Classically Practical

What does spending endless hours on Latin, Greek, Logic, Rhetoric, Jurisprudence, Physics, and Metaphysics result in? An elite capable of navigating the scientific, theological, and political milieu of early modern Europe. No wonder the educational system produced such polymaths—renaissance men—able to discourse on law as theologians, theology as lawyers and politicians, and politics as theologians. The reason civil magistrates were so invested in university education was precisely because they were political institutions. Education is inherently political as one recent outfit has noted. Even our own American political tradition has recognized the political and anti-egalitarian nature of education. 

Classical education advocates often make the claim that true education—done classically—is not about career training, social advancement, or college preparation; instead, classical education is primarily, if not solely, concerned with virtue formation and a pursuit of the transcendentals—truth, goodness, and beauty. Any social or political benefits are simply ancillary to the real aim of a classical education: learning to think, becoming a better person, and knowing what to love. Insofar as this is merely a description, rather than a prescription, of how the modern classical education movement conceives of its own teleology, regrettably this may very well be true. Yet, rarely do such advocates interrogate how “classical” such a view of education really is. Is it really the case that education in the medieval and early modern periods did not aim at career training? Did early modern grammar schools (our equivalent of secondary schools) focus on preparing their students for further university education? What sort of education produced the likes of John Milton and John Donne, Francisco Suárez and Pierre Gassendi, John Owen and Gisbertus Voetius, Robert Boyle and René Descartes? 

Desiderius Erasmus’ De civilitate morum puerilium (On the Cultivation of the Manner of Boys)—a paragon of the new humanist educational program in early modern Europe—laid out four aims of education: piety, love for the liberal studies, instruction in daily life, and the teaching of customs and manners of civility. The first two were not unconnected from the latter two. Good people were to live good lives. Johann Sturm, the great 16th-century German educator, in his treatise on how the gymnasium (the modern equivalent of a secondary school) in Strasbourg makes this connection more concrete: “For as it was almost always useful for individual private citizens to have their children conversant with the discipline of the liberal arts, so in the public realm it was essential for all for the preservation of the state that some persons stand forth who, in periods of crisis and danger, would look after the needs of state not only advantageously, but also wisely.” In other words, liberal learning has its usefulness, especially in the formation of a political elite who would rule wisely. This is not my interpretation of Sturm’s belief. Lewis Spitz, the great Lutheran historian begrudgingly admits it: “Sturm’s inflexible standards fueled his determined optimism that the elite, and thus only a very small fraction of the youth, who were trained in the classics, could achieve the highest cultural goals their society had to offer them.” What were these standards? A mastery of language (grammar), a mastery of thinking (dialectic), and a mastery of speaking (rhetoric).

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