I was talking with a homeschool mother recently and she told me that she had visited Britain. She was particularly impressed with Hadrian’s Wall, which was built during the Roman occupation of the island.
Hadrian’s Wall is made of stone and runs some 84 miles, from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. It was built by the Romans as a defensive fortification to keep out invading tribes from the north. That was its purpose.
But the Romans eventually left Britain and their empire ultimately disappeared altogether. The wall itself is still there, and although some of it is in pretty good shape, a lot of it lies in ruins. Long after the Romans left, it became a de facto quarry. Its stones were taken by the people living around it and were used as building materials for castles and farms. In some cases the stones were used to build churches.
With its original purpose gone, it began to be taken apart and used for other ends, some of them worthy, some of them less so. What is left of the wall stands as a mere tourist attraction, an outdoor museum exhibit for the historically curious.
When something loses its purpose, it naturally begins to deteriorate. This is not only true of man-made structures, but of organic things as well. Plants, animals, and even people are structured in such a way that every particle that makes them up is organized around and oriented toward some animating principle. It was this animating principle in humans—this purpose—that classical thinkers called the “soul.”
We know what happens when a soul leaves a body. The body dies. Its parts are preserved for a short time, and then they disintegrate and are appropriated by something else for another purpose.
What is true for man-made structures and for organisms is also true for institutions: Once they lose a sense of what they are for they tend to disintegrate.
Today’s schools have forgotten what education is for. Rather than forming adults through the passing on of their culture, schools have instead attempted to refashion themselves into umbrella social service agencies, providing meals, health care services, and job training. These things are good, of course, but they have little to do with the special purpose of education.
In a few places the educational structures are in good repair. But, increasingly, real learning is having to take refuge in places outside of mainstream schools.
Our schools once had a specific and well-understood purpose: to form wise and virtuous human persons by passing on to them the accumulated wisdom and the great examples of virtue in Western culture.
Perhaps the most important role the classical education movement plays in modern culture is to restore to education what has been lost. To build something new is hard, but to rebuild something old is harder. In rebuilding we must not only rewrite the blueprints, but we must find the workers who still know the old ways of building.
Classical education requires a knowledge of things we ourselves have not been taught. How do we teach Latin if we do not know it? Whom do we get to teach Homer and Virgil when there are so few of us who have read them?
We must teach ourselves the things we should have been taught. We must pass on the things that were never passed on to us.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2018 edition.