and the ‘long, long thoughts’ in which those of luckier generations first discovered literature and nature and themselves are a thing of the past. If a Traherne or a Wordsworth were born today he would be ‘cured’ before he was twelve. In short, the modern pupil is the ideal patient for those masters who, not content with teaching a subject, would create a character; helpless Plasticine.

    What lewis goes on to say has significance for our time of (even on the college level) obsession about “measurable outcomes” being specified, etc.

    • Wordsworth was a big part of my tutorial relation with the two young scholars, to whom I have referred:

      The Web is too much with us; late and soon,
      Tweeting and texting, we lay waste our powers –
      Little we see beyond the Internet that’s ours;
      We have given our passwords away, a sordid boon!

  8. Thank you for the reminder, Kristor, of Digory Kirke in C. S. Lewis’s Narnian books.

    And it was good to read of Dr. Bertonneau’s connection with the (Russell) Kirk Center. I sat in a family restaurant in Rantoul, Illinois, with Dr. Kirk one warm day around 1985 and discussed ghost stories with him. (The resulting article appeared in an issue of The Illini Review, the conservative alternative to the official student newspaper at the University of Illinois.)

  9. Terrific stuff! Yes, Christians must segregate their children out of mainstream indoctrination. I like to imagine we are the last librarians in Alexandria hurrying to save the vestiges of millenia-old knowledge from the coming calamity.

    As for forming Samizdats, or as many have come to calling them in the Reactosphere ‘Antiversities’, I am giving a huge thumbs up to this effort. As pointed out, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do such a thing without either legal oversight from the Liberal elite or going underground, but the latter is always preferable, and in fact the conspiratorial secretness of such Antiversities might actually be an appealing factor especially for teenagers who want to fight against the prevalent culture. If you have to break the Liberal’s law to do what is right, then break it by all means. Always remember, we are not the hostile aggressors in this war. We have been attacked and are only doing what is necessary to defend ourselves and what remnants of our civilization we can smuggle out of the burning library.

    • Christians who homeschool, by the way, need not fear having to start from scratch. For one thing, they can adopt the Church Year — which is easier to observe if you homeschool than if your children attend government schools, but the latter can benefit from the Church Year too. Reading and writing assignments, music, art projects, etc. can be inspired by the Bible lessons, themes, and imagery of the season. We were able to keep Advent as a season of preparation for keeping twelve days of Christmastide, etc. There is a transmission of Christian culture possible as one takes the Church Year a little more seriously than, perhaps, we often have done.

      It’s not that “everything” in the homeschooling effort would be tied to the Church Year, of course, but families could acquire a sense thereof.

      Also, one may want to acquaint children with the cycle of the heavens. If possible, children should learn to identify a number of the constellations (if you live in a place with a light pollution problem, this might not be feasible). At the least you can help children to become aware of the lunar cycle and of way the sun sets further in the north as we approach the summer solstice, etc. I’m not advocating anything New Age-y here, but I suspect that becoming aware of such cycles may help children’s imaginations to develop in wholesome ways, in contrast to the way many youngsters’ imaginations are colonized by processed imagery summoned up at will on computer monitors, TV screens, etc.

      Also, without being terribly overt about it, one may help to get across a sense of a more traditional conceptualizing of the starry heavens as opposed to “Space.” “Space” is exploited in several unwholesome ways: (1) “it’s huge and we are tiny, so humans and their faith are insignificant” — a gross logical fallacy (mixing quantitative and qualitative) that is endlessly inculcated; (2) children are encouraged to think of the possibility of “Intelligent Life” somewhere in the universe in a way that captures their capacity for the sense of wonder and associates it with something that is, in fact, very iffy — however, Christians know that there is intelligent life other than humans, namely angels; (3) the sense that human beings may become “godlike” and colonize a new heavens and a new earth, etc. — again, imaginations are captured for the “progressive” faith that we are on the threshold of transcendence, a new state we will effect by our technology…. and so on.

      • Excellent suggestions. Once you bust out of the “school year,” you are liberated to re-connect with its origins in the liturgical calendar, the cosmic calendar, and the agricultural and seasonal calendar. These are all integrated, because that’s how reality is.

