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?

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