In Defense of Classical Education


The nation is discontented with itself and with its education. It is probably too discontented. Self-criticism is a constant trait of the Anglo-Saxon, and his dark views of himself are always to be accepted with reserve.


What is the cause of them?

The classics are favorite scapegoats. And this view is the more odd, because it is one of the few which can certainly be disproved. Germany has a strong history of scientific achievement, and it is implied that they have become “scientific” by giving physical science a predominant place in their higher education. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, their secondary education is far more classical than ours, and they have far more compulsory Greek and Latin.

It is superficial to suppose that our one defect is ignorance of physical science. It is true that without physical science our whole civilization would collapse; and it is a just conclusion from this that the community must contain a sufficient number of trained men of science to meet its needs. But it is not a just conclusion that every citizen must be a trained scientist. Because specialists are necessary in all branches of life, it does not follow that we must all specialize in every form of specialization. Why is physical science to be given an exceptionally favored position?

The great gap in science is that it tells us hardly anything about man. That is why it is impossible to “base our education on physical science.” It omits a branch of knowledge which everyone needs. Considering that the world reposes on physical science, it is wonderful how well most of us can get along without any knowledge of it, provided our occupation does not demand actual scientific knowledge.

But no one can dispense with a knowledge of man. Everyone needs it, and using it each minute he is in relation with human beings, whether he is speaking to them, or reading what they have written, or engaged in work which at any point touches them.

Our need of science may be great, but our need of political and moral wisdom is greater.

As science reveals to us the physical constitution of ourselves and of the world round us, so the humanities reveal to us man. There is no science of man; anatomy and biology, while they have much to say about his body, throw little light upon his behavior, nor explain why he makes a French Revolution or a European war, why he is a miser or a spendthrift, a Machiavelli or a Frederick the Great. Physical science does not deal with this kind of thing. Yet the “science” which everyone needs, and statesmen above all, is such a knowledge of man.

Now there is, if not a science, yet a record and account of man; we call it, according to its various aspects, by the various names of literature, history, philosophy. And this is the justification of the literary-philosophic-historical education which prevails in our secondary schools and universities.

Generally speaking, the subject of that education is man; man viewed in himself and his proper nature, viewed as literature views him, as a being with feelings and prejudices, virtues and vices, ruled by intellect, or perverted by passion, inspired by ideals, torn by desires, acting on plan and calculation, or carried away by unreflecting emotion, sacrificing his life, now for gold, now for an ideal—an adulterer, a patriot, a glutton, a dreamer, Aegisthus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Faust—or man, viewed as a being governed by the laws of a universe outside him, viewed as philosophy views him, subject to limitations of time and space, of his own origin, nature, and destiny, related to beings and forces outside him, adapting himself to those relations and modifying his action according to his conception of them, a creature with moral capacities or the descendant of an ape, determining his future according to his wishes, or merely one wheel among many blindly revolving in a great machine; or thirdly, man, viewed as a political and social being, as history views him, creating states and overthrowing them, making laws and refusing to be bound by them, opposing religion to politics, and freedom to law, binding art and politics, empire and freedom, public and private life into a harmonious whole, or crowning one to the exclusion of the rest, fighting, colonizing, making money and spending it, treating his neighbour as a fellow-being, or using him as a tool for the production of wealth, monarchist, parliamentarian, socialist, anarchist, Pericles or Augustus, Cromwell or Robespierre.

Before the student of literature, philosophy, and history are displayed all the forces and ideas that have governed man, personal, religious, or political; to see why he has rejected this and espoused that, why this failed and that was successful, what are liberty and religion, family affection and personal greed, and in a word, to study Man. As he reviews them, and compares them with the present, he can see, as far as a man can see, what ideas have come down to his own day, and what new elements are combining with them, can forecast in some degree the future, and by virtue of his knowledge guide the streaming forces, and shape the molten mass, serve his country and use to the best advantage his own powers.

If anyone thinks this pedantic, and believes that the knowledge of man is only got from life, let him read Anna Karenina or The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, and say if he learns nothing from them about marriage, education, and human nature in general; and let him remember the opinion of a man who knew the world and was not a pedant.

Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son: The knowledge of the world and that of books

assist one another reciprocally; and no man will have either perfectly, who has not both. The knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the world, and not in a closet. Books alone will never teach it you; but they will suggest many things to your observation, which might otherwise escape you; and your own observations upon mankind, when compared with those which you will find in books, will help you to fix the true point.


That is perfectly true.

The world is far more intelligible to us if we have studied history and literature. We understand Hamlet or Brutus, when we meet them in the flesh, far more readily if we have already met them in Shakespeare. Their actions have a meaning for us because we have the clue to their character. We are like visitors to a foreign town who have already studied its map; the lay of the land, the plan of the whole is already familiar for us, and we pick up our bearings quickly, instead of wandering vaguely about the streets.

