A Defense of Classical Education (by Benjamin V. Beier)
[Note: Benjamin V. Beier, Ph. D. is an Associate Professor of Education at Hillsdale College. He has published articles on Shakespeare, Thomas More, and related topics, and is currently co-authoring a book on Aristotelian logic.]
“Does classical education perpetuate racism, Ms. Hugh?” This question may strike the supporters of classical education as silly, but after a summer of civil unrest, many students have returned to school this fall earnestly questioning the value of a classical education. I understand the impulse of some classical educators simply to ignore such a question, but I believe that we must respond lest many good-willed students eventually and erroneously conclude either that their education was antiquated because it only concerned itself with the past with no view toward the present, or that it was hypocritical because for all its praise of Socratic conversation and the Socratic courage to seek refutation in order to gain the truth, these latter-day Socrateses of classical education proved unwilling actually to go down to the Piraeus to visit with those who are not already persuaded of the value of a classical education.
To assist classical educators and school leaders in articulating anew and for this moment the value of a classical education, I recently penned a five-part defense of classical education. Therein, I highlight classical education’s (1) ability to tell the truth about complicated matters of the past while cultivating a proper reverence toward our ancestors. I insist that (2) the content of classical education sheds light on contemporary issues and provides examples of goodness and virtue for us to imitate in the present. Also, I unfold that (3) this content—the canon of works esteemed and taught—is neither stagnant nor nonexistent, but a dynamic tradition that develops—to borrow from John Henry Newman’s account of doctrine—with integrity, according to certain principles. I, furthermore, indicate how this tradition (4) joins concern for justice and truth, providing unique resources to address the difficulties of our own time, as it also has in past moments of crisis. Finally, I share (5) Rémi Brague’s beautiful articulation of the way Rome received the thought of Athens and Jerusalem humbly as outside of itself and as a gift to learn from, preserve, pass on, and return to. Let us imitate Rome as we continue humbly to pass on the tradition we love and teach to others, and as we seek a renewal of learning for wisdom and virtue in this difficult year of 2020 and beyond.