Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Yeoman and Classical Education

Whoa!! Don't be scared off by the weighty title. We just spent a weekend listening to folks with nothing but the best intentions for our cultural future and the common intellectual language of students past and present. To be sure, most of the attendees at this conference were 1) older rather than younger, (that generalization is safe to make when the decline of anything is discussed), 2) professors, writers or members of think tanks, and 3) conservative in a broad and long term sense. There were also some college kids who probably didn't need any indoctrination; they were already members of the choir.

The panels were not just one giant Greek chorus of lament; there are indeed intelligent and energetic people out there in the education wilderness attempting to make sense and order of what children are taught, not just in higher education, but also in the lower grades. But one does not have to have one's ear very close to the ground to know that curriculum is a mighty battle ground and such a large one that communication between all the fronts is nearly impossible.

What do we all need to know to be a people with a common cultural language? Obviously, most programs with an emphasis on "core texts" go all the way back to the Greeks. I am certain that the degradation of that kind of learning began quite a while ago. My high school exposure to classical literature was....well, to tell the truth, I think it was nil. What I remember reading in high school was some American poetry, Shakespeare, and Thornton Wilder. Also some short stories including Hemingway. I am completely certain that my four years of high school mathematics left me better grounded in that subject than my three years of high school literature. When given the opportunity to "build my own degree program"as a college student (yes, that WAS the 70s), no wonder I passed what I considered the "light weight" fare of Arts and loaded up on the foundations of Science. Was I well educated? Culturally, certainly not. But even as a green and naive student, I knew I could trust the knowledge imparted in botany,chemistry, and geology in ways that I could not trust what I considered the opinions delivered by instructors in literature and history.

Fortunately, the common yeoman, as I am, while unlikely to come home at night and pick up one's texts in chemistry or calculus, can easily and with pleasure pick up novels and essays of great worth and make common cause with readers of the past. Not all the doesn't just sashay through history and biography like a riveting mystery novel. And, sometimes, one just has to veg and watch sports and NCIS. But on the occasions when I finish something weighty, or even just start it, I know I'm connecting the dots with the past and, perhaps, some of the wisdom waiting for me there.

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