The relevance of a classical education

The state of education across the world

The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 20 Mar 2012, 03:23

As fans of Theodore Dalrymple, I suspect that most people here will have awareness, if not personal experience, of "the classical education". Doubtless there was more to it than I know of, but for me the phrase means the following: Latin, maybe Greek, wide reading of the Western canon, solid grounding in art, science, philosophy, religion and history, with special emphasis on the culture and history of one's own country. A very general and wide-ranging introduction to the world, coupled with skills in critical thinking.

Speaking personally, I resent that I was not taught these things at school to any real extent. I will not go into the details except to say that I feel it like a gap in my life. I think that I should know these things, and it's embarrassing when I meet somebody who does and my own ignorance shows up. It feels like I had a toytown education whereas they had a proper one.

But maybe this is a case of "the grass is always greener". Going to art college was a mistake, but had I not gone, I'd always have wondered what art college was like. Perhaps my desire for a classical education is similar, and in fact, I can get by very well without it, and lead a productive and intellectually fulfilling life without knowing the Greek tragedies etc. or being able to drop Latin phrases into conversation like little ornaments.

I'd like to know what other people think as to the place the classical education has in the modern world. Clearly all knowledge is valuable, but are we talking about a way of moulding people that would not benefit them in the 21st century?

Apart from anything else, I think the classical education was designed for a West that was "on top", surveying history and controlling the present. In this century, we may not be on top, and we may find ourselves not controlling history but being carried along in its flow. This seems likely to me. And I wonder, if our heritage has reduced functional value, can it retain symbolic value? In other words, will our grandchildren be inclined to cherish American optimism, or British ingenuity, or German efficiency, in a world which no longer waits for these things but is controlled by China/Japan/India? Will the West still be lovable when it is not important?

There are other reasons why the education we used to pride our nation (Britain) on may be less relevant in the 21st century.

For a start, the reciting of facts by rote learning etc. seems a bit silly when any fact can be summoned in a split second using technology. True, information does not equal knowledge, but then we seem to have an ever-decreasing need for knowledge.

I think it could be argued that the classical education gradually lost relevance throughout the second half of the 20th century, as American cultural influence grew and the Old World started to seem stagnant and rather helpless. What use a knowledge of the Hellenistic civilisation when everyone is talking about South Park? As I said, knowledge seems to be increasingly unnecessary in an age when fads come and go so quickly, and ideas are judged not on their intrinsic merits but on a very pragmatic, "will it work" basis. The epitome of this would be the modern computer programmer, who can create a fantastically efficient program without knowing anything whatsoever about the world prior to last week, let alone a thousand years ago.

There is the question of what should education actually be for nowadays. The march of technology means that ever more jobs can be done more cheaply and efficiently by computer - so it is difficult to know what people are going to be required to do in life. I worked in a callcentre a few years ago and it was obvious that what they really wanted were operatives who thought and acted like machines, with total predictability and efficiency. Once machines are capable enough to take over those jobs, it will certainly happen. Likewise, 3D printing will destroy manufacturing across the globe, so there'll be little point training people for those kinds of jobs - and moreover, we seem to be in an age which doesn't respect those jobs anyway. We are in the information age, and if any skill is prized it is the ability to handle and manipulate data.

We certainly live in interesting times. It could be that by the end of this century, there will be hardly any jobs for humans.

But let us return to the here and now. In 2012, is a classical education useful?

Some might say that the classical education was not designed to increase the person's employability anyway. It was more about formation of character. That being the case, we should examine the cultural environment the modern classically-educated person will find themselves in.

They'll find themselves in a world of pop culture, which feeds not on the world of antiquity or the many centuries since, but on its own heritage of the last 50 years. Laura Marling referencing Suzanne Vega referencing Bob Dylan referencing Dylan Thomas. Lily Allen referencing ska (referencing R&B) and acid house (referencing Woodstock). They'll see 2010s films that reference 90s films that reference 70s films that reference 50s films. It goes on and on, but tends to stop starkly at 1950, and even that is far outwith the scope of most modern people, restrained by interest and exposure to really the last 10 years of culture, if that.

In such a densely incestuous culture, what place is there for Latin? In fact, is not giving somebody Latin making them an alien in the world they'll have to operate in?

Another thing which possibly makes the classical education redundant is its hierarchical nature. Things are assumed by it, not least the supremacy of the West and the primacy of the Christian religion. Our culture and the Internet mean that we live in a deeply egalitarian age, and it's getting more egalitarian with each web fad that makes everyone think their opinion is important. Try telling a 15 year-old that their input is not as valuable as an expert's, and it's almost an alien concept to them. We still have experts of course, but they have moved behind closed doors, becoming an unseen new priestly caste who get paid fortunes to do things we know nothing about - and when they appear in public they beg to be thought of as "just a normal guy". Everything is up for discussion. There are no definites. There is no intellectual hierarchy. (I'm not necessarily against egalitarian terms for public discourse, merely noting it as a feature of our age.) In such an environment, the intellectual of old, who expects to be paid respect and listened to and trusted to "know best", will get sorely disappointed. Therefore, the education which moulded that intellectual starts to seem redundant, and not a little presumptuous.

There's no doubt that the classical education has for decades now been despised by an educational sector because they associate it with an elitist/class-centred world. We could examine their motivations for doing that, but looking at the bigger picture, are they actually right to do it because the world has moved on from the world of the 19th century elites who wanted their children educated in their own image?

