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THE GRAMMAR OF OUR CIVILITY
Classical Education in America
By Lee T. Pearcy
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2005 Baylor University Press
All right reserved.
THE GRAMMAR OF OUR CIVILITY
I want to talk about what happens when language no longer describes things, when words slip their moorings in reality. I want to make the case for paying attention to a form of education that hardly anyone in American universities practices.
Here is what happened.
Coca-Cola. Aspirin. Yellow boxes of dynamite. Bulldozers. Nails. Cartons of Luckies. Two-way radios. Diesel fuel. Hand grenades. Eveready batteries. Iodine. Flour. Artillery shells.
The soldiers came suddenly, bringing all these things and more. The islanders watched airstrips unroll in the jungle, C-47's bumble down, more and more things move down the ramps. The white men's world and its war made no sense to the islanders. They knew only that the foreign soldiers called their wealth "cargo," and that when certain things were done, Cargo came.
Then the soldiers were gone.
The islanders tried to bring back the strangers and their wealth. They built landing strips in the jungle, control towers of logs lashed together, radios of twigs with dials made of stone and seashells. They performed the rites of summoning Cargo as they had seen the visitors perform them.
No Cargo came. The islanders were not discouraged. Cargo had come, once upon a time; there was no doubt of it. If it did not come now, the problem was with their performance of the rites or with their faith. They constructed, gradually, an elaborate system to make sense of every particular of what they were doing, including its internal contradictions. In this system they found consolation and meaning.
In modern American universities professors of Classics, the study of ancient Greece and Rome, continue to perform rites that once worked. They teach and study Greek and Latin literature, sift what evidence there is for the history of Greece and Rome, pore over manuscripts, and examine sherds. Few of them, once beyond the first steps in their profession, give much thought to why they do these things. They enjoy what they do, they are good at it, and there is a living to be made. If someone asks what good these activities do (a slightly different and harder question), the professors may hesitate, but sooner or later they answer, and their answers always contain the same theme. The professors appeal for validation of their activities to known and verifiable historical circumstances. Classics, they suggest, is an important subject and worth doing because it has nearly always been important and worth doing. From roughly the Renaissance to the First World War, Classics was at the center of a certain kind of European and American education. To be educated, to be civilized, to be a gentleman, meant to be acquainted with the languages, literature, and culture of ancient Greece and Rome.
The professors are right. Education in the vanished cultures of Greece and Rome once formed an intelligible system of theory, technique, and practice. The system was essential and was seen to be essential within the societies it served. It was a code, but the code made sense because it expressed a single, if manifold, purpose. In all societies where it dominated education in the Renaissance and after, Classics was designed to form the tastes, values, and attitudes of the governing class.
The great beings did appear with their Cargo, once upon a time not so long ago, when every schoolboy knew his Latin and some knew their Greek. But what classicists do now must seem to an external observer as absurd as trying to summon a C-47 full of chocolate bars with a radio made of palm fronds and seashells.
University teaching, in any subject, is full of absurdities. The researcher at the edge of knowledge must teach the undergraduate needing remedial work. Two faculty members in the same field may have hardly any point of intellectual contact, so that a man beavering away on "IG II236: The So-called Foundation Charter of the Corinthian League-a Heresy?" may have nothing whatever to discuss with a woman thinking hard on her next paper, "Grenouilles de Passage: Aristophanes' Liminal Frogs."
It is not, however, the contradictions shared with other fields that make Classics resemble an intellectual Cargo Cult. The contrast between how university teachers of Classics think about their field and how they present it in the classroom, or between one researcher's jargon and another's, does not account for the peculiar existential dilemma of Classics. That absurdity comes from the contrast between vanished Cargo and twigs and stones, between the sophistication, coherence, and directed purpose of traditional classical education and the naïve, fragmented, aimless parody that passes for Classics in most universities today.
Well-meaning people sometimes speak of education as a set of messages to be transmitted from teacher to student. When a student can recall or repeat the message, when the student knows who wrote Don Quixote or what were the three principal causes of the Vietnam War, education has taken place. Multiple-choice tests can measure the transmission, and numbers can express its efficiency.
