I was attending an education conference a while back and decided that I wanted a sandwich for lunch, so I walked into a nearby mall and found a popular sandwich chain store. I ordered a Chipotle Steak and Cheese with Avocado.
“What kind of meat would you like?” she asked.
“Uh, well, I think this is supposed to be a steak sandwich. Maybe steak would be good,” I said.
“Okay,” said the perky voice. “What kind of cheese would you like?”
“Well, you invented the sandwich,” I said, jokingly. “What would you recommend?” She responded that most people like provolone. “Let’s do that.”
“What else would you like on your sandwich?” she asked. At this point I was pondering the fact that this sandwich chain must have spent millions of dollars researching what kind of sandwiches people like and what they like on them.
I asked what she would recommend and she said, “Most people put lettuce and tomato.” So I told her to just do what most people did.
“Would you like avocado on your sandwich, sir?” I looked up despairingly at the menu, which said, “Chipotle Steak and Cheese with Avocado.” I really didn’t want to have to take several courses in advanced sandwich science to order my lunch. I took the avocado.
“Would you like anything else on it?” At this point I was mentally exhausted from having to make so many complex sandwich decisions. I began thinking of those old fraternity hazing rituals in which you were awakened in the middle of the night, taken to a dark room, put in a chair, and questioned by unperky people you couldn’t see who were standing behind a large, bright light aimed at your face. I’m trying to remember if any of the questions involved the construction of a sandwich.
She continued to smile at me: the quintessence of perk. “That will be all,” I said. “Thank you.”
I have slightly exaggerated this story, but I tell it to make the point that we live in a culture in which choice is the chief value. We are told that the more choices we have, the better off we are.
In education, too, choice sometimes seems the most important value. We talk about “electives” and “individualized learning.” You go to the counter to order your education knowing you can “have it your way.”
Or so we are told.
We are asked, “What would you like on your education?” and we can choose from college preparedness or career readiness or even indoctrination into someone’s idea of good politics.
But when we put up a sign offering “classical education,” we implicitly commit ourselves to specific content and to a certain order and methodology in presenting it.
If you were to visit a good school up until about 100 years ago, you would likely find the focus there to be the teaching of the great books in the original languages. And since all the great books were written in Latin and Greek, you learned these classical languages in preparation to read those books. That’s why it was called “classical education.” This is how we taught wisdom and virtue, but it also better taught all the things we now say are important: cooperation, creativity, and thinking skills.
Our Western culture has been around a long time, and over the centuries a lot of effort has been expended to determine the best kind of education.
So when we are asked what else we would like on our education, we need to say, “That will be all. Thank you.”
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2014 edition