The Value of Classical Humanist Education

We ought not to sail to the Pillars of Hercules and run many dangers for the sake of wealth, while we spend neither labour nor money for wisdom. Verilly it is slavish to long for life, instead of for the good life…and to seek for money but pay no attention whatever to the noble.”—-Aristotle. Protrepticus


The Value of Classical Humanist Education

As explained in my essay “What is Humanism?”, the studia humanitatis formed the backbone of the Western educational tradition from at least the Renaissance. In the 20th century however this humanist educational ideal came under increasing strain as a result of revolutionary changes in educational practice.  One striking measure of this was the declining role of the classics in higher education. As J.H. Wright writing in the 19th century explained that the entrance examination of Harvard University as of 1838 required a fluent knowledge of the works of Cicero and Virgil and the required undergraduate curriculum covered not only advanced Greek and Latin composition but the study of figures like Xenophon, Sophocles, Homer, Horace and Livy. In the course of the 20th century however the classics lost their status as the foundation of a universal education and were demoted to a rather recondite and increasingly rare field left to specialists. Certainly there were positive aspects to the broader understanding of the humanities that moved beyond a narrow focus on the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Yet even the humanities in our broader contemporary sense felt an accelerating sense of decline.  According to statistics cited in an April, 2010 article by Peter Conn in The Chronicle of Higher Education the percent of humanities majors has dropped to just 8% of the student body in 2007, from 17.8% in the late 1960’s.  While politicians frequently lament illiteracy in the sciences and mathematics, they seldom take note of the absence of basic literacy in fields such as history. According to a study entitled Still at Risk conducted in 2008 by AEI researcher Frederick M. Hess, a majority of 17 year old high school students could not place the US Civil War in the correct time period, nearly 40% could not identify the Renaissance, and nearly a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler.

The crisis of the humanities appears to stem partly from the ever growing dominance of a utilitarian conception of education. According to this view the goal of university and higher education is to provide those marketable technical skills necessary for practical success in the world – most especially in a chosen career. From this perspective advanced studies in science, engineering, technology or economics seemed far more relevant than the five traditional disciplines of the studia humanitatis – philosophy, history, rhetoric, poetry, and (Greek and Latin) grammar. Judged in terms of use-value it might seem reasonable to argue that courses in business accounting and computer programing are more pressing concerns than mastering Plato and Virgil. All of these claims raise a formidable challenge to defenders of the humanist ideal of education – what exactly is the value of humanist education?

This was a question already much discussed at the very origin of this educational tradition in ancient Greece.  It is interesting that the liberal ideal of education arose originally from an intensely practical concern among the Sophists who first developed this system of education as an art of good citizenship.  In despotic societies an educated citizenry was of little import; absolute kings and despots after all ruled by force or decree. In societies like Greece and Rome however were citizens were expected to partake actively in ruling. As Pericles noted in his famous Funeral Oration, the Athenian were unique in among nations in regarding the man who was uninvolved in public affairs not as harmless but as useless. Rhetoric was therefore for the Sophists the principal foundation of a liberal education.  To be a good and active citizen required a broad and expansive knowledge of many issues, an ability to use and understand logic and argument, and the ability to employ language persuasively. And in contemporary Western societies which have inherited this Greco-Roman ideal of the free and responsible citizen this is no less true.In this sense therefore liberal education does have an important pragmatic component.

The philosophers of ancient Greece  however deepened and challenged the Sophistic idea of education and tended toward a more “idealistic” understanding of education that struck at utilitarianism itself. As Aristotle avers in his Protrepticus:

            “We ought not to sail to the Pillars of Hercules and run many dangers for the sake of wealth, while we spend neither labour nor money for wisdom. Verilly it is slavish to long for life, instead of for the good life…and to seek for money but pay no attention whatever to the noble.”(frg. 52)

In short the purely utilitarian view of education confuses ends with means. It presumes that wisdom and knowledge must serve some purpose beyond themselves (such as to enable the acquisition of wealth or position), whereas in fact for Aristotle wisdom and knowledge are ends in themselves. As he opens the Metaphysics “All men by nature desire to know”. If one asks then why thus the pursuit of wisdom is worthy, Aristotle would reply that it fulfills and develops what is most noble and proper to man – his reason.

Perhaps the strongest pragmatic argument for the humanist educational ideal is that it is a universal form of education which aims at the fullest development of human faculties.  Technical education equips a person with specific skills to perform particular tasks. But the fully developed person is often the one best equipped to perform any task. The habits of mind which develop the capacity for critical and creative thought are useful in virtually any situation. As Cardinal Sadoleto avers in the closing of his aforementioned educational treatise De Pueris Recte Instituendis:


“Those who having come so far and having long found a nursing mother in philosophy, turn afterwards to other interests in life, whether the civil law be their pursuit,  or the service of the state in peace and war…may be sure that, to whatever they devote themselves, they will take with them an increased store both of facility in entering and of wisdom and determination in fulfilling their task. But those who make their abiding habitation in philosophy are to be deemed godlike rather than of the common way and nature of men.”



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