        It is not widely known, but many churches are observatories, and sun dials. Everyone knows that Stonehenge was built to measure the heavens, but almost no one knows that this is so also for cathedrals, in which the apse is a direct echo of the old stone circles that dot Europe (and the Levant).

        Re space, yes; interesting also to correct the meme of “empty space.” As CS Lewis pointed out in Out of the Silent Planet, space is full of light, and fecund. In fact, it is quite legitimate to say that space is *constituted* of light (gravity being a function of relative masses, and mass being a function of the velocity of light – of, i.e., time, which is to say, the measure of the ratio of causation).

  10. Your article handwaves all the logistical reasons this doesn’t already happen. Lots of people want it to happen, and the people in the broken co-op models (some of which contain pyramid schemes, as is common with conservative stuff since the 1980s, possibly earlier) sometimes believe they have it, but clearly don’t.

    There is a lot keeping parents from just founding a Latin school. For one, where is the class of leisured, already classically educated adults who could teach in the first place? (Hint: America doesn’t have one, and hasn’t for at least one and possibly two generations now). For another, given that institutions require a lot of unpaid scutwork to be maintained, who’s going to do it in a world where private homeschooling households have vast amounts of scutwork that keeps them from doing much else beyond their individual families?

    • But it is already happening. This is how all institutions get their start. My kids all attended an elementary school that was started in the 70’s by a group of parents disgruntled at the atrocious education their kids were getting in the public school. Their high school was started by a lady who got sick of teaching in the public schools; for its first ten years or so, she ran it out of her house. It is now one of the five best high schools in the nation. Dartmouth started with one missionary and some Indians.

      No one said it would be easy. If you want easy, you’ve got the wrong universe. Oh, sure, it’s less trouble to send your kids to public school. But there’s no free lunch; you’ll pay in other ways.

      • I said there are broken half-solutions that people use. What people in the 1970s did is different from what they do now because the circumstances have changed dramatically. For one, people aren’t doing actual schools most of the time, they lack the resources of organization, time and talent. You keep forgetting that the children of the Boomers and Gen Xers and Silents were not raised in a functional society with strong institutions to backstop them. I have to trust the dozens of households I’m actually speaking with, attending church with and living among on this one, not a claim that because people from the remains of functional social structures were able to set up a parallel alternative (and note the strong female personality spearheading, that’s certainly a little detail worth exploring) that we can just do what they did. People would already be doing that if they could, but instead it’s pyramid scheme co-ops (“Classical Conversations” and the like), never real schools with paid staff and quality materials.

      • I think you shouldn’t be so flip when this is very very serious business. It is hard, it is challenging, and your glibness suggests you don’t truly understand the gravity of the situation in the here and now present day for Christians with school-aged children.

      • You must be confused in the thread, I have kids, the latest one sleeps very poorly and I am in the middle of some pretty miserable sleep deprivation over it. And my situation is not uncommon once you commit to what moderns consider a large family these days. If you were referring to another in the thread, sorry for the confusion.

  11. Why precisely is Latin required?

    It was radicals who were inspired by the heroes of Roman republic as narrated in Latin classics – Plutarch, Livy, Cicero et al. – who launched the French Revolution.

    • Yeah, but you can use that argument against *everything,* because every good thing has been used for evil ends from time to time. E.g., by your argument, you’d have to rule out French, Greek, the Classics generally, and the study of the history of Rome.

      Better I should think to study Latin and all other subjects with a discerning mind, informed and equipped by sound moral teaching.

      But in any case, Latin would not be required, unless the parents wanted it to be. The general consensus among those who have studied Latin is however that the rigor it brings to the use and interpretation of language has tangential benefits in all sorts of ways that one would not at first suspect were connected to it. My own experience as one who has only dabbled in Latin is that it has made me a better, more exact writer, and thinker. It opens up several otherwise opaque dimensions of meaning in thousands of English words. E.g., “exact.”

      • And reading Latin invariably means reading Roman authors about Roman concerns — which means students will learn to see the world from a perspective different from the mainstream makers of contemporary opinion. And this is invaluable. Let Cicero educate your son rather than trickle down Gramscianism.

    • The Roman Republic was never a modern, secular republic. It was a sacred polity, founded in the worship of the Latin gods. That the Jacobin morons couldn’t see this is simply another indictment against them.