If the analogy with transmitting a message contributes to an accurate description of education, then we have no choice but to conclude that many of the best and most creative minds have been those for whom education has failed. They persist, and we hope they persist, in getting the messages wrong. Einstein, a story goes, refused to memorize his telephone number or any other fact that he could look up. The tale may be apocryphal. It is suspiciously close to the cliché of the absentminded professor and to the late Romantic notion that the creative mind is unfettered by trivialities. Sherlock Holmes, readers of the Canon will recall, refused to clutter his mind with irrelevant facts like the Copernican system. Einstein, absent-minded professor, and fictional consulting detective embody a widely held conviction: the best minds are those for whom any message they have received from education is far less important than the new meanings into which they transform what they have learned. Even for the person who is not an Einstein, or a professor at all, education works best when it equips him to create new messages for new contexts.
A better analogy comes to mind. Education is not a message but the grammar of a language called culture. This grammar is not transmitted; it is acquired. Whoever acquires it is free from the limitations imposed by the facts he has learned. Just as someone who knows a language can generate sentences that he has never been taught, so someone who has been educated can generate new ideas, new interpretations of old facts, new statements about reality. The great, creative intellects are those for whom education as grammar has not failed. They are those who have mastered the language which that grammar describes and makes possible.
Everyone who has learned to speak another language has had the joyous experience of moving from simple parroting of phrases in context to creating sentences in contexts, from uttering the noise that means "Good morning" to being able to say whether it is or might be a good or bad morning, a good morning or a good car. Grammar is the code that enables us to make that move and others of greater complexity. By coming to an explicit or intuitive understanding of a language's grammar, we become able to apply the facts of language to reality. We may learn a new way of thinking-or even of dreaming.
Education also, to the extent that it resembles acquiring a language rather than using a phrase book, depends on a grammar of culture. Sometimes (more often than not, nowadays) the grammars in education are implicit and unexpressed, and those who use them are unaware that they exist. But many people speak a language well without any explicit awareness of the code that enables them to do so. Sometimes education is more or less explicitly grammatical, although the grammars may be a very poor description of the cultures of teachers and learners. And sometimes societies manage to create a form of education that encodes the babble of culture into a system that rationalizes and explains the culture's contradictions and makes possible the orderly, sensible creation of new forms and statements within that culture. Such a grammar makes it easier to educate and easier to acquire an education.
Between the Renaissance and the First World War the governing classes in Britain and America came to the richness of Western high culture through an artificial structure whose purposes were to explain that civilization and ease the way to its complexities and hard truths, and to encode values and attitudes that tempered and strengthened the collective self-awareness of those classes. That artificial structure or enabling code, that grammar of civility, was classical education.
The analogy between education in a culture and the grammar of a language is profound and fertile. It makes it possible to be more precise about the sense in which the activities of university teachers of Classics resemble the Cargo Cult of Pacific Islanders. Those innocent, insular people failed to notice that the success of certain activities in their culture during a certain period in history depended on circumstances of which they had no inkling and causes over which they could have no control. They clung to what they could understand and continued as best they could the activities that had, under those special circumstances, brought success. They created a kind of false grammar, a system that made sense on its own terms but preserved only the external appearance of what had once been reality. They tried to make radios of twigs, shells, and feathers.
The natives of university departments of Classics have failed to notice the disappearance of the language whose grammar was their practice. The culture of the governing class that classical education once served has disappeared. The fact of a governing class, of course, has not, but the executives, bureaucrats, managers, and legislators of modern America share no single, coherent, humane culture. Decision makers often seem to lack any awareness that they form a governing class. Their failure to acknowledge what they are may be not so much duplicity as genuine ignorance. They are not seeking to conceal their working as an elite in democratic or nominally democratic societies; rather, they have simply never been educated to an awareness of their role. Those who might have helped them understand have forgotten that they once knew how to do so.
The professors have also forgotten why Classics was once important. In ignorance of their new circumstances, they have created a false grammar. Their practice of their profession makes sense on its own terms, but it is connected only weakly to the society and culture within which they act. Teaching Classics in a university appears increasingly to be a marginal activity or an irrelevant curiosity. Artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, cosmology, and other academic subjects that have the potential to make true and powerful statements about our culture are far removed from classical studies. The excitement is elsewhere. The great beings who once were here have moved on.