I don't think there is cause for total despair. Everything is recorded (now more than ever) and nothing really gets forgotten. In question really, is the treatment of the record; how we form character out of knowledge in a world of endless information that, some would say, should be allowed free reign to shape tomorrow's minds. Let the mind grow as it will, feeding unguided on the ideas and facts it can find on the Internet.

Personally, I think that is an over-optimistic view. While the Internet does provide an astonishing amount of information and ideas, that is not enough. The young cannot civilise themselves by being surrounded with information any more than they can teach themselves to read by being surrounded with books. They need to be moulded, and that means by their elders, and that means their elders require a framework, some kind of end goal.

The classical education seems to consistently create the most capable minds across the range of human endeavour, from Winston Churchill to Sir Tim Berners-Lee. I don't know why that is. But I think that we would be foolish to ignore it, as we take on a century which may be even more challenging for the West than the 20th century.

Still, I would be interested to know other people's views on what education should be for in this century, and to what extent they think the classical education fits the bill. It would be easy to tie ourselves in knots trying to tailor an education for the 21st century; perhaps the 19th century elites had it right all along and their formula would work just as well in our, radically different, world?
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 20 Mar 2012, 05:32

Elliott: There's even more to the concept of a classical education than what you wrote. It's actually broken down into three stages, and they actually go back a lot further than the 19th century. A good article on it is this.

I did not receive a classical education, despite going to a private school. I would say that my private school was merely a better version of the local state schools (it used the state curriculum) and its focus was on getting us into prestigious universities in degrees with high earning potential. It was most definitely aspirational middle class and late 20th century in its outlook. The "smart" students studied the sciences (which is what I did). The other students studied commerce subjects. Very, very few people studied literature, history or other humanities in their final year of school.

When I got to university, I actually studied classics in my first year, but I was completely out of my depth against people my age (and also a lot of mature age students) who already had a background in Latin, Greek and/or classical literature. I also studied history, but found that incredibly wishy washy at my university. Psychology kind of speaks for itself. I ended up doing honours in philosophy, but to be honest, I was simply too immature to really get as much from it as I could.

As such, I feel like my education has massive gaps in it that I am still struggling to fill in. However, I want my own children to have a classical education and I'm just going to have to do the best I can in that respect. Even if I lived in Australia, it would be hard to find places that were affordable that would do so. However, given that I live in Taiwan, I'm certainly not going to get it here! I also have other qualms about the education system here.

The homeschooling movement is largest in the United States, and interestingly, classical education is also relatively popular within that movement, as well as at religious schools there. I think in more ways than one, despite people often mocking America, it's probably the last steward of our culture. Outside of the U.S., there seems to be simultaneously an increasing reliance on the state (and the state is fundamentally opposed to classical education because such an education makes people independent of the state) combined with a certain middle class myopia regarding an obsession over the "usefulness" of any particular educational system. By usefulness, they mean whether it will allow their kids to earn a lot of money. Of course, those attitudes afflict a great percentage of the American populace also, but America has not distanced itself from elitism to anywhere near the extent that many other Western countries have done so.

My wife and I are going to homeschool our children and we will do what we can. There will be a practical component to our children's education, but I suppose that their classical education will have a slight spin on it in that it will probably have both western classical elements and Chinese classical elements. There are some good resources out there, and where necessary, we will use tutors at higher levels.

The simplest explanation I have for wanting my children to have a classical education is twofold. Firstly, I value breadth of knowledge and experience. People who are really only good at one thing (if that!), especially if that thing applies to what they do to make money, are often unbearable to be around. I suspect they don't experience much of life. Life is not worth living like that. Secondly, a classical education is valuable precisely because it provides a bedrock. Fashions, popularity, etc. all come and go, and this is true both in terms of what's valued educationally, what's valued in terms of careers, and even which nations are successful.* To put any stock in them is to be on very shaky ground. To be able to reach back several hundred or thousand years to something and recognise a fundamental truth, and then to realise one's own continuation in that line or tradition is to provide somewhat of a shield against the vicissitudes of life.

*I really think the notion of it being a case of the West vs China, India, etc. is overblown. There is going to be an international affluent class and then there is going to be everyone else, regardless of nationality. There will simultaneously be an improvement of living standards that will be largely an illusion based upon increased technology at the superficial level in our lives, coupled with a simultaneous decrease in living standards at a more profound level. The fortunes of the average person in the world are merely rising or falling as they tend towards somewhat of an international mean, based upon how much room for growth there still is in the former case. Unless there are some really, really major technological breakthroughs, we're looking at a situation of demand for material markers of living standards outstripping their supply, and people having to sacrifice more of the deeper markers of living standards to get them. Koreans, for instance, have pretty much hit the wall of how many hours they can work, for instance, and they have (or will have) others nipping at their heels. Yet they have atrocious family life and must make immense personal sacrifices in order to be materially prosperous. Yet what happens when other nations, such as China, catch up and are willing to do the same for less money? There will always be someone willing to undercut you. China still has plenty of low hanging fruit to pick in terms of efficiency, so it can continue to increase its standard of living, but it will eventually hit a brick wall and its progress will stall, and then it will have someone else nipping at its heels. Most of the developed West (including Britain) is already well beyond this kind of point though. It can't, and won't, compete with either Korea or China for now (though it will have to eventually because it is getting along by using up its capital -- both financial and cultural -- reserves). So, its future can only be downhill, barring any sort of major technological breakthrough or other extreme event.

