A classical education

A graduate of the very demanding Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, Stanley Fish reviews three books that call for a return to teaching classics and the humanities.

Leigh Bortin, a homeschooling advocate, author of  The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, calls for using “classical skills to study classical content.”

By classical skills she means imitation, memorization, drill, recitation and above all grammar, not grammar as the study of the formal structure of sentences (although that is part of it), but grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything: “Every occupation, field of study or concept has a vocabulary that the student must acquire like a foreign language . . . . A basketball player practicing the fundamentals could be considered a grammarian . . . as he repeatedly drills the basic skills, of passing dribbling, and shooting.” . . .

“Classical content” identifies just what the subjects to be classically studied are. They are the subjects informed and structured by “the ideas that make us human” — math, science, language, history, economics and literature, each of which, Bortins insists, can be mastered by the rigorous application of the skills of the classical Trivium, grammar, the study of basic forms, logic, the skill of abstracting from particulars and rhetoric, the ability to “speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic while integrating allusions and examples from one field of study to explain a point in another.”

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher, classicist, ethicist and law professor, attacks the stress on applied skills and the denigration of the humanities as “useless frills.”

Finally, there’s Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

 Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Bortins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.”

In short, get knowledgeable and well-trained teachers, equip them with a carefully calibrated curriculum and a syllabus filled with challenging texts and materials, and put them in a room with students who are told where they are going and how they are going to get there.

A classical education worked for Fish. Would it work for all students?

In a similar vein, David Brooks urges college students to study liberal arts so they can “befriend The Big Shaggy” (the id?).

Humanities professors are worried about their place in the university:  When only the accountanting majors and the engineers are getting job offers, whither queer theory?

About Joanne


  1. Sadly, this would require teachers who were themselves classically trained and there is no large pool of these to draw from.

  2. dangermom says:

    If I was in charge of education in the US, I would aim for classical education for all students; I do think that it is the best basic education for the most people. Classical education has 3 core goals for students:

    the ability to learn whatever is desired,
    the ability to think clearly (‘critically’) about what is learned, and
    the ability to express those thoughts fluently.

    Additionally, you want a lot of history so as to be able to understand the world we live in now and (one hopes) to learn from our previous mistakes. Those goals seem to me to be excellent for every citizen, whether you end up a plumber, an artist, a businessperson, or a professor.

    Classical education can be science-heavy; there is no reason not to have a strong science component to it, just the opposite. Latin is included not just because it’s traditional, but because it forms the basis for so many modern languages–even if you only take a year or two of Latin, it’s transferable to all the Romance languages and useful in English, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. There isn’t a requirement that all classical students become fluent in Latin (I consider Greek to be more of an elective–wonderful, but not necessary to the core mission of classical education).

    So IMO classical education, tweaked to fit the individual student, is appropriate to most children. It’s not just for the intellectual elite by any means–instead, I think it should be the basic education for all Americans if we want an egalitarian society.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    Let’s train the teachers and do this…works for me…

  4. Thanks for this. A great topic. It gives me a lot to read and think about.

  5. Dangermom: I agree with you totally, but it takes many years to train a teacher for the curriculum. I don’t see where the teachers would come from. I don’t even see where the teachers for the teachers would come from. Lots of colleges that have Classics departments don’t even teach Greek any more.

  6. Oh, it isn’t that hard to learn Greek — it’s offered at plenty of universities (I studied it at three). I can’t teach it, however, because I’m not Highly Qualified in that area, and it would ding our AYP.

    On the other hand, I am Highly Qualified to teach literature and rhetoric. Which reminds me that I don’t follow Joanne’s reasoning/logic with the last paragraph and the “queer theory” quip — perhaps arguing against Fish? Not sure on this one. I’d circle it and ask how it is connected to the original point about classical education.

  7. Lightly Seasoned,

    The last quip about “queer theory” is just red meat that Joanne likes to throw out to her base… I read the blog about 3-4 times a week, and the vast majority of her posts are on point and enlightening… but for some inexplicable reason, she feels a need to suck up to the rabid right-wing… maybe to keep the controversy alive in the comments.

