No, A Classical Education Is Not Impossible To Revive In America’s Degenerate Society

No, A Classical Education Is Not Impossible To Revive In America’s Degenerate Society

The education luminary David Hicks has written that a classical education is impossible because American society is too far gone. That view smacks of despair—which, bluntly, is a sin.
Josh Herring
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Several months ago, a colleague handed me David Hicks’ classic work of conservative pedagogy, “Norms and Nobility.” First published in 1981, Hicks’ book argues that the ancient Greeks embedded in their literature and history the goal of forming (through paideia, education) young men into an Ideal Type. From that premise, Hicks constructs a specific argument about the value of a Great Books-centered education and how that approach summons the student to develop his heart and soul into pursuing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

I appreciated Hicks’ analysis, in part because he brought out some excellent observations about ancient literature. Yet I find flawed the presupposition that education should lead a student to fit into an Ideal Type. I also doubt that the Greeks, who for all their universal humane vision struggled with basic ethical categories, unveiled the Ideal Type of humanity.

This last school year, Hicks wrote an essay, “Is Classical Education Still Possible?” To my shock, he answered no. Hicks denied the possibility (not the practice, but the very possibility) of conducting truly classical education in twenty-first-century America. Here I respond to and propose a definition of classical education that provides hope in place of Hicks’s pedagogical despair.

Classical Ed Is Not Strong Enough Medicine for Our Disease

Hicks’ tone is one of dismay. Reflecting on his 50 years in education, he writes, “It’s hard to make this backward glance without cynicism or to look ahead without despair.” Hicks sees educators divided into two groups: “those who believe that in technology, brain-research, mega-data, or some research-based breakthrough we will discover new tools and approaches that will revolutionize the way we learn and teach, and those who believe that recovering the ‘lost tools of learning’ will spark another Renaissance and turn those trend lines around.” Hicks then distinguishes those who attempt to follow some sort of classical method within the second group.

Classical education lacks a clear definition, in Hicks’ view. “The term ‘classical education’ does not so much describe a specific and well understood approach to learning and teaching as something that feels good and appeals to this second group of reformers and to those, mostly parents, who no longer trust the first group and are looking around for alternatives to their failing local school systems.” Rather than a diverse, contemporary educational movement like that described by Andrew Kern and Gene Veith in “Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America,” Hicks posits classical education as a feel-good movement comprised of those dissatisfied with public education offerings.

He goes on to claim that classical education as practiced in ancient Greece and during the Renaissance occurred under the “roof supported by” four pillars that do not exist in the present. In the absence of these four pillars, Hicks contends, true classical education (which he has not defined) remains impossible. The four pillars are the following:

  1. A recognition of man as a dual creature, existing in both physical and spiritual realities.
  2. Study of nature should convey how man can exist in accordance with nature.
  3. Science, and life in general, should be conducted in accordance with the Aristotelian doctrine of telos.
  4. Classical education should convey the norms of a culture.

Hicks argues that the present culture of America negates each of these four pillars. We think of ourselves as purely material beings; science leads not to peaceful existence with nature but manipulation for power (scientia potentia est); telos does not exist, since we no longer recognize the existence of universals; and culture now consists of essentially un-norming activity rather transference of moral truths.

Hicks concludes with a reassurance that education is not supposed to satisfy ultimate questions; for that comfort, parents should fulfill their Christian duty to raise “our children in the fear of God and educate them to treat the natural world with utmost respect, to live in pursuit of the ends for which all men and women were created, and to order their lives in accordance with biblical norms.”

Educationally, however, Hicks concludes his essay with more despair: “The pillars are toppled and the ground sown with salt, as thoroughly as Rome destroyed Carthage. This requires us to make a sober estimation of the challenge we face. How are we to meet this hostile challenge in an increasingly invasive, relentless, and hostile environment?”

With that question, Hicks concludes his essay. He sets the reader up to long for an answer, and his analysis is clear, yet he leaves his audience without resolution. Further, Hicks’ argument suffers from three fatal flaws.

Let’s Start with the Premises

This year my administrator asked me to teach tenth-grade logic. This is a new course for me, and it has helped sharpen my thinking. One of the principles I have taught looks at the relationship between premises and conclusions: if the premises are true, then the conclusions are also. The place to attack an argument, then, is not a conclusion but a premise.

I disagree with Hicks’ conclusions, because I find his premises untrue. First, he claims that classical education lacks definition. He does not define it, but claims classical education “describes…something that feels good” to a specific group of dissatisfied people.

In contrast, classical education is a definable movement. Classical education describes a pedagogy (approach to teaching) committed to engaging students and teachers in pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty through education. In more specific terms, classical education studies the best of what has been thought, said, written, and done across the totality of known human existence.