For me, the interesting third option is to sidestep all of that by engaging in a kind of economic and cultural arbitrage.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Mike » 20 Mar 2012, 11:05

Good topic. As a teacher of Latin I feel obliged to offer a reply...

To start with the benefits of study of the classical languages. From a purely practical point of view, for the Anglophone world at least, they still have plenty to offer: Latin is the origin of approximately 60% of the words in the English language (Greek accounts for considerably fewer, about 15% I think), and a knowledge of Latin can considerably deepen and clarify one's understanding of English. In my first lesson with every new Year 7 class, this is what I point out first.

And then I mention that Latin is the parent tongue of the Western European languages which, thanks to colonisation, are now spoken in a great many parts of the world. With Latin under one's belt learning Spanish, for instance, is made immeasurably easier, and this opens up plenty of new horizons for an English speaker.

That's the practical side. The more intangible, lasting benefits are harder to describe, but I'll try to enumerate a few of them. Learning any language with proper diligence and care trains the mind in systematic, analytical thought and often allows the learner to look at the structures of their own language in a more deliberate and insightful way (almost all of my students have told me that they've learned much more about the structure of English from their foreign language teachers than their English teachers, which is perhaps not surprising given the debasement of the English curriculum here in Australia).

The often underrated practice of translating from a classical language into clear English aids clarity of expression and thought, and again my students have often told me that it helps them considerably when they go back to composing essays and reasoned responses to written questions in English.

An encounter with the great classical literature, whatever tradition it belongs to (Latin, Greek, Chinese, Arabic etc.) is an enriching experience if it's approached in the right spirit...that is, an awareness of the very different worldview of those who wrote in those times, combined with the knowledge that they too grappled with human problems, human desires, hopes and fears, in short, the human condition. It's always salutary, for one thing, to become familiar with the first attempts to deal with the eternal human problems - freedom versus responsibility, personal loyalty versus morality, individuality versus belonging - that still beset us today.

And finally, on the historical side, the study of how ancient cultures managed to build a functioning civilisation despite the limited tools they had at their disposal is a testament to human ingenuity and the development of the human race despite incredible obstacles, both in nature itself and in the nature of human beings. For me, at least, the study of ancient civilisations and their fragility is a constant reminder of how much those achievements, which we often take completely for granted these days, are to be valued.

A classical education is not for everyone, of course, but for those in a civilised country who want to pursue it for the benefits it offers, the option should be available.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 21 Mar 2012, 00:35

Mike: Very well written.

Did you have a classical education? How did you come to study Latin, and how did you come to become a Latin teacher? My understanding is that Latin is becoming increasingly rare in any schools -- both government and independent -- in Australia. What percentage of students at your school study Latin? Is it compulsory? How many go on to study Latin in their final year of school? How many go on to study Latin (or related subjects such as classics, philosophy, etc.) at university?
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Mike » 21 Mar 2012, 08:46

I was lucky enough to go to a school where Latin and Greek were still offered. I enjoyed the former, and my teacher encouraged me to try the latter as a result, and I ended up taking both through to matriculation and then double-majoring in them at Uni. As for going into teaching...lack of imagination maybe? :) Actually I had vague ideas of going into journalism like my father, but a job came up teaching classics at a Catholic school, and I applied for it and to my great surprise, got it (despite not yet even having a Dip.Ed., which I did subsequently, and not being a Catholic). After a hiatus of a few years half-heartedly pursuing a musical career I went back to it in 2004, this time at a government school, and have been there ever since.

What happens at our school is that the students do a "smorgasbord" of all the languages we offer in Year 7 (Latin, French, German, Japanese, Indonesian), and then pick one (or two) to do in Year 8. This year 60 of the students (out of 150-odd) in Year 8 chose Latin, and last year it was almost as many. Those are unusually large turnouts though, normally it's more like thirty or so. By the time they get to Year 12 (matriculation) the numbers have generally thinned out to single figures, but so far I've always had a matriculating class in Latin. And of those, sometimes a couple go on to study Latin at Uni...I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago when a couple of students from my 2008 Year 12 class (both of Korean background, funnily enough) came to say hello, and tell me that they'd both done several years of Latin at Uni (and one of them had taken up Greek as well).

The general perception is that it's losing ground in schools, but in Australia actually the numbers doing Latin are staying fairly steady, perhaps even increasing. Of all the languages on offer for matriculation in NSW, Latin had the fifth highest candidature last year. Most of the schools that offer Latin are independent schools, but there are a few government schools (including mine) that still offer it, and in fact it's been brought back in at some government schools recently (and at Gosford High it's actually been brought in for the first time).

So, in short, it's in fairly healthy shape here (and in the U.S. too, I'm told), although it still seems to be withering on the vine in Europe.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 22 Mar 2012, 01:43

Mike: That's great then. I wish I'd studied Latin.

One thing I remember about Latin from doing my Dip.Ed. was that they showed us a chart about the correlation between certain subjects and overall results in Year 12 in Victoria. Those who studied Latin tended to do exceptionally well overall. I think it may have been the furthest outlier, actually. Languages that people didn't tend to speak in their homes, such as French or German, were also associated with overall success (conversely, languages that were spoken at home, such as Turkish or Modern Greek, were correlated with poor results overall), as were advanced mathematics and the hard sciences.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 30 Mar 2012, 06:55

I'm sorry that I have neglected this thread and the replies it has received. I was distracted by all the other threads. I think this is a topic with some potential mileage so it would be a shame to let it go.

