Classical Education and “Optimism”

The world of classical education today lives within a curious dialectic. One major reason many embrace it is because they are deeply pessimistic about other kinds of education, even to the point, often, of believing other kinds to be lost causes. Yet having embraced classical education, many of the same people swing wildly over to boundless optimism about not just the enterprise of classical education as they are experiencing it, but about that enterprise’s prospects for the future. And having swung over to boundless optimism, they tend to be quite miffed when a less bouyant view comes around.

It’s understandable, of course, that gadflies and jeremiads tend to be looked on with disfavor. Part of this is just Americanitas – in the “land of the free, home of the brave,” which is, of course, “the greatest country on earth,” the ethos of exceptionalism is nearly a religion all its own, powerfully urging everyone to perpetually look on the bright side. People who come around dressed in shabby Socrates costumes and raining on the parade do seem rather pretentious. No one likes a party-pooper.

But there is often a theological aspect to the dialectic, too. In Christian circles, an appreciable percentage of advocacy of classical education coincides with acceptance of an eschatological triumphalism. On this view, since in and through Christ’s victory on the cross we are redemptively moving forward, aiming at the new creation, there’s little room for anything but exultant calls to laugh long, deep belly-laughs and sing and dance and feast and thank God for how splendidly we’re getting along rebuilding, in just a few short decades, the ruins of the ages.

The irony is pretty thick.

Consider that the classical education movement itself was born from Evangelical naysaying about the then-current educational situation. Had there been no annoying gadflies buzzing “Dorothy Sayers! The Trivium! The biblical worldview! Culture war! Fight! Win!” in the ears of practically anyone who would listen, the movement itself would never have gotten started. Sayers’ essay is quite pessimistic (!) about the prospects of her proposed reforms ever being implemented, and indeed, it took almost half a century for anyone of sufficient personal charisma to be able to launch a successful movement based on them.

Consider, more importantly, that many of the primary sources, both pagan and Christian, used in classical education, are far from optimistic about the situations and people they address. Whether Socrates’ frequent criticism of the masses (that’s you and me and all our friends!) as not only uneducated, but unwilling to expose themselves to true education, or Thucydides’ conviction that the evils of the Peloponnesian War function as patterns for all future human conflicts, or Aristotle’s belief that history proceeds serially through advance-fall-advance-fall, etc., or the severe difficulties with one’s own soul that Stoic ethical treatises reveal, or Augustine’s studied ambiguity about the prospects of all attempts, even Christian, to create a just social order, or the almost monotonously repetitive Medieval theme of radical contemptus mundi based on frequently repeated biblical demands to focus not on this-worldly success but on the eternal,it is very difficult to escape the overwhelmingly negativetenor of most of the primary sources used in classical education curricula.

But again, despite this essentially “dark” orientation of the sources themselves, the classical education movement is full of people who treat criticism directed at ideas and practices they advocate – presumably on the basis of the sources – as somehow out of bounds. The classical sources abound in warnings against taking appearances for realities, yet what is the not-so-subtly proud messianism of our self-talk in classical education circles if not the most gigantic appearance of all when set next to the sources we claim as our inspiration?

The classical sources assume the world as a given that is knowable by everyone who bothers to look at it, and the world they show us is quite the same sort of thing as our own. The classical authors act as if they are substantively engaging with that world when they say that wisdom is always right in front of us but we more often than not fail to see it because we prefer our own prejudices instead. Both pagan and Christian, they posit a universal human condition under heaven that they are channeling in order to pass down enduringly valid observations and or prescriptions.

At times, it is true, classical authors overmagnify the truth-value of things said by “the fathers,” as if things are true because they are old. (The Medievals, for all the many good things they do have to teach us, are pretty bad in just that way.) But it is worth asking whether we advance upon them by instead overmagnifying the truth-value of things said by ourselves, when we who are but of yesterday have scarcely begun to be tested against the standards of books we claim are more valuable because they have passed the test of millennia.

Please do not take these remarks as an assault on optimism per se. There is a legitimate, healthy, and holy place for optimism – when optimism is equivalent to “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” i.e., faith. But even biblical faith is neither a leap in the dark nor an exaggeration of short term achievements. It is, rather a virtue firmly rooted in verifiable human experiences of the world-as-the-world even as it points us beyond the world. It is not faith to act as if, “optimistically speaking” we are already pretty far down the road toward the world-as-it-will-be. Faith is not presumption.

A current leader in the classical movement, has claimed that the problem with giving a classical education today is that none of us ever received that thing ourselves. If that is true (and it is), should not we take greater care with slinging our optimism about? Herodotus was, of course, correct when he put into the Persian royal advisor Artabanus’ mouth, “God always loves to cut down those who…think big thoughts.” And while we’re on Herodotus, remember Croesus of Lydia the next time you’re tempted to enthuse about how earth-shaking, mind-blowing, culture-illuminating, and kingdom-of-God-advancing your own thoughts about and practice of “classical” education really are. Look to the end, which you don’t and can’t know, and you’ll see why unalloyed cheerfulness may just be a species of self-delusion, not wisdom.

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