      Oddly, the Republic was founded (on Livy’s testimony) by kings, the first one being Romulus, who were advised by an assembly of elders (the Senate). Sacred offices belonged to the Republic even after the obsolescence of the kingship.

      French is almost as good a subject as Latin: It is Latinate, preserving much of Latin grammar, and despite the political disaster of La belle nation, it remains something like an aristocratic tongue.

  12. I’m not too sure what I think about homeschooling, but looking at the way public schools have gone and considering the fact that the Catholic parochial schools are even worse, the only choices are private, Protestant parochial, and homeschool. Regardless of where my future kids will go for education (as a young man, I haven’t really thought about this until now), all I know is that I am going to realtalk them all the time. The world needs more realtalk and that in it of itself, is an education.

  13. I would commend those who wish to take the next step toward an “antiversity” to do so.

    To that end, I would recommend the following websites:

    http://www.textkit.com. This is a website which has public domain latin and greek textbooks, grammars, and primary classical works in latin and greek.And once one has gotten to the place where one can read the classics, then may I recommend:

    http://classicsindex.wikispaces.com This is one of the most extensive set of links that I have yet seen as regards classic texts.

    Once one has gone some way into these, it should be easy to find one’s way around to other resources.


  14. This is a thread which interests me very much. I have been married for 36 years and I have four children, ages 16, 17, 30, and 32. All were homeschooled at various times. The older two graduated from public high schools in Stafford County, VA, where the demographics were acceptable, and the curriculum was so so. My current teenagers are attending John Paul the Great High School in Dumfries, VA. The school enjoys a good reputation, but total tuition for the two is $22,000 a year, out of the reach of many parents. What to do? First, we need to accept the fact that homeschooling from K to 12 is for a relative few. Not many parents have the disposition to do it, and MORE IMPORTANTLY, not many kids are willing to forego the excitement and lure of high school life. That is what happened with everyone of my kids. By the time they were 14, they wanted to go to a “real” school. So, parents are left with a choice of either shelling out a huge amount of money, often at great sacrifice, or they can roll the dice and send their kids to the public school, which for most of us is totally unacceptable. I have come up with a third way, which I will offer in a separate thread.

  15. One of the main problems of contemporary education is that the would-be “mentors” are all too often undereducated dimwits themselves – as a result, students find it well nigh impossible to respect them. You can’t teach what you yourself haven’t studied, interiorized, elaborated, and truly mastered. Intelligent students, as they progress and gain intellectual independence, will recognize if you’re a charlatan. This is especially relevant at the college level.

    Another problem is that what passes for classical education today is of a markedly lower quality than several generations ago. I was educated in Europe (in two countries & two languages) and I consider my education both generally substandard and sorely lacking in some specific areas. English is my third best modern language. I never lived in any anglophone country, so it’s a fully foreign one. I read my first Shakespeare in original – and still with difficulty – when I was 16, which may give you a glimpse into how degenerate I find the system to be. Unfortunately, it was a common perception that students like me were geniuses for such elementary accomplishments as reading Shakespeare at that age. We were – still are – barely lettered when compared against those of our grandparents’ generation who received “comparable” educations (and they, already, were subject to a serious intellectual degeneration). For reference, I’m 25.

    As to Latin and Greek, nowadays it’s virtually impossible to gain meaningful reading fluency in these languages at the pre-specialist levels, that is, unless one undertakes them as the focal point for one’s graduate studies and beyond. Our readings in secondary school were risible, most authors were “read” via short exemplary fragments from their works – 50 verses here, 30 verses there, a paragraph here, two paragraphs there; I’m not sure we ever tackled a single longer work in its entirely (maybe “In Catilinam I”, but does that even count if I-IV were fragmented or ignored?). As far as verse is concerned, prosody was understudied and the results not very laudable – I graduated high school being able to sight-read only hexameters and elegiac couplets, even that not without errors. The only other meter that I remember was the Sapphic stanza (for Sappho & Catullus). Everything else I forgot or it wasn’t studied thoroughly enough for an effective familiarity to result from it.

