I want to share some thoughts about classical education, the idea of a classical education, its origins, and why this type of education seems to deliver the sort of rigor and mastery we wish our students to have.
This summer, I had the great privilege of traveling in Greece, part of the time privately and part of the time with some classics and archaeology faculty and students from a nearby university. I have wanted to visit Greece for as long as I can remember, so this trip was a dream come true the moment I stepped on the plane to head for Europe, and the moment I was in Greece, it was even more beautiful, more inspiring, and more magical than I had ever dreamed of.
(Upcoming blogs will discuss different aspects of the classical, Byzantine, and yes!! Ottoman heritage of Greek history. In this blog I want to hone in on one particular event, my visit to the Acropolis in Athens.)
Now, the Acropolis is truly in the center of Athens, from this rock you can see all of Athens sprawling in all directions. Athens seemingly goes on forever with its white apartment buildings with wrap around porches, excepting where you see the deep blue of the Saronian Gulf.
If you think about the Acropolis, and how long this rock has sat on that site, there are many perspectives to take. Geologically speaking the 2,500 years since Socrates sat on this rock are virtually nothing. If you think historically 2,500 years is a long time and much has changed. The Greeks have dominated this area during the golden years of Athens with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Shortly thereafter, Philip II ‘invaded’. His son Alexander the Great succeeded him, and Greek life and Greek politics dominated most of the known ancient world. Move a few centuries down and we have the Roman Republic, and later the Roman empire. Romans were much inspired by the Greeks, so much, in fact, that Greek was a language spoken during the times of Christ. So much, in fact, that the New Testament was written in Greek.
Scroll past the Romans into early Medieval times, and Greece has some of the first and earliest churches of Christendom. Greece has a long strong Christian and in particular Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine Christian tradition, up until the time of the fall of the eastern Roman empire to the Ottomans in 1453. I will say little about the Ottoman rule in Greece, other than it lasted till the Greek War of Independence in 1821.
Now, you are wondering, why is she delving into Greek history and what do her pictures and her focus on the Acropolis have to do with the initial topic of a classical education?
Well, if you think about this history, you have the Acropolis going through multiple eras, classical times, Byzantine times, Ottoman times, and modern times. (And that is a most truncated view of Greek history, which has entirely ignored both the Bronze age and also Archaic Greece).
But — if you ascend the steps up to the Acropolis, what do you see? Antiquity — indeed, antiquity and nothing else. This antiquity does include Roman times, a bit, but not beyond that.
And then note this model of the Acropolis which is supposed to represent the Acropolis as it looked after the Ottomans took over the eastern Roman empire:
But what we see today when visiting the Acropolis are the ruins and to some extent the restoration of the buildings that were erected on the Acropolis during antiquity. Why?
Basically, after Greek independence, the Greek people decided to honor the part of their heritage that has to do with Antiquity, and so they razed the Acropolis down to bedrock, removed all traces of Ottoman occupation (and also most traces of Byzantine influence) to hone in on the classical Greek Golden years of Athens, a relatively narrow window of the over 3,000 years of Greek recorded history.
Alright, let’s connect this with classical education. We do much of the same when we go back in time to classical Greece and study and honor the words of Plato, Isocrates, Aristophanes, and Aeschylus, just to name a few of our favorite writers from Greek antiquity. And we do so, because they had a flourishing civilization full of literature, law, philosophy, political science, music, art, and a thriving population that contributed so much to our culture and heritage today. There is nothing wrong with doing this. I am all for a rigorous education that teaches students mastery of language arts and mathematics, but we must do so with our eyes open — wide open.
When we skip over the Byzantine years as well as over the Ottoman years, we must be aware, not only that they existed, but also what they contributed to Greece (or in my concrete example, what they contributed to the Acropolis). There is no ‘going back’, there is really only our best guess and interpretation of that the Acropolis most likely looked like in ancient times. Yes, we have ample evidence, and we are able to make good reconstructions, but it is one thing to reconstruct that which we can see in stone and marble, it is quite another thing to aim to reconstruct based on extant texts, the education of young Greek boys 2,500 years ago.
We CAN to a large extent replicate (as we do in the Classical Writing series) the writing education of millenia ago, and we can teach students to write well by teaching them in a logical fashion step-by-step to write like the ancients used to write. This brings about mastery of grammar, words, sentence structure, essay structure, tone, and voice. However, we do not live 2,500 years ago, so in addition, we need to bring ourselves up to date and also teach our students a few additional writing needs of the twenty-first century, that of data acquisition, data analysis, foot notes, annotated bibliographies, references, and all the material that go along with modern writing needs — the sorts of skills that students need to have to be excellent writers in college.
Antiquity was a noble and high-minded era, in many respects. It educated the children of the elites of society. The aim of this classical education was to produce future leaders for the Greeks, leaders who were men (yes, only men!) of virtue, integrity in addition to being leaders who were well informed and well educated.
We can imitate much of that education and bless our students with similar rigor in learning, afford them opportunities to ponder questions of ethics and piety, as well as facilitate their being well informed. And we should. But when it is all done, and we have given them as much of a classical education as we comprehend, as much of antiquity as we understand (a little bit of) and are aware of, we not only need to bring them into the present and onto the future, we also need to go back and note that which some attempt to erase — the fact that there were also Byzantine churches on the Acropolis and that for about 1000 years, that Byzantine culture ruled in Greece and influenced people. And that for another almost 400 years (much as the Greeks prefer to forget this) the Ottomans ruled, and they too had an influence, some of it good, and some of it, perhaps, not so good.
We cannot simply ‘return’ to antiquity and duplicate their educational system. Not even when we have the extant writings from antiquity. For one thing, it is the Byzantines and the Ottomans who have filtered the classical Greek education down to us. The documents we have that are extant and available for our scrutiny are the ones that the Byzantines and the Ottomans CHOSE to copy on and pass on to us. In short, we have THEIR VERSION of what was worth preserving from antiquity — and we may be missing much. So while it is this we want most of all: