Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin

Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin

by Tracy Lee Simmons

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Climbing Parnassus presents the reader not so much with a program for educational renewal as with a defense and vindication of the formative power of Greek and Latin. Tracy Lee Simmons’s persuasive witness to the unique, now all-but-forgotten advantages of study in, and of, the classical languages constitutes a bracing reminder of the genuine aims of…  See more details below


Climbing Parnassus presents the reader not so much with a program for educational renewal as with a defense and vindication of the formative power of Greek and Latin. Tracy Lee Simmons’s persuasive witness to the unique, now all-but-forgotten advantages of study in, and of, the classical languages constitutes a bracing reminder of the genuine aims of a truly liberal education.

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Washington Post
Simmons's fascinating tour through the pedagogical history of the classics may be his chief contribution to the debat.

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Climbing Parnassus

A New Apologia for Greek and Latin

By Tracy Lee Simmons

ISI Books

Copyright © 2002 ISI Books
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-5139-5


Bent Twigs and Trees Inclined

Classical education, that odd and antiquated custom setting generations of bewildered youth to suffering the inky travails of learning Greek and Latin, two languages they would never speak, can hardly be defended or even explained without a long look at the nature of liberal education. Nor can we neglect to tap the roots of that distant descendent of humanistic learning, the modern "humanities," where we now find classics nestling obscurely in college catalogues. For at the pinnacle of both sat the classical curriculum. But while granting that, once upon a time, classical learning might have borne some relation to professional skills, surely, we think, it has failed to remain useful in an age no longer requiring the services of scholastic monks, courtiers, and imperial civil servants. So does this curriculum remain at all relevant in a world that measures success in stock averages and megabytes? For as classical scholar Gilbert Murray once conceded, "Even if we neglect merely material things and take as our standard the actual achievements of [the Greeks] in conduct and knowledge, the average clerk who goes to town daily, idly glancing at his morning newspaper, is probably a better behaved and infinitely better informed person than the average Athenian who sat spellbound at the tragedies of Aeschylus."

That clerk cannot be too badly off; he gets along. And if education is not to promote material success, what should it do? Must we lend any legitimacy to an older idea that education exists primarily to form the inner man as well as to impart those all-important skills for making a living? Have we in fact grown out of that ideal? Or have we fallen so far short of it that we cannot even spy its majestic peaks?

We praise liberal education zealously. It's a term of marble grandeur. But few of us know what it means. It has become grist for commencement addresses and high-flown commentary expounding the true mission of our schools and universities, best used by people removed from the rough and tumble of life. As with pornography, we cannot define it, but we think we know it when we see it. Liberal education rests comfortably in a haze where it no longer calls us to commit to anything exemplary, hard, or heroic. For some, liberal education has become synonymous with the "humanities," that free-for-all of open curricula where the dazed and confused spend irreplaceable years browsing among survey courses, taking ant bites out of whatever nuggets randomly lie among the crumbs, learning little or nothing in particular. The humanities provide a direction for the directionless, a path for the pathless, certifying ignorance in the guise of a "knowledge" too easily acquired. This wandering listlessness can envelop teachers of the liberal arts as well, the average figure being, according to Mark Van Doren, too often "neither lay nor learned, but a bored fellow who mixes prescriptions wherein all tastes are flat or bad. So much knowledge 'about' one thing and another, and never the tincture of wisdom." To others liberal education has become wedded to the propounding of social grievances — "freedom studies," we might call them. To others still it marks an expenditure of time and effort largely wasted when a technological world wants technologists. Liberal education, in short, means today whatever we wish it to mean in all our idealistic or disputatious moods. It is like a loose constitution, open to any fanciful interpretation of the moment. But some contemporary thinkers have tried to spy its essence.

Philosopher Leo Strauss once defined a liberal education, nebulously, as one "in culture or toward culture," in doing so drawing on the ancient metaphor of agricultural husbandry. "'Culture' means ... chiefly the cultivation of the mind, the taking care and improving of the native faculties of the mind in accordance with the nature of the mind. Just as the soil needs cultivators of the soil, [so] the mind needs teachers." Further, liberal education "consists in reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness," and in "listening to the conversation among the greatest minds" as heard through the channel of great books, an idea owing more than a little to Matthew Arnold's ideal of culture as trumpeting forth the "best that has been thought and said." A. Bartlett Giamatti, a staunch defender of the principles of liberal education as he saw them, described it — again, not too clearly — as an "attitude of the mind toward knowledge the mind explores and creates. Such education occurs when you pursue knowledge because you are motivated to experience and absorb what comes of thinking — thinking about the traditions of our common heritage in all its forms, thinking about new patterns or designs ... whether in philosophic texts or financial markets or chemical combinations — thinking in order to create new knowledge that others will then explore." Here the new presides; knowledge is not to be learned so much as created. Indeed, it exists almost for what it produces.

Broad claims like these typify the rhetoric of liberal education, and such definitions can be both revealing and helpful. But somehow they smell of formaldehyde; they seem just a bit sterile. We are still daunted and challenged, though, by Everett Dean Martin's spirited declaration many decades ago that the best education is "the organization of knowledge into human excellence." An education, he said, is not "the mere possession of knowledge, but the ability to reflect upon it and grow in wisdom." Liberal education ought to aim not just at furnishing the mind with serviceable knowledge and information, nor even at habituating the mind to rational methods, but at leading it to wisdom, to a quality of knowledge tempered by experience and imbued with understanding. It should, in a word, humanize. Unguided by such an aim, education loses its true character and finds itself degraded to servile training for the world's daily drudgeries. Liberal education civilizes. It transforms us. We are better for having run its course.

Nonetheless, these flourishes of eloquence glow with the light of dying embers. The case must be made, but hope for the cause has long since waned.

We lose an opportunity if we accept defeat too quickly. Not in decades perhaps — at a time when our schools have lost the capacity either to kindle a passion for history, or even to teach it intelligently — has there been a better time to search out our roots and recover our identity as citizens of the West by reasserting an intellectual training that reminds us who we are, where we came from, and the heights to which we have aspired, and to which we might aspire again. We have a large and many-branched family tree to trace. So before we explore the history of a classical education, let's examine further the meaning and growth of liberal education and the subsidiary curriculum known as the humanities, winging a few theoretical flights along the way.

* * *

Take a classroom example. Imagine we are teachers trying to define liberal education for students. We may do so by shaving off its political barnacles and drilling down to its etymological source. We say that "liberal" derives from a Latin word for freedom. "So what makes an education liberal?" we plead, our target in the scope. "It's an education that makes us free, an education that liberates us." Then we roll in the big guns. Robert Hutchins once explained that the "liberal arts are the arts of freedom. To be free a man must understand the arts of freedom." Much along these lines, Martin contended that "education is a spiritual revaluation of human life. Its task is to reorient the individual, to enable him to take a rich and more significant view of his experiences." Yes, education must be "liberalizing," but "not in the political sense, as if it meant half measures, but in its original sense," meaning "the kind of education which sets the mind free from the servitude of the crowd and from vulgar self-interests Education is simply philosophy at work. It is the search for the 'good life.' Education is itself a way of living." Giamatti addressed the freshman class at Yale in 1983 with much the same spirit. "I believe a liberal education is ... the liberty of the free mind to explore itself," he said, "to draw itself out, to connect with other minds and spirits in the quest for truth. Its main goal is to train the whole person to be at once intellectually discerning and humanly flexible, tough-minded and openhearted; to be responsive to the new and responsible for values that make us civilized." Although later proclamations may lack the older definitions' strident vigor, they agree. Liberal education, we tell our class, fosters a mind that struggles against insularity. It aims to make us better than our untutored natures lead us to be.

But usually at this point the discussion, so usefully begun, breaks down. What do we need liberating from? Ignorance is the hackneyed answer. But of what exactly are we ignorant? Here the teacher confronts the often willful confusions of the immature, easily suggestible mind. We might strategically avoid Strauss's idea that education should act as a "counterpoison to the corroding effects of mass culture." One thing at a time. But we have raised questions, questions we hope will set patterns of inquiry and steer the students' energies away from slavery to intellectual fashion and sense impressions to careful self-examination. For whatever else it seeks to do, a liberal education seeks not only to instill essential knowledge, but also to prompt the asking of questions; it both provides a content and confers a method. And ideally the search will be for hard and hard-won answers, which those students, pupils of life, can use. For such an education is eminently practical.

So far we sail the stratosphere; the air is thin and rarefied. We have yet to utter those great names of the Western tradition: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dr. Johnson, which shine as distant lights. But something is happening. Students learn that maybe answers are possible, and that there may be ways of getting at them, keys available to all who find within themselves the humility to learn and are determined to search beyond sentiment and circumstance to a common base of truth about human life and history. In this one crucial way will they "adjust": they will become responsible agents. They will tap intellectual depths.

