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Clueless Classical Ed Critics Accidentally Make A Killer Case For It

If you think classical education is racist, tell that to W.E.B. Du Bois.


With one small hiatus, I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years involved in classical education. My own children have received a classical education, and being intimately familiar with the classical model, I’m a big believer in this particular approach to learning.

So when I noticed a popular thread on what is (unfortunately) the internet’s most influential website, purporting to demystify the growing interest in classical ed, it naturally caught my attention. With the failures of public education becoming more evident daily, the interest in classical ed has suddenly become intense. Obviously, I was curious about what people were saying.

But upon reading the thoughts of Michael Harriot — a columnist for The Grio, guest on MSNBC programs, “board-certified wypipologist” and for our purposes “guy with 500,000 Twitter followers” — I was so dumbstruck all I could think of was Adam Sandler’s 1995 classic film, “Billy Madison,” which, underneath its farcical façade, is appropriately enough a clarion call for the necessity of quality education:

At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Dead White Guys Bad

If you suspect I’m being too harsh, I’m happy to have you read the thread and come to your own conclusions. Regardless, let’s taste test this hellbroth of fallacies, ignorance, and ill-defined accusations of racism, shall we?

To the extent I can pull a premise out of Harriot’s mess, it seems to be that classical education “doesn’t measure a student’s ability to learn or teach them TO LEARN. It teaches students to learn LIKE WHITE PEOPLE LEARN who have already been deemed smart because they know white things.”

While obviously there are cultural differences that can affect one’s learning environment, I, along with the vast majority of normal people, don’t happen to believe that basic knowledge and how you go about learning it is relative to one’s skin color. Yet educrats everywhere increasingly believe what Harriot is saying. For instance, a proposed California mathematics curriculum declares that focusing on students “getting the right answer,” asking students to “show their work,” and grading them based on their ability to do problems correctly is “white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom.”

Of course, it’s even worse in subjects that aren’t as literal as math. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Rutgers’ English department announced it would be rejecting traditional grammar instruction in favor of “critical grammar,” yet another absurd academic idea to grow out of the Marxist “critical theory” hydra.

“This approach challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard ‘academic’ English backgrounds at a disadvantage,” said an email written by Rutgers English department chair Rebecca Walkowitz. “Instead, it encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them [with] regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on ‘written’ accents.”

To the extent we do have to introduce race into any of these debates, read that email again and ask yourself: Is there anything that is more a product of “white culture” run amok than this obtuse academese? If Walkowitz were forced to explain what she was doing here with any actual directness and clarity it would be even more obviously patronizing and stupid than it already is.

But I’m not honestly sure Harriot himself understands the value of written communication, period. See, classical education is bad because it requires different people to learn the same skills. To prove his point he tells the story of his cousin who apparently had perfect pitch and could play all kinds of music by ear. But when he made it to junior high, he couldn’t get into the band because he couldn’t read music:

His problem was not that he couldn’t read music… It was that he couldn’t learn the method of translating sounds (notes, treble clefs, etc) that was created for PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW HOW TO do what he does. I’d argue that playing music by ear is ACTUALLY READING MUSIC

While musicians who can’t read music may thrive in certain contexts, there are many, many reasons that are as specific as they are obvious why reading music would be a prerequisite for getting 30 kids in a school band to play together. Regardless, follow the logic here: If it’s better to play by ear than to read music, then it’s better to be illiterate for speech, too. Written communication is just for people who don’t know how to talk and memorize speeches. People who talk and don’t write are ACTUALLY writing.

Anyway, being asked to demonstrate objective facts and learn shared rules of language to promote mutual understanding was universally understood to be an essential part of all forms of education until about 15 minutes ago. Claiming this feature is unique to classical education, let alone that this is “racism,” is equal parts dishonest and insulting.

So then, what exactly does Harriot think classical education is? Harriot claims he had a “classical education,” but that appears to just be shorthand for the fact that “my mom was big on the classics,” whatever that means. He knows enough to namecheck Dorothy Sayers, who wrote the essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which was very influential in the classical ed movement. He also briefly mentions the Socratic method and posts a graphic illustrating the Trivium, but he doesn’t go into specifics of any of this.

Granted, he’s doing all of this on Twitter so perhaps he can be forgiven for not getting granular. Except that what he does settle on as defining classical ed is little more than something, something, dead white guys bad:

But there’s a bigger reason why Classical Education is a sham … ALL THOSE PEOPLE ARE DUMB. All those philosophers from Greece and Rome … were wrong. They thought the sun revolved around the earth. They thought the moon was a star. They didn’t know things.

If you suspect Harriot is the one who doesn’t know things, well, come collect your prize. Let me introduce you to Aristarchus of Samos, “an ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician who presented the first known heliocentric model that placed the Sun at the center of the known universe, with the Earth revolving around the Sun once a year and rotating about its axis once a day.” Aristarchus wasn’t the only Greek to say this, either. According to Plutarch, another Greek astronomer, Seleucus of Seleucia, demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun a century later than Aristarchus, though no record of his proof survives.

