“Classical” Isn’t About the Color of Her Hair

Thanks to several decades of tireless work by many dedicated Christians, the term “classical education” has become virtually a household word. It’s so common, in fact, and so copiously discussed, that if you frequent “classical education” circles, you may easily come away with a particular impression of what the thing is, what it entails, and how it just must be practiced that seems as self-evident as, well, “What goes up must come down.”

In short, for much of the classical education world, a certain set of cultural norms has come to be so attached to the pedagogical ideals that the two can scarcely be distinguished. This is why so much of classical promotional material seems carelessly to use phrases like “Saving Western Civilization” and “Rebuilding Christendom” and the like, as if the nouns in those phrases have only one referent: that which the group itself deems essential and normative.

But so what, one asks. Didn’t Herodotus say that every group of people prefers its own customs to those of other groups? “Custom is king” – this is just a human thing. Everybody does it. And one side, the nicest side, of the dictum is precisely to give one’s own preferences the benefit of the doubt rather than rigorously interrogate them.

And so, what I’m interested in here is how, in these days of radical cultural apostasy, classical educators are tempted merely to almost entirely conflate the grand ideals of this ongoing classical education project with their own particular subculture’s preferred norms.

I don’t mean, of course, such things as a classical school having a particular dress code, or a proper philosophical and theological concern for the virtue of moderation in personal appearance or the rigorous promotion of a hierarchical and gender-appropriate code of etiquette. Such practices as these correctly hold a central position in a particular group’s self-concept and self-presentation to outsiders.

Uniforms, for instance, serve the important function of helping everyone, insiders and outsiders, clearly answer questions about Who We Are by better articulating distinctives. Standards for length of male hair, types of shoes, external adornments, and the like, are entirely appropriate “boundary markers” for a given community to establish and uphold. Requiring students to maintain good body posture, hold doors for others, show concern for smaller and weaker members of the body, and observe practices of verbal respect for adults are cultural and customary necessities providing everyday, every hour reminders of Who We Are.

“Custom is king,” per Herodotus. None of what I just mentioned is either wrong per se or even undesirable as matters of prudential practice and cultural maintenance.

Yet I’ve noticed in my travels throughout the world of classical education that the great ideals of the restored project (rooted in the Great Texts) seem, for many, to somehow underwrite not just a proper This is Who We Are posture, but more of an improper This is Who Everyone Ought to Be posturing. It’s a subtle error, which is precisely why it neither seems like an error to those who commit it nor gets subjected to examination prior to being regularly stated as a simple truism in the dealings of this type of self-portraying “classical” culture with other cultures outside of it.

It’s a subtle error, moving from the simply human fact that everyone assumes their own ways are best to the not simply human fact that, darn it, our way really is the best, just because and for everyone. After all, one of the virtues of the classical education project is the recovery of and courageous standing for the ideal of Objective Truth in a world that constantly runs screaming away from anything but mere subjective opinion. Doesn’t the mere fact that so many oppose our way go to prove that our way really is the Truth? “Wide is the path that leads to destruction…,” you know.

How supremely easy it is, really, to move from, say, arguing that classical education holds that tyranny is a disordered mode of government to asserting that classical education stipulates as the universal truth about civil order a particular mode of Small, Limited Government and an associated notion of Free Market Economics. The first item is an Objective Truth of the tradition; the second item is just a particular historically-conditioned – that is to say, quite fallible and possibly intelligently challengeable – attempt to ensure that the first gets its proper due.

To try to be as specific as possible, in my travels throughout Classical Education Land, here is a partial listing of doctrines I have seen widely promoted as if they just simply are essential truths of and applications of Objective Truth rooted in the great classical tradition itself:

  • Republican and / or Libertarianism as the sine qua non of Christian politics
  • Free Market Capitalism as God’s Own Economic System
  • the primacy of individual rights over any group concerns
  • civil government as inherently antithetical to familial and ecclesiastical government
  • clique-like advocacy of particular clothing styles and / or culinary requirements
  • frequent and implicitly exclusionary use of the adjective “biblical” as a presumed synonym for “what we believe”
  • inflexible advocacy of highly-specific soteriological and / or eschatological views

Let’s not forget Herodotus, here: “Everyone thinks their own customs are best.” It’s not wrong in any way for a particular subculture taking the name “classical” to articulate such ideas as these as a matter of letting everyone, inside and out, know clearly This is Who We Are. Were such items as these to be stated in just that way, as clear public articulations by a particular poleis of the principles that order their internal governance and describe their hoped-for cultural effects, there would be no problem.

