Several years ago, a prominent homeschool personality, let’s call him “Mr. Jones” (The names have been changed to protect the mistaken), wrote a broadside in a popular magazine against classical education, leveling a number of charges against it. These arguments were representative of the criticisms you sometimes hear from those who have a misapprehension of what classical education is and how it is practiced. So I wrote a response. The following article is an abridged version of that response.
As classical education has become more popular among Christian educators, it has acquired not only friends, but a few enemies. Mr. Jones is one of these latter individuals, and he articulates a number of arguments against classical education. Let’s take each one of these arguments in turn.
Is classical education pagan?
Jones’ first argument is that classical education has pagan origins. It “traces its roots to the pagan Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle around 500-400 B.C.” This charge is absolutely correct. Classical education was the original invention of the Greeks and Romans. Only later was it taken by Christians and fashioned into the system of classical education that has lasted, in a few places, even to today. The problem with this argument, however, is that these same charges could be leveled individually against mathematics, geography, music, astronomy, and history as a separate and distinct method of study. In fact, education as we know it—education itself—was an invention of the Greeks.
There are many things that originated with the pagans that we should reject. But we should not reject them because they are pagan: We should reject them because they are false. There are many truths the pagans discovered. Should we reject them just because a pagan discovered them?
Is classical education only for the upper class?
Jones says, “It promised to make members of the upper class witty and interesting among their peers in any setting.”
Maybe there are some people who educate classically because they are interested in becoming witty and interesting. I’m not sure I wouldn’t like to be witty and interesting myself (and there have been a few occasions when I would have liked to have been upper class as well).
“I have heard a number of parents boast about the highly intellectual books their children are reading,” adds Jones. Parents, of course, boast about a lot of things when it comes to their children, and it certainly doesn’t require the provocation of classical education to prompt them to do so.
Jones says that “knowledge without virtue produces arrogance.” Yes, but that is because anything without virtue can produce arrogance. That is no argument against knowledge per se: It is simply to say that anything can be used badly. When Jesus admonished the Pharisees for thinking that their strict adherence to the Law made them better than others, He didn’t argue against the Law; rather, He argued against the use they made of it.
There is an old Latin saying: Abusus non tollit usum (The abuse of something does not nullify its proper use.) It’s a saying thought up by a pagan, but it is true nonetheless.
Arrogance does not require a great deal of knowledge. Arrogance, in fact, works just fine with only a little of it. Any educational philosophy that decides to limit the amount of knowledge it imparts in order to solve this problem will do little to solve it. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, you could solve the problem of pickpocketing by eliminating pockets, but that’s probably not the best solution.
Such a solution won’t necessarily create humble people, just ignorant ones. In fact, ignorance can produce its own sort of arrogance. And if that sounds far-fetched, then you’ve never seen today’s youth culture up close and personal.
Jones assails classical education because “it was never intended to prepare someone to make a living or support a family.” There is an element of truth here. Classical education does not share in the modern assumption that the purpose of education is to get a job. As former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Bill Bennett has pointed out, education is the “architecture of the soul.” The idea behind classical education (otherwise known as a “liberal arts” education) is that a person should be educated in such a way that he is fitted, not for a job, but for life. A liberal arts education, in fact, does a better job preparing students for jobs because it fits a student for any occupation he might choose as an adult—not by teaching him job skills, which schools are singularly ill fitted to do—but by teaching him how to think.
Classical education was, in fact, the education of the aristocracy. But that is largely because the aristocracy was the only class that received a formal education. The aristocracy was, historically and for the most part, also the only class that had any meaningful political freedom (or enough to eat). Classical education was the education required of political leaders. But in a democratic republic, we are now the political leaders, which is why we now need this kind of education.
Does a knowledge of Latin and Greek have practical value?
Jones says of Latin and Greek: “Today there is very little practical reason to study either language.” While their study will certainly do little to help you to work on an assembly line, flip hamburgers, or sweep floors, Latin and Greek were and still are the languages of learning. Latin is the root of the vocabulary of the sciences, law, and theology. It is the origin of over 60 percent of our academic English vocabulary and was the very language of Christendom for over a thousand years. It is the mother tongue of Western civilization. It was the language of the Christian Middle Ages—and of the Reformation. It was also, along with Greek, the language of the Church fathers.
And let’s not forget that the New Testament itself was written in Greek. In fact, all of the Bible verses Jones quotes were originally written in the language he condemns as being of little practical use. With all the debate that goes on over which translation of the Bible is better, the one who knows how to read it in the original language is in the best position. Is it not a practical advantage to be able to read the Bible in the language in which it was written?
The benefits of studying Latin in particular are manifold and well established. A study of Latin is quite simply the best way to learn English; it is also the best thinking skills course that a young student can engage in because of the grammatical manipulations it requires. Because of its systematic and regular nature, it is an excellent study skills course, since it requires disciplined attention, an ability that must be cultivated and that has tangible benefits for other subjects the student might attempt.
Is classical education humanistic?
Jones also argues that the content of classical education is humanistic. “Humanism,” he says, is its “central premise.” But what does it mean to say that a belief is “humanistic”? Does it mean something anti-Christian, as in “secular humanism”? Or does it mean something quite different, such as the “Christian humanism” of Church fathers such as Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen, or later Christian humanists of the Renaissance such as Erasmus, Thomas More, as well as the great 19th century Christian educational thinker John Henry Newman?