Aristarchus also made key discoveries about the size of the moon and the sun, as well as how far away they were from the earth. Copernicus and Tycho Brahe made major discoveries about astronomy utilizing Aristarchus’ work because they weren’t arrogant enough to decide he “didn’t know things” merely because he lived 1,800 years before they did. I mean, can you believe this rube couldn’t prove his theories about stellar parallax just because telescopes hadn’t been invented yet?

But let’s acknowledge that ancient Greek civilization had a very limited understanding of a great many things compared to what we possess today. It would still be the height of hubris to conclude that, as a result, their actual intelligence was limited compared to ours. The fact I can go buy a scientific calculator that can do calculus with the push of a button does not mean I am a better mathematician than Aristarchus.

In any event, I’m also somewhat uncertain about why Harriot makes this claim about the ancient Greeks being “dumb,” because later on he says they only were smart because they got all their ideas from Africa: “Now here’s the thing about Classical Education. When they talk about the Greeks and the Romans, they’re talking about people who GOT THEIR EDUCATION FROM BLACK PEOPLE. And I know y’all like to think that Egyptians weren’t Black.”

Suffice to say, yes, ancient Egyptian culture obviously influenced ancient Greece. While ancient Egyptian civilization had black people, it was by no means racially homogenous. And it’s ridiculous to say that the Greeks, from Aristophanes to Aristotle to Aristarchus, don’t deserve a whole lot of credit for their own achievements. Then again, Harriot says some Greek guy named “Herodetous” may have been racist so, what do I know?

‘Laid Before the Freedmen’s Sons’

At this point, I’m probably putting more effort into making sense of these ramblings on classical education than they deserve. But it’s really striking how much his critique of education is really at heart a plea to use education as political programming, whether Harriot understands this or not:

Education evolves. But if your foundation, like Classical Education, is built on ingesting and regurgitating sh-t smart people say, it becomes HARDER to progress as a society. Unless, of course, progress is not your goal. If your goal is to ensure that white people are smart, then Classical Education works great.

I’m not exactly sure what this garbled tautology is trying to say, except to say that American education has been very deliberately “progressive” for around a century, and for at least the last 50 years education standards in this country have been steadily and alarmingly declining, even as we spend more and more money on education. It’s not as if any honest person can claim the problem is that our curricula are too rigid and conservative, or that our schools aren’t stocked with people who are determined to impart these progressive ideals on children.

If anything, there’s a disturbing Year Zero zealotry at work here — or perhaps Year One, if going all the way back to the 18th century isn’t too “classical” — that seems to believe progress can only occur ex nihilo, after erasing what happened in the past. (Forgive the lapse into Latin there. I’ll try to do better.)

“Without a Classic education, you might start music that evokes MORE EMOTION than the Beethoven with words that Shakespeare didn’t and engineer an entirely different form of recording. Or you might invent a cotton gin or a light bulb or a whole genre that WHITE PEOPLE CAN’T DO,” Harriot writes.

Part of me wants to just say, “Forget it, he’s rolling.” Instead, I’ll just note that it doesn’t take away from Tupac’s reputation as a hip-hop trailblazer to note he wasn’t above quoting “MacBeth.” It’s ridiculous and tiresome to pretend that knowledge of the great thinkers of the past will do anything but spark the creativity of the future.

What’s odd about objecting to classical education through such a racialized lens is that it runs contrary to important historical education debates the black community has already had. Famously, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had a pretty illuminating and relevant debate. Washington argued for black people to focus on learning economically valuable trades and founded the Tuskegee Institute, and while Washington did amazing work providing educational opportunities for black Americans, Du Bois argued more was needed.

David Withun, author of “Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Classics and Cosmopolitanism in the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois,” notes Du Bois believed the intellectual, as well as economic, liberation of black Americans was dependent on access to history’s greatest minds.

“I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls,” Du Bois wrote. “From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”

And so Du Bois, the first black Harvard Ph.D., was a big proponent of classical education and urged that black kids read everything from Cicero to Dante.

“Nothing new, no-time saving devices — simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good living,” is how Du Bois described what he was teaching at Atlanta University. “The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is today laid before the freedmen’s sons at Atlanta University.” Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, black Americans have never received the kind of education Du Bois hoped for in any significant numbers.

There’s no doubt in my mind Du Bois and Harriot would agree that more than a century later, there’s still an urgent need to make sure black Americans get the best education possible and that what they’ve been getting has been terrible for quite some time. The difference is that, unlike Du Bois, I’m sad to report Harriot and nearly all of his fellow travelers have absolutely no concept of what a quality education even looks like.

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