The problem arises, however, where such items as these are stated as if they are not just boundary markers for these communities, but boundary markers for all communities, essential parts of the very definition of “classical.” The problem arises when those who confidently assert such items as essential to either classical education or Objective Truth itself just flat fail to recognize that what they have going on in their own groups won’t ever be anything more than small-scale and relatively-inflected iterations of the broad category “Classics-based culture.”

The point isn’t hard to see for anyone who has actually been immersed in and is undergoing formation by the classical sources: the ideals associated with the Classics have historically instantiated themselves in many varieties of culture, and really, just do transcend all such instantiations.

The “classical education” of the urban elites in, say, Tertullian’s day didn’t look precisely the same culturally as the “classical education” of the monks on Lindesfarne five centuries later, nor did the “classical education” in King Alfred’s court look precisely the same culturally as Thomas More’s seven centuries later. And it is for absolutely certain that the “classical education” in a Dorothy Sayers’ Trivium school of today looks culturally very different from that of Cicero’s or Augustine’s or Dante’s own days.

Obvious truisms, of course, and they would scarcely be worth mentioning (let alone devoting a whole article to!) did not too many classical educators today fail to remember Herodotus’ remark about cultural preferences and reflect upon how it automatically relativizes their entire system of claims about “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.”

Just about any time you hear a “classical” educator expressing consternation that others involved in the “classical” project have somehow (possibly culpably) failed to agree with themselves as to some refined standard of ideas or conduct that they have put forward, you are hearing someone who doesn’t grasp the dual-sided nature of Herodotus’ maxim “Custom is king.” You are looking at someone who doesn’t understand the natural and unavoidable multiplicity of human cultures as responses to God’s gigantic and super-complicated world.

In reality, many who crow the loudest about how they are “recovering Objective Truth” are actually some of the most subjective people you can find. And some of the purportedly most obviously “biblical worldview” notions floated as essentials of “classical education” are in reality some of the most blinkered sub-culture-ish opinions you are likely to find.

What’s worse, such narrow visions of “classical” that fail to make proper distinctions between Truth Per Se and prudential cultural attempts to instantiate Truth Per Se will, by their loud crowing, almost inevitably accomplish the self-defeating rhetorical feat of convincing equally loudly crowing deconstructionists that terms like “classical” and “Western” really are just code for White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant bigotries. It’s never a good idea to give your enemy precisely the weapon he needs to defeat you.

Thus, to be blunt, there’s no particular, let alone essential, relationship between (1) pursuing a Classics-based education and (2) holding particular highly-refined positions on the relationship of Church and State or how many earrings every woman everywhere ought to be allowed to wear or just how skinny jeans are morally allowed to be or constraining political economy discussions into tiny boxes drawn by ideological captives of the now dead-and-gone Cold War or pretending that disagreement with oneself is the very definition of having become irrational and unbiblical and so in need of repentance and reformation.

Custom is king – but custom comes in more shapes and sizes than are dreamed of in little philosophies trying to hijack grand concepts and stamp them with provincial copyrights and trademarks. Given the centrality of self-critical examination we find in the actual Old and Great Books that make up the classical heritage, the important task for anyone claiming the adjective “classical” in connection with education is to refuse to rigidly tie the word to mere subcultural distinctives in a universal way.

This is Who We Are, yes.

This is Who Everyone Ought to Be, no.

Less fretting in the context of Objective Truth about hair colors and clothing styles and eschatologies and dietary matters and the like, and more concern for, say, articulating and exegeting the Cardinal Virtues (while examining ourselves for indications of the Seven Deadly Sins), for comparing our received partisan political views with Plato and Aristotle and Cicero and Augustine and being willing to change ourselves rather than dismissing them, for less self-aggrandizing smiling at our own “classical” images in the mirror – these are the sorts of thoughts and actions we need in order to be appropriately in line with our great Tradition rather than just tribalists mouthing slogans and maxims and darkly wondering why the rest of the world hates Truth so much.

After all, isn’t one of the whole points of the Old Great Books precisely the fact that everyone sees through a glass darkly, no one has the whole truth, and that only a commitment to humble and rigorous self-criticism can free the mind from thoughtless slavery to illusions?

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