    When I recite some of the poetry I memorized, I find that I understand only the Latin verse (mostly Horace, Catullus, many sections from Virgil, some Ovid). I still remember some of Greek, but I remember it the way one remembers the gibberish eenie meenie: the sounds are there, I even remember what it’s supposed to mean, but I can’t connect all of the parts to the meaning. It creates a sort of bizarre pseudo-memory, think for example of the opening verses of the Odyssey – I get “andra moi enepe mousa polutropon”, but after that it’s just sounds until “pollon d’anthropon”, then sounds again until “kata thumon”, then more sounds until “psuchen” and “noston” and so forth for the next dozen lines. All those years of Greek only for my personal experience of the Odyssey to be much like eeine meenie a few short years after forgoing it. With Latin it’s better – also because I continued to read bilingual editions of Roman classics for my own pleasure – but it’s far from what I’d expect after so much effort during my most receptive years. In many ways I feel cheated out of an education.

    With the modern canon the situation is less bleak, although still not acceptable. It’s of little use to read the canon exclusively in translations, as a proper understanding of those works depends in great part on the philological subtleties – especially for works in verse – which means one must be reading-proficient in at least several Western languages *BY* the time one starts to delve into it. I was reading in three languages by 14, but it still took me additional years (and some additional languages) to gain literary appreciation of what I could read. Horrible planning on the side of those accountable for my education. I got to read widely in high school, but my language skills always lagged behind my interests and behind the curriculum. In college my studies were better organized, and I expanded my language skills, but it was all still fairly low-level IMO.

    Today’s “classical education” would have been viewed as a remedial education a few generations ago. Even comparing textbooks and considering what I’m told by my grandparents I get such an impression. I spent some time reading the sequences and reading lists for the supposedly good, “classical” schools in the USA – and frankly all I’ve seen so far is even more remedial than what I received, sometimes markedly so. This caused quite a shock to me, as for a while I’d hoped that at least in the land of the free they’d figured out how to give their children a solid education on their own terms, unburdened by as much bureaucracy as we have here. One of the links provided in this blog post took me to an article that mentioned The Academy of Classical Christian Studies. I found their website and it’s worse than I thought – they don’t “really” learn Latin (judging from what I saw, they essentially only study morphology and possibly not all of it, and the culture/vocabulary in function of understanding English better, so their last Latin course is Latin I high school equivalent), they don’t “really” study Spanish either (I & II, no literature course), their literature readings are thus only in English and restricted to 5-6 works a year, of which some are complex and merit longer attention, but some are the same ones I read when I was in the relevant age group, except that I read it in a (for me) foreign language and as a part of a much wider reading program. Math and history seem comparable to how I was taught, but we didn’t study the US history (that was blended into a general history course, which was also chronologically oriented, and it wasn’t studied extensively). There’s apparently no art history nor history of philosophy, especially not planned to complement history lessons. They do seem to study Bible more seriously, which is a plus, and the atmosphere seems more wholesome. But, if that’s an extraordinarily good education, I shudder to think what regular public American schools must be like. It seems like what a default education should be like for average minds. For the intelligent, it should be much more ambitious than that. Which brings me back to my original contention: the principal problem is in the lack of qualified *mentors*, and that seems to be a problem in all of the West, although it’s probably more manifest in your country. The situation won’t improve until those in charge of the students’ education can offer more.

    In Europe there’s still a “replacement concentration” of the truly educated, so at least in some countries and at least on post-secondary level the situation remains within the boundaries of tolerable. The overall degeneration, however, is palpable at all levels.
    Interestingly enough, it’s more typically liberals (of the European variant) who comprise these circles, even if they’re much less reverent about the Western tradition than the conservatives are. The latter complain and bemoan the proverbial good old times, but in reality most of them can hardly measure up to their own ideals and they’ve rarely bothered to correct that, so there’s a hypocritical note to their complaints. I’m not sure which group is worse, the first has the knowledge and the artistic appreciation but is morally (not only religiously) detached, the second pretends to attach its spirit to a culture it doesn’t really possess, both sides contemn one another for what they lack.