They will also learn to use words more responsibly. They will learn how to paw an abstraction. The concept of freedom, for example, is a stick of dynamite. Books and life both teach them that a freedom without discipline may not only be useless, but a hindrance to grasping something true beyond the veil of illusion. They may come to see, with Milton, that "liberty hath a double edge, fit only to be handled by just and virtuous men; to bad and dissolute, it becomes a mischief unwieldy in their own hands." Further, the idea of equality, held with catechetical reverence in a democratic society, they begin to view as yet another social and political ideal that, however good, has nonetheless been created by minds that came before theirs, minds formed by ethical and intellectual ideals themselves handed down from still other minds. And they will begin to spot complications: not everything is "democratic" in the modern sense of being equally accessible to or achievable by all. They will begin to see what C. S. Lewis meant when he said that equality "has no place in the world of the mind."

Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demands for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.

These words, merely "elitist" at first sight to the unseeing or electively blind, point us to a difference between those who view education as a matter of equal attainment and those who regard it as a result of highly individual and strenuous labor guided by logic, experience, and wisdom of former ages, a search for the objective and knowable over the subjective and unknowable, an assertion of the common over the eclectic. The first, more leveling view would seem the mandatory one today among those who teach — and among those who teach the teachers.

"'Tis education forms the common mind," wrote Alexander Pope. "Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." At the heart of liberal education stands the conviction that the well-touted freedom of mind comes only by submission to standards external to oneself, that the discipline precedes the freedom, and that this kind of freedom can only be earned as a reward, not conferred as a right. "Openness to new experiences" — the experiential heresy — is not sufficient. One needs to know how to respond to experience, not simply with an enlightened intellect, but with an enlightened heart. Understanding like this must be achieved; it does not come without effort. And it certainly cannot be assumed. If only it were otherwise.

The struggle shown here in simple terms is not new. It points up age-old divergences in the theory of education, and indeed radically differing notions of human nature. These lead us into robust philosophical hair-splitting. Philosophy stands on the doorstep, bidding us to enter and make choices, to make distinctions, to discriminate. Generations of students have been taught that the very word education means the "bringing out" of children their native genius. The word can just as easily sustain the opposite idea of "building up," and even "putting in." Of course any education worthy of the name will do all. But at least the claims serve to place these ideas on their proper philosophical playing field, where we can begin to carve out a clear and defensible idea of what education, liberal or not, is supposed to do. For the true liberal ideal, despite fulsome praise, has found few buyers in the modern marketplace of ideas.

John Henry Newman, a nineteenth-century cleric and fount of crystalline clarity, bestowed the seminal statement of the aims of liberal education in his Idea of a University. He trusted a religious upbringing to inculcate virtue. Formal education, though, is a different thing. Perfection of the intellect, he wrote, is "an object as intelligible as a cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it." And he described, with axiomatic sagacity, what the liberally educated mind looks like. Instruction is one thing: it has "little or no effect upon the mind itself.... But education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connection with religion and virtue." For Newman a proper education forms "a habit of mind" that "lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom," all of which add up to what he called "the philosophical habit."

Knowledge is to be sought for its own sake, irrespective of immediate and material gain. Any other attitude to knowledge betrays the servile mind. All inquiry springs from the curious and rationally formed sensibility. "The principle of real dignity in knowledge, its worth ... is this germ within it of a scientific or a philosophical process. This is how it comes to be an end in itself; this is why it admits of being called liberal." By this kind of knowledge we come to know "the relative disposition of things." "Such is the constitution of the human mind that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward." For only "liberal knowledge ... stands on its own pretensions, is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed ... by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation." Liberal education is "simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence."

The bar is high, but we can reach it — with straining effort. Here is a definition as fine as we are likely to find, in this or in any other life.

* * *

Forming intellectual virtue is not the only task that liberal education has sought to perform. Along with imparting knowledge and inculcating the ways of sound thinking, it has also tried to transmit culture — in both senses of the word. This task often gets neglected now, unless its object be to raise the self-esteem of a particular minority, and then of course the emphasis lies no longer on a common culture, but on discrete, separate ones. Furthermore, we have over time quietly adopted a truncated, utilitarian notion of education as serving solely to help students get ahead, so inured have we become to public demands to teach "Skills for Tomorrow," as though education has never done anything else.


Excerpted from Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons. Copyright © 2002 ISI Books. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Richard Brookhiser
Tracy Simmons has written an earnest, poignant, but ultimately hopeful book, regretting what we have lost by abandoning classical education, but also describing what we might gain, for ourselves and for our children, by taking up that arduous, bracing path.
— author of The Adamses: America's First Dynasty, 1735-1918.
Victor Davis Hanson
Tracy Simmons, a journalist and humanist, makes a compelling case for the relevance of the study of classics in interesting and untraditional arguments often unknown even by classicists. We who teach Latin and Greek, more so now than ever, need to be reminded by unforseen allies and important books like this why the classical worlds must not be forgotten-and why in so many unexpected ways they are relevant to thousands outside the university.
— author of The Other Greeks, and co-author of Who Killed Homer?

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