Caleb wrote:Elliott: There's even more to the concept of a classical education than what you wrote. It's actually broken down into three stages, and they actually go back a lot further than the 19th century. A good article on it is this.


Thanks for that link, Caleb. It seems the classical education was far more structured than I'd thought. And even more intellectually demanding! It just goes to show how much you can cram into young minds if you go about it the right way. The breadth of material mentioned in that article easily eclipses that learned in either my primary (5-11) or secondary (12-17) education.

My primary education felt good at the time - I rarely struggled and greatly enjoyed most of my time there - but I know they didn't push me as far as they could. I don't hold that against the teachers. They had 25 other kids to educate. And in any case the system they were operating within had long before abandoned the kind of education we're discussing in this thread.

As mentioned elsewhere, I still think that my primary education was far superior to that doled out to kids nowadays. When it comes to using apostrophes for ownership, I have always remembered a piece of advice my P7 teacher gave the class:

The apostrophe goes immediately after the noun that owns. For example, you don't write "the childrens' toy", because then you're saying "the toy belonging to the childrens".


I know that's a long way from Latin, but I feel nevertheless very grateful to the teacher who said it - especially because I doubt any teacher today younger than 50 would have that advice to give.

Anyway, after a lovely time at primary school (one of four in my town, and generally regarded as "the snobby one"), I went to the town's secondary school.

I didn't like this place from the start. It was far too big. The teachers didn't really get to know you. They had little time to entertain your individual talents. I had received praise at primary school for my creative writing - at secondary, that just fell by the wayside because no-one was interested. I still wrote for myself, but I felt unappreciated. I know that sounds vain, but everyone wants to be appreciated for their talents, especially when they're 12. The school had 1200 pupils - not huge by any means, but still big enough to alienate.

The school's pupil population was quite mixed. In crude terms I'd say it was half middle-class and half working-class. Of the latter, a significant number didn't care about learning and, though they didn't cause mayhem or even much disruption, their presence and attitude was enough to lower the tone considerably around the entire school. I say that not as a comment on the working-class, but on the culture which their kids bring into school.

I have absolutely no doubt that selection is key to educating people as well as possible. People complain about segregation, elitism, and the benefits of seeing a broad cross-section of society. I think that is all bunkum. Kids have their whole lives to find out about a broad cross-section of society. While at school, they should be getting educated. And if selection means a lot of people don't make the grade, that's tough.

The presence of pupils who didn't care, and who were nowhere near as intelligent as other pupils, meant that teachers had to concentrate on a narrow curriculum (history: WW1, WW2, the Peterloo Massacre) and came to expect less of their brighter pupils. I, for example, was allowed to drift into apathy.

I was very unmotivated. You could try hard but you got nothing back, so it felt like there was no point because nobody was really interested in you. But things got much worse when I became, for the only time in my life, the victim of bullying. I won't go into it here because it's not relevant. Suffice it to say that I became, as a result of the bullying, a complete loner. Resentment built up, predictably enough, and I came to hate the school. I was absolutely desperate to get away from the place.

My interest in studying fell to zero. When doing Advanced Higher English, I didn't even read the set texts - Tess of the d'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge. (Somehow I did pass, but only with a C.)

I mention all this - if also to get it off my chest - mainly to show that this school, in a good area and widely regarded as one of the best state schools in Scotland, was not in anything like a condition to deliver a classical education, partly because of its working-class apathetic pupils and partly because it didn't know how to handle the brightest pupils. Yet, the school is renowned for being favoured by lawyers who don't want to pay for private education. People move to this town so that their kids can get there.

It had a reputation for good grades. The headmaster was obsessed with targets. The subjects concentrated on were English, maths and the sciences. They didn't know what to do with me. I watched kids much duller and less interested in the world get praise and prizes, and it was infuriating.

My other reason for describing my experience at that school is to demonstrate that I am perhaps not the best person to judge it. I had my own reasons for being apathetic. Even so, I can't help thinking that even if I had been very motivated, they wouldn't have known what to do with me. In the first week, I recall citing some artists to a teacher who was asking the class to name some people they admired. The teacher responded with a patronising "oh, he knows some names, doesn't he?" and I realised that I had actually put a foot wrong by being too engaged. I realised also that the other kids in the room thought I was a goody-goody. From that point on, I started caring less and less.

When I eventually escaped and went to art college in Carlisle, I found a broad mix of people. For all that I had hated secondary school, few people were better educated than me. I made friends with a guy who knew far more about history than I did - he had gone to officially the worst school in Scotland, yet had loved history and got on really well with his Classics teacher so he had learned a lot. I also made friends with a guy from Blackpool who knew far more about art and culture than I did, and it was thrilling to have discussions about art and politics for the first time - I had waited all my life to meet people like that. But as I say, they were few and far between.

Then I went to art college in Chelsea, London. I met posh people for the first time. During a period of unemployment, I frequented a pub where a 50-something ex-lawyer drank every day. We used to do the Times crossword together and he would berate me for not knowing Latin, or indeed almost anything. His education (at a private school in Liverpool) had given him a solid grounding in civilisation, history, architecture, politics, philosophy... Every day there was something else I didn't recognise, a name or a phrase that I'd never heard of.