    If I have children, I’ll make sure I supplement whatever cursory education they get at school, but I worry about the potential futility of the whole enterprise. The real classical education is so ambitious within its domain that I wonder if it *can* be accomplished today, as a generalized (non-specialist) endeavor, in addition to all the other skills today’s children need to develop (technological & scientific knowledge). As my grandparents’ generation begins to die off, I wonder whether there’s anyone left to teach – except for that handful that has already isolated itself into ivory towers of the university system or that has otherwise little incentive to teach.

    I think that most people highly underestimate the skill needed to teach this stuff properly, possibly because they themselves haven’t attained it. Ambition alone won’t get anyone very far. This post and some comments make it sound as if it were easy. It’s not a task a group of parents can accomplish on account of their fervent desire *alone*. They need to be properly educated *themselves* in what they aim to teach. I therefore disagree with Thomas F. Bertonneau’s comment that “the mentor need not be better versed in the books than the student”, from my experience it typically ends up with a blind leading another blind. There’s certainly a value in cooperation between people who are about-equals, but there’s an even greater value when they’re uneven; my most productive exchanges were those where both my interlocutor and I were superior one to another, but in different areas. Only at the highest level of achievement can two *mature* minds sit together, as equals, and profit from each other in the *same* area. Adult-child, I doubt it very much. It’s also difficult for a child to respect a teacher whom he doesn’t perceive as intellectually and morally superior to his present state of development, it puts the child into an unwholesome psychological state (or so has been my experience). It’s very bad for children to be taught where there isn’t a big knowledge differential between them and their mentors.

    I’m sorry for this being excessively long. I’m a first time commenter, I stumbled upon this blog recently. Although I don’t quite share the ideological perspective, there are some interesting posts here.

    • Thanks for this interesting comment. I am reminded of Schroedinger’s story of walking back to his university from the catastrophe of the front at the end of WWI, finding it almost empty, and passing the days while he waited for his fellow students and professors to reappear sunning himself on the roof of his college and re-reading Plato. In Greek. At age 16.

      We have indeed fallen very far. But that is no reason to stop climbing.

    • Passerotto: “A value,” using the indefinite article, was what I was addressing, not some supreme value. “A value” is better than no value at all. In the absence of any positive curriculum in the schools, it would therefore under my argument be better for a parental non-expert and his children to study the same books together than for that parent to relinquish his children to the schools.

      Please note that I qualified my statement about the mentor not needing to be better-versed in the book than the student. The mentor needs to be more mature than the student, which means, more experienced in life and in negotiating with moral causality.

      It is also better to read the classics in translation than not to read them at all.

    • I hope you will stick around, Passerotto.

      I think what Dr. Bertonneau and others are saying includes these two ideas: (1) the schools are generally such nurseries of unwholesome values that parents really must consider whether it is right for them to delegate their responsibility for their children’;s upbringing to such places; (2) the schools and even universities have so grossly neglected the right transmission of the humanities that non-scholarly people who, however, are guided by right sentiment and willing to teach and learn can undertake a better educational enterprise.

      “The world is very evil, the times are waxing late. Be sober and keep vigil, the Judge is at the gate.” Such times as ours call, not for fluttering around like wild birds in a cage, but for cheerful Christian sobriety, such as can be assisted by the kinds of educational enterprises being discussed here.

      • I’m not disparaging effort. I respect people who apply themselves to do what they can, within their limits (financial, intellectual and psychological wherewithal), however imperfect that may still be. There’s also a problem of optimization – our time and resources being scarce, we can’t apply ourselves to everything; at some point we’ll have to draw some lines and declare it “good enough”. I also accept that for different individuals and communities these points of “good enough” will vary.

        However, I specifically wanted to present an experience of an intellectually promising student among the vestiges of classical education. I went into some detail in order to clarify why even nominally “classical” education (which, when described, must *sound* fairly impressive) still has quite a few problematic aspects to it in its modern variant – when confronted with *comparable* educations of people of *comparable* minds and means several generations ago. I was hoping to communicate that such education, too, can produce some lingering resentment and a feeling of having been deceived.

        As it’s more advantageous to consider what *can* be done in however bleak the situation at hand, in principle I support such projects as presented in this blog post. I’m only skeptical as to their effective reach, but as our intellectual degeneration hasn’t happened overnight so I expect it’ll take a while to correct it. It must be started *somewhere*, and we agree about that.