Consider what a literary education in theory is, and in fact might easily become. The student of literature moves familiarly in an infinitely vast and varied assembly. Even if he confines himself narrowly to the classics, he meets there all sorts and conditions of men—neurotics as different as Lucretius and Propertius, conservatives as different as Pindar and Aristophanes; he meets the man of letters as politician in Isocrates and Cicero, and the politician as man of letters in Caesar; he learns to know worldly common sense incarnate in Horace, reason incarnate in Socrates; he sees the pessimists of an over-civilised society—Juvenal, the disappointed bourgeois, Tacitus, the soured aristocrat, Marcus Aurelius, the disillusioned saint; he notes how differently Plato, the imaginative idealist, and Aristotle, the clear-sighted analyst, prescribe for their distempered age. These are only a few of the types whom he learns to know as intimate friends, whose dispositions become familiar to him, into whose moods and personality he can in a moment throw himself. And I have said nothing of the characters they have painted in their books.

The value of history is even more obvious. … One great danger, as we set about social reform, is that the democracy knows very little history. Yet even so, we have learnt immensely from history, and our whole political attitude, consciously or unconsciously, is coloured by our knowledge of it. One point in which we differ most profoundly from the Greeks and Romans, in other ways so like us, is that we have more history behind us, and have learnt more from it.

If history needs no apology, philosophy needs a good deal. Its name is against it; and we forget that when we think, argue, or act, it stands behind us, the unseen framework of all our practice, which becomes visible as soon as we ask how or why. Bishop Berkeley’s grave and measured saying is its best justification: “Whatever the world thinks, he who hath not much meditated upon God, the human mind, and the Summum Bonum, may possibly make a thriving earthworm, but will certainly make a sorry patriot and a sorry statesman.”

It is as the study of man that the humanities claim their predominant place in education, and in this age of material things, while we honor science and pay her dues, we shall do well sometimes to remind ourselves that man is more important than nature, and man’s spiritual constitution more important than his physical constitution. Philosophically it may be disputable, practically it is admitted, that the world exists for him; and those who deny it with their lips assert it by their actions and their attitude to life. “Quand univers l’ecraserait,” “homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue.” “Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of . . . the ethical process.” Pascal and Huxley are here agreed. We cannot in our education give the chief place to the junior partner.

Then a further point. One of the chief objects of education is to train flexibility of mind, to make a man quick to comprehend other points of view than his own. Obviously, no power is more necessary in dealing with men. To be able to discard for the moment his own opinions, and see the world through the eyes of other classes, races, or types, is as indispensable to the merchant as to the statesman; for men are hardly to be controlled or influenced unless they are understood. And yet no power is rarer. It is almost non-existent among uneducated people. A man who has not risen above the elementary school is hardly ever able to seize an attitude of mind at all different to his own; he may acquiesce in it because he trusts or respects the character of the person in question, but he does not understand it; he cannot perform the great feat for which our intellectual gymnasia train us, of being in two (or more) people’s skins at the same time. And this is not due to the absence of any organ from his body, but simply to the fact that he has never practiced the art.

Nor is the failing confined to the quite uneducated. We all of us spend half of our time in misunderstanding our neighbor, and in most controversies misunderstanding is the dividing line between the parties concerned. Now the power of sympathetic insight is trained by a literary education. A man learns above all from the study of literature and history to put himself in the place of other men, races, and times, to identify himself with them, to see what they mean and how they felt. And so, by continual practice, he becomes quick at seizing the views of other people than himself, seeing what is in their mind, and accommodating himself to it.

Here physical science gives no help. In literature the mind must continually be moving from one place to another; in twenty-five pages the reader must successively become Polonius, Hamlet, Horatio, Laertes, Gertrude—to mention no other characters of the play. In fact, he must do what the merchant does who wishes to sell goods in half a dozen different markets, or the statesman who has to consider the interests and temper of half a dozen different classes and nationalities. But science keeps on one plane; she is not puzzled by the subtle and profound variations of outlook which separate a Russian from an Englishman, a Herefordshire farmer from a Tyneside artisan. Minerals and nerves, alkalis and engines have no point of view, no outlook on life, into which it is necessary to enter; understanding them is very different from understanding Shakespeare or Euripides. You deal with them and all the while remain your own insulated self. Science does not train sympathy, because nothing in its subject-matter has feelings with which we can sympathise.

Science studies things rather than man, and where she studies him, studies only his physical, and least important, aspect; we shall learn little from her of human nature. She can never teach us to enter into other men’s minds; one of the most obvious weaknesses of the mere scientist is the difficulty of making him see other points of view than his own. She is of herself unimaginative, for her business is with the causes of things not with their spiritual values; and though her great representatives have brought imagination with them to their work, the quality is curiously absent in her lesser lights.

“For many years,” wrote Charles Darwin, “I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intensely dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music.”

Our danger in education today comes, not from men of science as a whole, but from her less liberal devotees, and from that part of the public, which (in a thoroughly unscientific spirit) talks about education without studying it. We should remember that an education based on physical science would not only leave the mind unflexible, unsympathetic, unimaginative, undeveloped, but would ignore what is more important than the Cosmos itself.

Our motto was written 2,500 years ago on the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.”

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2013 edition.


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