A Case for the Classics 

Is Classical education still a useful tool for navigating contemporary society?

Student Commentary

By Marouso Pappa/ Matthew staff || Edited by Julissa Castro

Photo by Sergio Scandroglio from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-sky-people-building-13556785/

Although time progression is linear, human experience is cyclical. This can be observed from our conscious and subconscious reversion to “learning from the past.” Why this obsession with looking back? What is there to gain from studying the culture of our forefathers? How does the past reinforce the present and vice versa? These questions have been debated for centuries and most recently been brought to the light from a current dispute between some European countries’ approaches to education versus that of American universities.  

Recently education ministers from France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus signed a charter promising “the creation of a global and international strategy for the development of Latin and Ancient Greek” according to Phillip Chrysopoulos article for the Greek Reporter. France’s education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer claims that the teaching of Classics in schools will “contribute to the strengthening of the future of the European Union”, creating a united front of cultured European citizens. This comes in juxtaposition with the current movement of “wokeism” in the United States, where prestigious Ivy League institutions like Princeton University are setting the example for the removal of Classics from their curriculum in the name of racial equity and progressiveness. In this time, it is important to consider what the historical benefits of Classical education have been and their vitality in enhancing human potential.  

Classical education is defined as “the authoritative, traditional, enduring form of education begun by the Greeks and the Romans, developed through history” by historian Christopher A. Perrin (An Introduction). Classical education is a philosophical approach to attaining knowledge. It emphasized on three groups of disciplines: grammar, music and physical education, expanding them beyond the aristocratic realms of leisure to prepare man “for politics, for war, or even for artistic expertise” (Rapple 62). This curriculum was fitting to serve the rapidly advancing “new democracy.” Being involved in city politics became a defining factor for whom was considered a valuable citizen. 

 Scholar Dorothy L. Sayers delivered a speech in October of 1947 at Oxford University where she argues that in modernity Classical education focuses on “forging and learning to handle the tools of learning” (8), and the most effective way to take advantage of it is through mindful schooling. By demystifying these subclasses of knowledge, they will lose their intimidating reputation. Classical topics are not but an inspiration for constructive discourse which trains intelligence and promotes inquisitiveness. Sayers concludes powerfully with her thesis, the primary objective of Classical education, “teach men how to learn for themselves.” 

Classical education is a worthy topic of interest exactly because of its developmental nature. In the last few decades, the inclusivity of its academic approach has been challenged. It has been regarded as elitist. This charge has some historical merit, as the origins of the concept begun from the wealthy seeking leisure in the ancient world, but “Classical education is not the privilege of the wealthy only” anymore. As pointed out by John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Princeton, removing Classical education to condemn its inequitable past just further expands the problem by “depriving students[…] of the pleasant challenges of mastering” such disciplines. A response to these arising criticisms is that we must highlight the value system that Classical education supports and propel it into the future by revisiting the fundamental structure of its instruction. 

Princeton University’s decision to remove the mandatory prerequisite of Latin and Ancient Greek for Classical Studies majors has raised a lot of questions pertaining to racial equity in classical academia. The decision was a result of an open letter written by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an Associate Professor of Classics at Princeton, which pushed the university to recognize the harm caused by practitioners of classics, specifically “the classical justification of slavery, race science, colonialism and fascism”. Padilla argues “one can only conclude that classics have been instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination”. 

The current resurgence of traditionalist ideas within the socio-political climate of America has brought about the phenomenon of “radical nationalists” wrongfully attempting to support their views “by brandishing classical insignia.” Yet in this atmosphere of turmoil, we have lost sight of what Classical education is truly about. 

John McWhorter published an article in The Atlantic where he criticizes this compromise as a risk of “amplifying racism instead of curing it.”  He points out that instead of promoting potential contributions, students of color could make to the field, Princeton is discouraging the pursual of holistic Classical knowledge. Using a preventative approach tends to the misuse of Classical education rather than supervising its instruction to cultivate all the academic benefits. Introduce the quote, “Representations of ancient society in the contemporary public domain needs to be liberated from the fatal embrace of neoconservative thought.” 

 What characterizes American society is that it was born from people taught to exercise freedom through the reinforcement of Western ideals. “They brought their education with them… that education was classical.” E pluribus unum is a perfect example of the classical reinforcement of the value of unity within American culture. “Out of many, one” symbolizes the joining of the thirteen colonies, the consolidation of America’s diverse population under one flag and its development from the roots of ancient European culture. The Declaration of Independence (1776) begins by stating that the whole document serves the purpose “to form a more perfect union,” by providing its citizens with the right to education, freedom of speech and serving all men as equal. Unity in Ancient Greece occurred through language, diplomacy was born of dialogue, and rhetoric had the power to unite without war. Roman law unified ancient Rome by being the first legal system? to develop legislation which applied to all citizens of the empire. These three models all rely on the same principal values, which are derived from the same primary education. 

To be involved in an inclusive, unprejudiced, and equal United States, all citizens should be provided with the opportunity to have an in-depth understanding of the origin and influences of the systems they serve. Denying or discouraging students of color from pursuing knowledge which lies at the foundations of American society indirectly debilitates them from achieving success. Classical education creates better citizens but also teaches said citizens to utilize the social system to their favor.  

Racial injustice is rightfully at the forefront of the American conscious /conscience as it challenges its reputation of being a “liberal society.” Liberalism values inclusivity, Classical education emphasizes the interrelation of all areas of knowledge and topics of social concern. In a publication for Education Weekly, H.A. Gobin writes “The right reading of the classics cannot help but inspire one with a pure ambition to act a worthy part in this world’s affairs.” Titled The Place of Classics in Modern Education and written in the context of 1884, his article is testament to the timeless relevance of the Classic’s constant return to academic and cultural relevance. 

Encouraging learners to seek connections and creating constructive dialogue with themselves and others about the past, present, and future promotes mindfulness. Classical education is a grand advantage especially in a time when “students learn content in isolation,” and people seem to have lost their community orientation. Classical education’s guidance should be accessible to any individual who wishes to approach the world with a better understanding of human nature and the systems that we cultivate. Academic institutions should place Classical education at the forefront of the learning process, pursuing its effective and inclusive instruction.