        Please consider, though, my “psychological” points. I honestly find that it’s not an idiosyncrasy, but something nearly universally valid: children (and adults) must be able to *respect* their mentors and they can’t do so *only* on account of them being in positions of nominal authority. This is also one of the reasons why educational systems are falling apart – some of it certainly has to do with today’s students being less well mannered, but another part of the story is professors being less respectable in their eyes. The older they get, the greater the potential problem. Especially in higher education, where it can happen (and maybe especially in humanities) that you’re taught by somebody from whom you can’t really learn. It creates a very unsettling psychological dynamic, as annoyance leads to contempt which leads to arrogance, all of which then lead to “closing yourself” to further learning. I know quite a few intelligent, well-educated (for today’s standards) young people who have fallen into that trap pretty deep.

        Thomas F. Bertonneau – I’m not convinced that greater maturity in life ipso facto renders one a better guide, more apt at analyzing and appreciating imaginative literature. I have in mind the “unified” aesthetic, not the “isolated” philosophical experience, the form of the great works being more than a vehicle of abstract ideas. A person not sensible of language, without experience of different expressive “modes” to render an idea, who hasn’t acquired the tradition and context for what he reads, who doesn’t have an appreciation of the development of various literary forms, and who isn’t very well-read himself, can’t possibly teach literature any better than a person with analogous gaps in music or in figurative arts can teach these areas. In absence of a better option for his child, he may be forced to do so (or else perfect will be the enemy of good – or of *anything*), but it’s not a desirable situation in and of itself. That’s probably also the reason why your students’ parents opted for you as their preceptor rather than improvizing things themselves.

        Dear Passerotto, you write: ” I’m not convinced that greater maturity in life ipso facto renders one a better guide, more apt at analyzing and appreciating imaginative literature.” But what then does maturity mean? Does it mean anything? Generally the conventional words refer to well-established phenomena and they mean something. Aristotle had a word for “a mature person,” the spoudaios. Aristotle’s word did not mean an “expert”; it meant, “a normally educated, experienced person,” a “wise adult.” When we at The Orthosphere say that we would like as many people as possible to be genuinely educated, we do not mean that everyone’s teacher should be Gilbert Murray or Gregory Nagy or that all graduates of the home-school should be Walter Burkerts or Remy Bragues. We mean that as many people as possible should have the best education that they can get. If that education did not include reading Homer in Greek, but did include reading Homer in a good English translation, we would would be satisfied with that. Perfection should not be an argument against adequacy. (TFB)

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  18. PERFECTION SHOULD NOT BE AN ARGUMENT AGAINST ADEQUACY. Dear Passerotto, you write: ” I’m not convinced that greater maturity in life ipso facto renders one a better guide, more apt at analyzing and appreciating imaginative literature.” But what then does maturity mean? Does it mean anything? Generally the conventional words refer to well-established phenomena and they mean something. Aristotle had a word for “a mature person,” the spoudaios. Aristotle’s word did not mean an “expert”; it meant, “a normally educated, experienced person,” a “wise adult.” When we at The Orthosphere say that we would like as many people as possible to be genuinely educated, we do not mean that everyone’s teacher should be Gilbert Murray or Gregory Nagy or that all graduates of the home-school should be Walter Burkerts or Rémy Bragues. We mean that as many people as possible should have the best education that they can get. If that education did not include reading Homer in Greek, but did include reading Homer in a good English translation, we would would be satisfied with that. Perfection should not be an argument against adequacy.

    If the local high school in Oswego had a one-semester course during which the kids did nothing except watch movies such as the Kirk-Douglas Ulysses, the Ray-Harryhausen Jason and the Argonauts, and the Michael-Curtiz Adventures of Robin Hood, followed by intensive discussions led by you, me, Alan Roebuck, and Kristor, it would be outpacing every overpriced, “progressive” private school in the country.

    As many contributors to this thread have already stated, the condition of “public education” in the USA is so wretched that even bad homeschooling is a better choice than submission to the regime. Non-indoctrination is better than indoctrination.