In creating their false grammar, the professors have had to create false paradigms. In the classical languages, traditional grammar creates paradigms, patterns according to which the forms of words can be generated. Generations of children learn to chant the declension of mensa or conjugate amo, amas, amat. Like the grammars of Greek and Latin, classical education can be seen as a series of paradigms. The description, and the analogy, can be made to go further. The lesser paradigms group themselves into systems, and two systems dominate the others. As classical ideas about grammar tend to organize language into words for things-nouns-and words for actions-verbs-so classical education has been organized around two fundamental ways of thinking about the aims and methods of education. One way of thinking emphasizes things, the objective, scholarly study of what survives from classical antiquity. For that mode of thinking about classical education I shall use a German term, Altertumswissenschaft. The term is not as cumbersome as it may seem. Why I have chosen to use it and what exactly it means will become clear shortly. The second way of thinking about classical education emphasizes not things but processes. It is concerned less with the remains of antiquity in themselves than with their effect on those in the present who are exposed to them. This second way of thinking about classical education had, from its origins, a familiar name: liberal arts education.
Together, liberal arts education and Altertumswissenschaft formed the grammar of classical education. Until early in this century, that grammar reflected a language in which meaningful statements could be made: the culture and attitudes of the European and American governing classes. From, very roughly, the Renaissance until the First World War, classical education made sense because of the interaction in it of these two paradigmatic beliefs. During this period, any belief that was paradigmatic for classical education was also paradigmatic for Western high culture. Amid the ruins of that culture, its broken phrases and fragments of utterance are admired and only half understood by the new Goths and Vandals, the managers and professional persons, encamped among them. Now let us rehearse the true paradigms. Then let us examine those quaint people, the professors of Classics, and the false paradigms they have created to make sense of their new world and their new masters.
The first true paradigm is liberal arts education.
Commencement speakers at liberal arts colleges are fond of invoking the medieval canon of the Seven Liberal Arts and the ancient idea of liberal arts as the skills appropriate to a free citizen. In doing so they are giving liberal arts education a pedigree longer than it deserves. Like so many other things, it began in the Renaissance and was given its full modern form only in the nineteenth century. If liberal arts education is to be traced to any single time and place, it is not to antiquity or the Middle Ages but to the Renaissance and to the career of humanists like Vittorino da Feltre.
In 1428 Vittorino came to Mantua at the invitation of Gianfresco Gonzaga, the local ruler, to educate the Gonzaga children. Vittorino's program sounds simple and familiar to anyone acquainted with early twentieth-century Andover, Exeter, or Saint Paul's. In the early fifteenth century, his educational practice was revolutionary. Vittorino's students were to board with him, and he was to look after their moral and spiritual education as well as their intellectual development. The curriculum consisted of roughly equal amounts of exercise and games, Christianity, and study of Greek and Latin Classics. Each student was to be treated as an individual, and the work tailored to his or her-Gianfresco had daughters-abilities. A few promising middle-class students were admitted and treated on exactly the same terms as the Gonzaga children and those of the other first families of Milan.
Vittorino did not intend his school to produce Latin secretaries, bureaucrats, or clergymen. His aim was Platonist and, as we would see it, elitist. He wanted to educate the guardians; that is, to take those who would in any case rule and those who might be admitted to the governing class and to form their minds and souls in such a way that they would be the best rulers. Vittorino's pupils studied Latin and Greek not because they would need them in their jobs-a prince, after all, does not have a job-but because classical languages, literature, history, and art provided the best paradigms for the thought and conduct of a governing class.
The subject we call Classics and the kind of education we call liberal arts began in the Renaissance and are the creation of men like Vittorino da Feltre. From their common beginning, in fact, Classics and liberal arts were indistinguishable. This classical or liberal education needs to be distinguished from the practical, vocational education in Latin, logic, and rhetoric offered in the medieval and later universities. People who complain about the modern university's emphasis on professional education would do well to remember that they cannot base their complaints on history. Universities were professional schools from their medieval beginning, designed, as a fifteenth-century Oxford document put it, for "encrese of clergy and konnyng men; to the goode governaunce and prosperitie of the Reme of Englond withoute end." The medieval universities taught Latin grammar and rhetoric, logic (by way of Aristotle in Latin translation), law, medicine, and theology, all practical and professional subjects. These subjects were taught in Latin and based on Aristotle, Pliny, Galen, and other ancient authors, but their Latin and antiquity do not make them classical. They lack the explicit dependence of Renaissance humanists on the ethical and moral power that they found in ancient Greece and Rome, and they lack the frank elitism of Classics, in the Renaissance and after. "The older system," one recent analysis states, "had fitted perfectly the needs of the Europe of the high middle ages, with its communes, its church offices open to the low-born of high talents and its vigorous debates on power and authority in state and church. The new system ... fitted the needs of the new Europe that was taking shape, with its closed governing elites, hereditary offices and strenuous efforts to close off debate on vital political and social issues."
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