  8. Jab, Ms Jacobs is a hard working, clear thinking journalist and I agree that she’s on point and enlightening. I have a great deal of respect for her. But yes, she isn’t perfect. There’s that right wing thing of hers that rears it’s head from time to time. But I look upon it as tick rather than a flaw. Maybe somebody hit her with a rolled up New Republic when she was a child. I don’t know. But yes, it’s there. Fortunately, it doesn’t get in the way.

  9. The final link goes to a Chronicle of Education column by James Mulholland who mentions queer theory as a possible interest of students in “oh-so-sensible majors.”

  10. Homeschooling Granny says:

    What makes a good teacher? Many who post here are assuming that a teacher must be very knowledgeable about the subject and while I agree that is usually true, it isn’t always true. There are times when a teacher’s ignorance can be an advantage.

    One of our goals has to be to teach young people how to learn so that ultimately they can become autodidacts, teaching themselves. When the adult doesn’t know something and is willing to acknowledge the ignorance, the adult can model how one goes about learning. When my granddaughter asks me something I don’t know, we look it up together. Often online but occasionally I use the dictionary or other book. Or we ask someone else. I model for her how to find information.

    I became aware of how I am modeling learning for her through our Tagalog lessons. She is from the Philippines and I am ‘teaching’ her Tagalog. But I don’t know Tagalog. We have Rosetta Stone and you might say we are studying in parallel. Sometimes I help her; sometimes she helps me. One evening I heard her express her frustration with the program exactly the same way that I had earlier and I could see how she is following my example.

    We are using Core Knowledge materials as our curriculum guide, reading it together. I expect that as she matures, she will take over and direct her own studies. She, like all kids, wants to be her best and strongest self. She doesn’t need to be forced to do that.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    The ref to “queer theory” seems to take into account that time and tuition money are not infinite.
    Nor is the opportunity to earn a good living in the field of one’s choice.
    The time spent studying queer theory is time and tuition money not spent on either the classics as described in the post, or the fields that will increase the job opportunities upon graduation.
    If anybody knows where majors in queer theory can get jobs whose primary qualification is a solid background in queer theory, majors in queer theory would love to hear about it.
    Having said all this, it is likely that students, thinking about stuff like being able to afford to live indoors and eat food not acquired through dumpster-diving might choose not to take courses in queer theory, so as to have the resources, time and money, to take those more likely to qualify them for…are you ready for this? jobs.
    If the class load for professors professing queer theory disappears, so do their jobs.
    Not, Robert, a right-wing issue at all.
    Not, Robert, that you actually needed this instruction. I just wanted you to know that everybody knows better.
    Visualize transparency.

  12. dangermom says:

    Rob, I see your point, but I don’t think it has to be as difficult as you make out. Classical charter schools are becoming fairly popular–five have opened in the Twin Cities area in the last several years, for example–and it’s not as though every teacher would need to be fluent in Latin and Greek.

    Much of classical education is just a philosophy that any good teacher could implement. The early years just concentrate on reading (with lots of good classic stories), basic math, and fun with history and science. Oh, plus a certain amount of memorization! Anyone could master the tiny amount of Latin that is appropriate to teach to a 3rd-grader.

    In the middle years, you could have dedicated Latin (and maybe Greek) teachers, but otherwise it would just be developing embryonic critical thinking, beginning to write seriously and analyze the history and science–again, something any good teacher could do. Think of all the Classics majors we could employ as Greek teachers! 😀

    I didn’t have a classical education, far from it, but I am trying to give one to my own children. I have lots of help in the form of books and fellow parents online. I manage to keep ahead of my 9yo in Latin and Greek–everything else is just a matter of knowing what my philosophy and goals are, and educating myself to get there. Which is entirely classical. 🙂

  13. SuperSub says:

    Ultimately, a classical education relies on a few fundamentals that can easily be employed by any capable teacher whether they know Latin or not.
    First, mental discipline and the ability to focus.
    Second, the idea that a structured approach to learning is universal and can be employed with any student.
    Thirdly, that the ultimate basis to any learning in any subject is language, so a broad and deep base in language assists in the learning of any subject.

    Once you break in students according to the above fundamentals, any content can be mastered no matter what it is.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kriley19, Joanne Jacobs. Joanne Jacobs said: New blog post: A classical education http://bit.ly/9vs7pf […]

  2. […] more discussion at Flypaper, Eduwonk and Joanne Jacobs. Interesting comments on Brooks here. Categorized under: Democracy, Education, Higher Ed. Tagged […]