    • I didn’t argue against the common acceptation of the word “maturity” – I questioned the idea that the process of maturation necessarily comports a side-effect of appreciation of the great imaginative literature in all but a sort of “psychological” appreciation (in a sense of being able to identify with the ethical struggles, respond to the universal themes). I’m not willing to reduce the studies of imaginative literature even at pre-specialist levels to psychological insights alone – it’s an *art*. Whatever psychology and maturity is found there has been highly stylized. Note that I’m not speaking *against* “psychological” (in this, improvized, definition) readings, only pointing out that I’m not sure it’s not a problematic angle if adopted as the only one.

      Of course, I don’t think that *everything* must be read in original – as I’ve recognized, there’s an optimization problem (and an additional problem that Homeric Greek, in particular, is insidiously difficult). Many important works will have to be read in translations, or in a combination of a translation for the whole and the original for selected parts (that’s what’s typically practiced in “classical” schools, not only in classical but also in modern languages). Also, one of my original points was wondering whether a linguistically strong education was conducive to the goal of reading in the original in the first place, as in my case that was only partially and poorly the final result. Apparently a lot more effort is needed to attain that goal, but the more effort and time it involves, the more the question of optimization becomes pertinent.

      Think however about this (my last point, promise):
      Jews and Muslims study their culturally foundational texts (which happen to be also religiously important) in their original languages, no matter where they live, what languages they speak in their daily lives, nor what comprises their general studies. These groups must *value* their scholarship and their tradition – there’s no other reason why they’d want some level of linguistic ability *generalized* as a knowledge everyone in their community has.

      Leaving aside the curious detail that in the case of European and American Christians (or the religiously indifferent, but still “Christian-cultured” in a wide sense) Latin is not the language of the very primary sources, it *is* of the whole civilizational infrastructure that was largely built upon it and that integrated in itself a “previous” civilization. You don’t find it scandalous that in a course of a single century it has all but disappeared? We know what happened: instead of *generalizing privilege* – expanding the groups of people who had the opportunity to learn in the first place – at some point a pseudo-egalitarian road was taken. The difference (of intelligence, class or luck) was canceled in favor of lowering the cultural expectations for ALL, rather than allowing more and more people IN.

      Now that seems to be happening to general education. From what you say, it’s largely a done deal in your country, so of course that homeschooling is an *already* optimal solution (the best within what’s possible and available) in such a context. We agree on that, and I’m not arguing that the education should be “perfect”. It never is, and it must always take into account different abilities and priorities. I just wanted to share a personal experience – a personal resentment – over not having been given more even in a situation that was much less bleak. I wasn’t prescribing any remedies, more thinking out loud. (And thanks for allowing me to, as a non-participant to this blog.)

      • Passerotto, we’re arguing at cross-purposes. I agree with you that at the level of graduate studies, the discipline of the humanities should be as you describe. This thread is about how to secede from the government schools.

      • Thomas F. Bertonneau – I probably didn’t distinguish well enough which of my remarks refer to which stage of my education, but I’ve predominately talked about my pre-college formation. I called that “pre-specialist” or general education, by specialist having in mind college and beyond (when young people choose the foci of their studies). The “classical education” of which I wrote is *done* by 18/19 years old. I wasn’t speaking at all about graduate studies*, in fact my whole point, which maybe I expressed poorly, was wondering whether a decent classical education was even possible anymore at pre-specialist levels, that is, without getting a degree in it, without making it your *professional* focus.

        Problems that arise in college are of a different kind, but I studied modern literature (“modern” as in starting from Middle Ages, not “modern” as in 20th century), so the specific complaints I have about that have less to do with classical Greek and more to do with some other things.

        * Our system is different, it’s 3 years (BA) + 2 years (MA). Often you take an additional thesis year, but depending on the specialty, subject and thesis requirements, some fit it into the last year.
        Since a BA on its own doesn’t really have much worth, if any, for most people BA+MA automatically go together (so mentally, when you start studying you’re committing to 5-6 years), while the PhD is separate. From what I understand of the American system, you have 4 years (BA), and then MA gets bumped together with PhD into “graduate school”? Also, your undergraduate studies are typically much more diverse than ours (with general education requirements that don’t really exist over here unless they form a core of your specialty, so there’s no such thing as a literature major having to take a math or a science, or vice-versa, it’s assumed that whatever you had to learn in those areas, you learnt *by* the time you entered university), which is not necessarily a bad thing, but probably slows things down.

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