Within that umbrella definition, classical education can take a variety of forms. Catholic classical education looks distinct from classical homeschooling, both of which are distinct from the Thales model of education at the school where I teach. What holds these various approaches together is not a rigid adherence to a specific model, but a commitment to pass on the best of the past to the present generation.

The Greek Ideal Type Is Not Enduring

The second flaw in Hicks’ proposal is his assumption that an “Ideal Type” exists and should be cultivated. My studies in Greek literature have not revealed to me a moral ideal; instead, Greek literature and history show a variety of ways humans have lived and sinned.

Whether we consider the various conjugal arrangements the gods contrive in Hesiod’s “Theogony,” the probable homosexual friendship between Patroclus and Achilles, Achilles’ uncaring rage that causes the death of thousands, Odysseus’s habitual deceit, the harsh realities Sophocles outlines, Orestes’ justified matricide in “The Furies,” or the celebration of the Bacchants’ mad freedom, no Ideal Type emerges. Certainly there are moments of moral decisions commendable to my students. Thermopylae, Horatio, Julius Caesar, and countless others exemplify a healthy love of home that bold men stand and defend. But these are not some “Ideal Type” paideia formed.

Instead, I turn to the biblical doctrine of the imago dei to shape my pedagogy. Each student bears the divine image stamped into him body and soul. In each, that image is born out differently. Marion Montgomery argues in “The Truth of Things: Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality” that rather than trying to force students into a mold, the liberal teacher calls them to excellence according to their giftedness.

Montgomery illustrates how teachers can affirm all students: if all students are made in the divine image, and that image looks different in each student, then the instructor can rejoice as each student rises to his level of potential. This vision stands opposed to one condemning students for failing to reach the Ideal Type. Grounding pedagogy in the imago dei is both more biblical and realistic than imagining an Ideal Type emerging out of Greek literature.

Education Is Not and Can Never Be Salvation

The third assumption Hicks makes is a longstanding one: he assumes that education is inextricably connected to Christianity. Writing for an audience heavily invested in the classical Christian education movement, Hicks assumes that the rightly educated child will perceive the truth in Christianity and therefore become a practicing Christian.

Hicks assumes that the rightly educated child will perceive the truth in Christianity and therefore become a practicing Christian.

Education can produce many benefits, but entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is not one of them. Christianity and education have been partners for at least 1,900 years. The church has always been interested in catechesis and discipleship, and the monastic movement is the soil from which the universities sprung. Here too a logical principle comes into play: let us not confuse correlation with causation.

Christianity assumes that the unregenerate soul is not capable of loving God, hence the necessity of redemption. Apart from a saving encounter with Jesus Christ, the student is unable to truly “love that which merits love” and “hate that which merits hate.” To place this burden solely on education robs the student of the good education can do. The spiritual formation of Christian education is a particular good that traditional theology recognizes will only ever be achieved by the few who are called to faith and enabled to believe by the Holy Spirit; this limited good misses the universal good of education which is accessible by all human beings.

Education is related to students, body and soul. It calls them to consider the great ideas that have motivated human action. Education puts before students models of possibility. It should cultivate in the student a desire for truth, goodness, and beauty, while (for Christian educators) recognizing that ultimately such desires will only be satisfied in God.

Education can lift the soul to consider higher things than the eye can see; it can prepare humans to equip themselves for unknown adventures and possibilities; it can arm the body and mind for combat. By linking classical education to the salvific work of Christ, Hicks misses the good education can achieve and aims instead for unrealistic good. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “Perelandra,” we ought to enjoy the wave sent, because desiring a different good is both ungrateful and costs us the good we have.

Classical Education Does Exist Still

Classical education exists, and thousands of families are finding that it fits their desires and contexts. Classical education could employ other adjectives modifying education: western civilization, liberal arts, humane. Classical seems to have stuck, and it connotes an attitude towards education. There are real things worth learning, and classical education seeks to expose students to the true, the good, and the beautiful in the world.

Hicks’ despair over contemporary America results in a misleading despair over the future of classical education.

It draws on myriad traditions: Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, Western, Eastern, poetic, scientific, mathematical, linguistic. It has a loose canon of literary, historical, and philosophical texts, but is flexible enough to adjust. The goal, I think, of a classical education is not to form the student into an arbitrary Ideal Type, nor to make the student in a moralistic theist. Instead, classical education at its best teaches student that we live in a beautiful, fallen world where truth is hidden and must be distinguished from lies; here in this world the good life is possible, and using the tools of education all students can achieve it.

Hicks is a towering name in conservative education circles. His work has been influential in shaping the classical education resurgence over the past four decades. He continues to be a significant figure shaping the educational discussion. In this article, however, his despair over contemporary America results in a misleading despair over the future of classical education. Education cannot solve all societal ills, but classical education does uphold the existence of truth, goodness, and beauty. And it exists.

Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.

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