As a result of meeting these well-bred people, I came to see that, despite being better-educated than most of the people I'd met in Carlisle, there were huge, huge gaps in my learning and my suspicions of having had a bad education were indeed justified. Compared with some people, I knew quite a bit - but compared to many others, with whom I was clearly on the same intellectual level, I was an ignoramus.

I don't know how much of the above is relevant to this thread. Caleb, you briefly described your own education so I felt like reciprocating. Your comments about your school having been "merely a better version of a state school" rang bells with me - I think my school was merely a better version of "other state schools". They certainly had no interested in formation of character or the like - it was all about training you to regurgitate a handful of tried-and-tested arguments about the Treaty of Versailles. The objective was, as you said of your school, purely to get you through exams so that you would go on to university.

But I wanted - as I still want now - to learn a lot about culture, history, philosophy, psychology, art, technology and storytelling. Those were and remain my interests. Had I had no interests, I would probably have got on far better at that school. It's difficult not to feel angry about that.

I ended up doing honours in philosophy, but to be honest, I was simply too immature to really get as much from it as I could.


I think that probably affects a lot of people. After school, you want to explore the world. For me at least, it's really been in my mid and late 20s that I've come to see how great an opportunity full-time education is. Youth is wasted on the young!

Even if I lived in Australia, it would be hard to find places that were affordable that would do so. However, given that I live in Taiwan, I'm certainly not going to get it here! I also have other qualms about the education system here.


From what you've said about Taiwan's education system, it sounds like a complete shambles!

The homeschooling movement is largest in the United States, and interestingly, classical education is also relatively popular within that movement, as well as at religious schools there. I think in more ways than one, despite people often mocking America, it's probably the last steward of our culture.


Perhaps homeschooling is most popular in the US because of their tradition of "doing stuff for yourself". As for their interest in the classics, I would suggest that is because America is still a young country and intelligent people there are aware that American culture, as a result of being so young, is shallow. So they reach for the classics. Here in the Old World, I think we've come to scorn antiquity, taking civilisation for granted. Also, the memory of building in the wilderness is much more recent in the New World, so I think they find it rather easier to take seriously the nature of primitive societies. They understand the links between effort and reward, and between building and meaning.

the state is fundamentally opposed to classical education because such an education makes people independent of the state


Could you go into that? Do you think that being educated full stop makes someone less reliant on the state (if so, why?) or is it something specific to the classical education (if so, what?).

a certain middle class myopia regarding an obsession over the "usefulness" of any particular educational system. By usefulness, they mean whether it will allow their kids to earn a lot of money.


Yes, I see that attitude in modern British professionals. My sister-in-law (who works in banking) told me the other day that creative writing shouldn't be done at school because, in a job, you will not be required to do creative writing.

Of course, what she said is true, but to neglect children's creativity (and believe me I'm no hippie about this) seems a disgusting, philistine attitude. Most of the things I loved at school had no direct usefulness to getting a job - creative writing, RME, sewing and craftwork, personal projects... A lot of people would just write all that off as "useless".

But I also wonder whether these people are simply more in tune with the times. Perhaps I'm harking back to an era when intelligent people could afford to develop their character, because the culture and economy had a use for developed characters. Nowadays the workplace is all about following the rules and filling in forms, and if you're not rich you're a failure.

Of course, those attitudes afflict a great percentage of the American populace also, but America has not distanced itself from elitism to anywhere near the extent that many other Western countries have done so.


This may be to do with class guilt in the Old World, especially Britain. By the week, the newspapers print stories about how poor people aren't getting into Oxford etc.

And last night I watched Question Time on which was discussed the horrifying prospect of a new grammar school opening in Kent. All of the panelists were against it - one of them even saying "abolishing selective education was the one progressive measure Britain took in the last 75 years". These people would have mediocre education, such as the one I received myself, as the prescription for every child, no matter how better served the child would be by a selective education.

They just can't stand the idea of elitism. But I think that elitism is essential. You can't have good and bad in the same building without the bad dragging the good down - that's just common sense!

As for the classical education, I think that people in Britain are slowly coming round to the idea, at least elements of it. Schools in the Free School "movement" often recommend themselves by saying that they will teach Latin etc. And those panelists on QT were careful to say that what they wanted was for everyone to have a great education - it's just that their methods (no selection) will ensure that can never happen.

My wife and I are going to homeschool our children and we will do what we can. There will be a practical component to our children's education, but I suppose that their classical education will have a slight spin on it in that it will probably have both western classical elements and Chinese classical elements. There are some good resources out there, and where necessary, we will use tutors at higher levels.


You sound like a man with a plan! Have you got this all worked out - eg. subjects, timeframes for learning, etc.?
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 02 Apr 2012, 01:41

Elliott: I totally agree with you that selection is the key to education. The private school I went to eventually weeded out the bad students by the time we were about fourteen years old. It didn't so much weed out the people who weren't brilliantly smart because there were still quite a few dummies at my school (though they were nowhere near as dumb as they would have otherwise been). However, it weeded out those with extreme behavioural problems. I think it still could have done a better job with some of the dummies though.