Man, though not the “measure of all things” as the Greek Protagoras is reputed to have said, is nonetheless God’s highest creation. The kind of humanism that rejects God is certainly itself to be rejected. But the Christian humanism that sees man as the one creature created in God’s image and having the dignity consonant with that distinction is another story altogether.
Is logic merely the reason of man?
We have already discussed Jones’ arguments against Latin. He also assails logic.
[T]his phase [the dialectic stage] emphasizes the reason of man. According to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the wisdom of God is neither sought nor applied. … Among other things, this concept teaches that we cannot believe what we cannot see and prove. Everything is to be questioned, and nothing is assumed to be true. How is this ‘scientific’ approach reconciled with God’s requirement that we have faith and believe what we cannot see or prove?
Ironically, this argument that logic excludes faith is one commonly made by atheist rationalists. But it’s no more true when it comes from the pen of a Christian. But even more ironic is this: If Jones’ argument is sound, then it must be rejected, since it is not (according to his own assertion) the wisdom of God. He is clearly attempting to set forth an argument (presumably a logical one). But can you use logic to argue against logic? This, of course, is completely self-defeating. It is very hard to assess the reasons of those who profess to be opposed to reason. If as Christians we are to avoid argument, then why does Jones argue against classical education? If reason is not the wisdom of God, then why should we accept Jones’ reasons?
But the problem does not end with the inconsistent nature of his reasoning. Jones makes a number of assertions that are either unsupported or unsupportable. It is simply false to say that, in logic, everything is questioned and nothing is assumed. In fact, this is precisely what premises in an argument are: assumptions. And the truth of the premises is a matter for either faith or science. You can reason just the same way about a truth known by revelation as you can about truth known by science. In fact, it has been done for over two thousand years.
If anyone wants to see logic used in the service of faith, he need only open up the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas to the first page. Or for that matter, the Pauline epistles, which are filled with arguments on matters of faith. In fact, a simple perusal of Paul’s Mars Hill discourse would seem to indicate that the best way to deal with unbelievers is not to abandon logic, but to use it better than they do.
Jones says that logic is the “reason of man.” Does he mean that men invented the laws of logic? Is the law of non-contradiction, for example (that a statement cannot be true and false at the same time under the same circumstances), a human invention? In truth, the laws of logic are no different in this sense than the multiplication tables, which, as Plato points out in the Republic, were discovered, not invented. They were already there, the products of an ordered universe created by a rational God. In fact, I know of no pagan philosopher who would say what Jones says pagans believed about logic.
Jones also seems to suggest that Jesus avoided the use of logic. “On many occasions,” he says, “Jesus was silent when he could have argued persuasively.” Yes, and on many occasions Jesus argued persuasively when he could have been silent. When asked about the woman caught in adultery, for example, the woman was brought to Him, and He was asked what should be done with her. If He followed the law and ordered her to be stoned, the crowd would have thought Him harsh; if He said to set her free, He would be seen as being in violation of the law. Instead, Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is a logical technique called “slipping between the horns of a dilemma,” and is one of the three ways of responding to dilemmas.
Any good logician knows it.
In fact, Jones seems to want to ignore I Peter 3:15 entirely: “But sanctify the Lord in your hearts and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”
Is the practice of rhetoric immoral?
Finally, Jones discusses rhetoric, the art of persuasion, the last leg of the classical trivium. Like logic, Jones assails rhetoric for being fundamentally amoral: “Like the grammar and dialectic stage,” he says, “it holds to no moral considerations.” He quotes, as he does several times in his article, the Encyclopedia Britannica. He would have done better to consult the primary sources on this issue. If he had done this, he would know that the views he quotes as characterizing the discipline of rhetoric were the Sophists’ views of rhetoric, not those of its greatest classical exponents.
Quintilian, the greatest of the ancient teachers of rhetoric, considers virtue essential to the rhetor:
Proceeding to moral philosophy or ethics, we may note that it at any rate is entirely suited to the orator. For vast as is the variety of cases, … there is scarcely a single one which does not at some point or another involve the discussion of equity and virtue, … Again, in deliberative assemblies how can we advise a policy without raising the question of what is honorable? Nay, even the third department of oratory, which is concerned with the tasks of praise and denunciation, must without a doubt deal with questions of right and wrong.
— Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Bk I, Chs. 1-3, 12
Quintilian makes a point later to say that the very purpose of rhetoric was to produce the “good man, speaking well.” Hardly an indictment of morality. But he could as easily have found the same belief expressed by Aristotle, the greatest theoretician of rhetoric, or Cicero, its greatest practitioner. He could also have found the ethical implications of rhetoric discussed by Augustine, whose book On Christian Doctrine applied the rhetorical teachings of classical thinkers to the teaching of Christianity.
Besides, if the art of persuasion is inherently anti-Christian, then why should we be persuaded by Jones? How, other than by persuasion, does he purport to persuade us that we should not teach rhetoric to our children?
For all of Jones’ criticisms of classical education for its tendency to create a questioning mind, he asks a surprising number of questions. In his discussion of logic, Jones argues against it on the grounds that it produces a questioning mind that leaves things unsettled. “The premise is to question everything and accept nothing as certain.” Yet at the end of his article, what does he recommend? “There are many questions to answer, but the important thing is to ask them and then find peace with the answer.”
The classical writers Jones criticizes for their lack of concern for the truth would never have left an issue with such an indefinite conclusion. And they never would have said that the goal of asking questions was “peace.” The goal of asking questions, they would have said, was to find an answer—a true answer.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2013 edition.