The big issue I had with my school was the general ethos of the place. On the one hand, it did purport to teach us all sorts of values, but in practice, that worked out really badly. Bullying was rife. Teacher favouritism was omnipresent. Both were institutionalised in a prefect system. We also had compulsory military cadets for three years and this turned into more of the same. Also, if you were good at sport (particularly Australian rules football, cricket, swimming or athletics), you were afforded more respect. Everyone had to do compulsory school sport (I did tennis, but was terrible at it), which was fair enough, but the favouritism there was completely unjustified. Our school was good at many sports, but Australian rules football was not one of them. Yet the footballers used to get a disproportionate amount of attention -- not just in terms of their role within the school, but also in terms of their performance -- at school assemblies. At school, I also did debating, was captain of the chess club (I was unbeaten for my final two years of competition, and our team came equal second in the state), was in the orchestra and concert band, and was also on the state team for judo outside of school (the irony there being that I was not only smarter, but fitter and stronger, than the average footballer). I also generally performed quite well in various national mathematics competitions and so on. Yet the time and respect afforded to people like me was not only minimal, but seemed to be begrudgingly so.

No doubt, the state system was a complete farce. That's why my parents pulled me out of it at the end of grade three. However, private education, at least in my experience, had its own raft of issues.

Frankly, I couldn't wait to get out of there fast enough, and I actually got so burnt out in my final year that my academic results weren't as good as they should have been (though I still quite easily got into the course and university I wanted). I did find mathematics and the science subjects fairly challenging, and I actually had very good teachers in those subjects. However, the humanities, and English in particular (probably because it was a general class), were a complete joke and I didn't feel at all challenged there.

By the time I got to university, I felt at once interested in everything but university (girls, drinking, music, clubs -- I joined two other martial arts clubs, was doing cross country running, and going to the gym in my first year of university), and also either completely overwhelmed in some classes (e.g. classics) or completely underwhelmed in others (e.g. psychology).

I know I was probably a more difficult kind of kid to deal with, and I had all sorts of quirks and could act out at times, but my entire experience within formal education from kindergarten to postgraduate studies has left me feeling somewhat deflated. I can probably count on one hand (maybe two) the number of adults who really inspired me and directed me productively. My parents weren't really up to the task. Firstly, my father was running his own business, and at that point, putting in very long hours. Secondly, my parents were very aspirational and bought into that whole middle class myopia that many private schools in Australia market so well.

I have always been aware of the fact that I am a complete ignoramus, despite how much certain other people have told me otherwise (and it also makes me realise how low other people's standards are if they think I'm really smart). It really bothers me, and I feel completely let down by the education system.

No doubt, a lot of that informs my own desire to educate my children outside of formal education.

I'd agree with your assessment of America with regard to homeschooling and the classics. At the most basic level, America has been built by people with the get up and go to actually go. Their culture is far more individualistic, far more self-reliant and far more pro-active than those in the Old World.

Could you go into that? Do you think that being educated full stop makes someone less reliant on the state (if so, why?) or is it something specific to the classical education (if so, what?).


I think being educated does full stop make someone less reliant on the state, so long as they're not completely in an ivory tower. I think more knowledge, as well as the ability to apply it and think critically, is always going to act as a buffer against the state. An entire populace of such people would be constantly holding the feet of those with authority to the fire. They'd be able to pick apart the factual errors in an argument, as well as the argument itself. What we have now is a populace that often doesn't know the most basic facts about how the political process works (not to mention in all sorts of other areas). We have people who have a very poor grasp of basic arithmetic, let alone all sorts of higher concepts in economics. These people are extremely easy to hoodwink by appealling to emotional issues.

I think a classical education is probably not just the only way to guard against such things, but I also think it has its own peculiar strengths that Mike has already mentioned. In particular, being acquainted with people who wrote about "the big issues" a long time ago offers two advantages. Firstly, it allows people to then contrast whatever is fashionable in terms of policy or the current zeitgeist against something that has a certain timelessness to it. Secondly, it allows people to also see that not everyone who ever has been has thought the same way as people do now. The current democratic, demotic age is very recent. Classical writers wrote in a different way, for a different audience. Their writing was not informed by the need to fit into the modern welfare state and its ideals.

Of course, what she said is true, but to neglect children's creativity (and believe me I'm no hippie about this) seems a disgusting, philistine attitude. Most of the things I loved at school had no direct usefulness to getting a job - creative writing, RME, sewing and craftwork, personal projects... A lot of people would just write all that off as "useless".

But I also wonder whether these people are simply more in tune with the times. Perhaps I'm harking back to an era when intelligent people could afford to develop their character, because the culture and economy had a use for developed characters. Nowadays the workplace is all about following the rules and filling in forms, and if you're not rich you're a failure.


I think that's really shortsighted of people though. The simplest way to prove this would be to ask them to list ten people they really admire or would aspire to be. Few of those people would have taken the safe, pragmatic route. Even if we just look at people "making money", how many of those people took the predictable route? Richard Branson? Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Warren Buffett?

What I love is how, in the world of finance, everyone is in love with certain people who were able to warn against and predict, the GFC. I'm talking about people such as Nouriel Roubini, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Kyle Bass, etc. Yet these people were pilloried as some kind of kooks beforehand. Now everyone loves them. Taleb is my favourite example in this group. If you look at his background, he is the complete antithesis of someone studying "useful" things (he came from old money in Lebanon, went to some sort of elite French school, and read Montaigne in his free time as a teenager). His whole thing was that he got into finance so he could make what he calls his "F.U. money" (because the Lebanese Civil War destroyed his family fortune and his family's social/political standing) so that he can now spend his time hanging out with people like Umberto Eco and writing philosophy books. George Soros is the same. He used his financial clout to dabble in his pet projects such as promoting democracy in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The kind of people who think creative writing is a waste of time idolise people like the above selection who do have a lot of money, yet the above selection of people laugh at the kind of people who think creative writing is a waste of time.

I think that more than ever, it's necessary to be creative, to know different things. Competing against the hordes of kids in Asia studying fourteen hours per day to cram for exams is always going to be a race to the bottom. No Western kid can, will, or should, begin to compete with that model.

I'm not sure exactly what it is about Britain's extreme cultural malaise, but it seems to be the most pronounced in the whole Anglosphere, if not the whole of the Western world, from what I can tell. You guys really have a lot of sorting out to do.

In terms of homeschooling our kids (which we don't have yet), no, I don't have it all worked out. The first part of the plan, which I am working on, is a level of (semi-)financial independence as soon as possible. Models vary, but I'm looking at approximately nine years at the outside (when I'm 45) before I can quit teaching here and essentially be retired, though we're also potentially going to start at least one business within the next couple of years (but my ultimate aim would still be to get to a point where other people would work in those or run those for me so I wouldn't have to devote a lot of time to them). We're not talking "cruising the Greek isles on our yacht" retirement, but the cost of living here makes an enormous difference. I could never do that in Australia. For me, it's the major attraction of living outside of the developed West, and it's worth all the trade-offs of living in a place that is at times quite ridiculous and somewhat backward.

In terms of the actual homeschooling, there's still a lot of reading to do. I expect it to be a lot different to whatever I currently anticipate, and I am sure we will learn a lot ourselves as we go along. We would ultimately like to have three children, and I am sure that the education our third receives will be significantly different from the education the first receives. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources out there. The only thing that bothers me -- which I recently discovered -- is that whilst it's legal here in Taiwan, the government still makes kids do the same standardised tests that everyone else does. In some ways, this shouldn't be a problem because if we teach our kids well, but differently, they should still be able to do well on the tests (or well enough to get people off our backs). However, I've seen the English exams the kids do. They're riddled with mistakes to the point where I couldn't get 100% on them because there are times when the questions don't make sense, where multiple answers or no answers are correct (they're multiple choice exams), and so on. As such, kids here have to learn the "correct" incorrect answer. Of course, also, such kids couldn't write 100 words on what they did last weekend without producing complete jibberish, and their Taiwanese English teachers (or whomever marks the exams) probably couldn't do much better. My kids could have just given me a 3,000 word essay on James Joyce, but they might not pass the inane English exams. Therefore, I worry that we'll kind of get dragged into devoting a certain amount of time into playing the game. I don't know to what extent this is also true in other subjects within the Taiwanese system. The way to get around this, supposedly, is to have them living here under another citizenship and either attending an international school or registered with a school in another country. Such a situation, obviously, would probably create all sorts of issues in terms of their status within Taiwan, but also in registering them with a school outside of Taiwan (particularly if they have never lived in such a place). There isn't anywhere near the network of people doing this as there is in places such as America, so I expect we will be learning a lot of this as we go through it. It's certainly going to be an adventure.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 02 Apr 2012, 08:35

Caleb, I'll reply to your post later today but for now I just want to quickly reply to this bit:

I'm not sure exactly what it is about Britain's extreme cultural malaise, but it seems to be the most pronounced in the whole Anglosphere, if not the whole of the Western world, from what I can tell. You guys really have a lot of sorting out to do.


It's important to say that there are many people in Britain who think it's not got a cultural malaise at all. They would say, quite sincerely, that Britain is the best it's ever been - people are friendly, kids are polite, society's working well, we're forward-thinking and tolerant, etc.

You can imagine what I would think about such people but the fact is that they exist, and they may be more correct, realistic and clear-sighted than me, or indeed anyone else on this forum.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 03 Apr 2012, 03:54

Elliott: Sure, maybe we're all wrong (I realise you're playing devil's advocate here). However, I'd say those riots last year are pretty damning. Sure, other countries have their own occasional (or not so occasional) riots, but I think there are some differences.

In other places, the rioters either represent outsiders or a fringe group of locals. Also, the community overall roundly condemns them. Think of things like the riots in Cronulla in Sydney a few years ago or that absurd riot in Canada after the hockey match last year or this year (I can't remember when it was now). Sure, there will always be a few apologists in the media, but the reaction in Canada was markedly different from that in Britain.

Or, the people rioting have genuine grievances over government corruption, mismanagement of the economy (and hyper-inflation, especially for food), etc. I think the Greeks are extremely misguided, but they still have a reason for rioting every time they do. There's some sort of political thought behind it, as wrong as that political thought might be. What was the explanation in Britain last year? Clearly, it wasn't a fringe group of native Britons or foreigners. It was British yoof, including the middle class in many cases, just running amok with impunity (at least at the time). Clearly, many saw it purely as an opportunity to break stuff and/or steal stuff. End of story.

That's why it shocked the world so much. People in the Middle East and North Africa had (or are still having) their Arab Spring. People in England -- who live in considerable more material comfort than Egyptians or Libyans -- had their five finger discount of some trainers and a flat screen TV. The situation where that Malaysian student (who had already been beaten) was robbed by people pretending to help him was simply deplorable. That's the image burnt in every East Asian/Southeast Asian's mind of England now, yet who can say that that really is an isolated incident? It shocked me, but it didn't surprise me because I have lived in England and know that it's not an isolated incident.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 05 Apr 2012, 05:04

A young teacher has now voiced exactly the hypothetical statement I made in the OP: that teaching kids facts is being made redundant by technology.

Here is a Daily Telegraph article about it.

There are quite a few Dalrymplian talking points here.

Jon Overton wrote:We are no longer in an age where a substantial ‘fact bank’ in our heads is required.


Plenty of comments on the article describe why people need "fact banks": facts and knowledge inspire mental activity.

Daily Telegraph wrote:A new-style English curriculum may also lead to the introduction of distinct lessons in grammar and more rigorous reading lists covering Homer, Sophocles and Shakespeare amid fears too many pupils are “limited to a diet of John Steinbeck”.

But Mr Overton told the conference that “if we resort back to the curriculum from the golden age of Mr Gove’s rose-tinted school experience and simply teach facts we will kill children’s creativity and capacity to be free and independent learners”.


I've never heard "resort back" before - is that correct English?

This thing about killing children's creativity... is it not just the most obvious nonsense? For a start, learning and studying do not inhibit creativity - but actually make it possible. Overton appears to believe in the cliched sub-Rousseaun idea that children are inately interesting and pure, and to fill them with knowledge is to contaminate them. The Left has a strange belief, an almost religious faith, in children as victims of civilisation.

Mr Overton's statement also, of course, uses the golden age trick.

Finally, a bien-pensant statement that patronises the working-class and keeps their children confined to the culture they were born into:

He claimed that schools needed more freedom to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of individual pupils, adding: “Many of the needs of the children in my school in south London are different to the needs of children living in Surrey”.


In other words, we should expect less, educationally, from working-class kids than from middle-class ones, and we shouldn't impose proper education on them. Let them be content with rap music.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Gavin » 05 Apr 2012, 08:59

Strong points, Elliott, and I remember that profound TD article.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Mike » 05 Apr 2012, 10:33

Daily Telegraph wrote:But Mr Overton told the conference that “if we resort back to the curriculum from the golden age of Mr Gove’s rose-tinted school experience and simply teach facts we will kill children’s creativity and capacity to be free and independent learners”.


You hear so many statements of this kind from failed teachers (education academics, that is) desperate to advertise their PC credentials. At the education coalface you can easily perceive the truth of the matter. For one thing, kids like facts. They like concrete tasks. They like structure. Once they achieve genuine mastery in any particular acaedmic area, however small, the sense of achievement and potential they experience is far more positive and profound than any transient ego rush resulting from "expressing their creativity". This is the basic, fundamental point about education that 99% of academics and bureaucrats, and an increasing proportion of the teaching profession, have totally forgotten.

Daily Telegraph wrote:
He claimed that schools needed more freedom to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of individual pupils, adding: “Many of the needs of the children in my school in south London are different to the needs of children living in Surrey”.


In other words, we should expect less, educationally, from working-class kids than from middle-class ones, and we shouldn't impose proper education on them. Let them be content with rap music.


In a sense, though, I can see the logic behind that statement. Students from poorer backgrounds often require more intense drilling in areas which students from affluent backgrounds would have achieved mastery in from an early age, for cultural and family reasons. I teach Latin, for instance, and fully defend its place in the curriculum, but it would be a total waste of time to teach it to 15-year-old migrant kids in western Sydney who are still struggling with English.

Sadly, though, I suspect that what he actually meant was closer to how you've characterised it above.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 05 Apr 2012, 11:31

Mike,

Yes, I can see that kids from different backgrounds are going to have very different needs when they go to school. However, the man was talking about tailoring the curriculum for them, not the methods used to teach it. So I deduce that what he means is there should be a working-class curriculum and a middle-class curriculum.

It's interesting to read what you say about kids finding achievement through grappling with, and grasping, a subject. This all flies in the face of what we hear about modern education. It's always skills, skills, skills - which sounds great until you see the end result: ignorant, innumerate illiterates.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 09 Apr 2012, 00:38

Lots of great points here.

The thing that always strikes me about people who do (even subtly) argue that poorer kids shouldn't be taught the same things or in the same way as richer kids is just how contradictory that is to their usual rhetoric of helping the working classes and so on. If anything, all it does is more firmly entrench a class system.

When I was studying to be a teacher, we encountered this rubbish on a constant basis from some lecturers and tutors. It was all about how rather than just having to write an essay, kids should be able to make a model, or do a performance (presentation/speech I could understand, but they were talking about performances). Yet the whole point of that is that if you want to get into the University of Melbourne and study law, you're not going to be able to eventually get admitted to the bar on the basis of a wonderful papier mache model you made. If you want to study accounting and go and work for KPMG, you're not going to do so based upon your ability to put together an audience participation play. If you want to study medicine, no one is going to care if you could write a catchy tune for your biology class. People don't pay $20,000+/year to send their kids to a glorified creche. They pay that money so they will be highly literate and numerate and generally well-educated. That is also, not surprisingly, why aside from the selective government high schools, the government sector is grossly under-represented at the top universities in Australia. It is, incidentally, why I'd put good money on the politicians and education bureaucrats not sending their kids to government schools in poor suburbs. At the root of it, even the people espousing this nonsense don't really believe it.
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