Our Squandered Inheritance

Just before the Christmas holiday, my grand-nephew Jack flew to Michigan to spend a few days visiting Hillsdale College where I teach. He is fourteen, a bit young perhaps to be thinking about applying to college, but just the right age to be thinking about the purpose of education. I envy him. Not because he’s fourteen years old. I would not trade 60 for 14. I envy him because he is learning Latin.

Instruction in Latin and Greek used to be commonplace in America, if not on a mass scale, then available to both public and private school students in more communities than we might expect. And, of course, preparation in Latin and Greek had once been required for entrance into the nation’s institutions of higher learning and part of the standard curriculum at any liberal arts college. Fidelity to the classics went beyond mottos, diplomas, and literary societies; it defined these colleges and graced their graduates.

That world seems lost beyond recovery. But the story of its decay—and deliberate destruction—takes us back more than two hundred years. Classical education’s woes did not begin with our own negligence or that of our parents. Edmund Burke already confronted Rousseau’s impact on French education in the 1790s, fearing that the philosopher’s humanitarian “ethics of vanity” would replace the old moral order intact since the ancients. Within twenty years, Oxford and Cambridge found themselves under attack by the utilitarians at the Edinburgh Review. On this side of the Atlantic, a surprising number of America’s leaders doubted the usefulness of Greek and Latin to a young and ambitious republic with a future to build.

But classical education didn’t go down without a fight. Knowing the history of that struggle, and the failed strategies of resistance meant to meet the challenge, is indispensable to the right kind of recovery of the tradition in the 21st century. We need to know our past, and this is where Eric Adler’s superb new book answers the call. Adler teaches Classics at the University of Maryland. His previous books include Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond (University of Michigan, 2016). Now, his The Battle of the Classics reconstructs the story of how Greek and Latin found themselves on the defensive in the US in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Adler begins by recounting the disappointing experience he had in the midst of a debate over revising the core curriculum at Connecticut College where he once taught. The former Provost there, Robert C. Proctor, is one of our finest historians of the humanities. His book, Defining the Humanities: How Rediscovering a Tradition Can Improve Our Schools, launched me on my own discovery of Cicero and Petrarch. Evidently, his legacy has suffered. Adler describes himself as “disconcerted” as he endured the kind of depressing conversation that has become all too common among faculty and administrators. Faced with demands that the humanities yield more space to STEM and professional schools, humanist scholars quickly reveal that they don’t have the arguments, historical awareness, or even the vocabulary to defend their own calling. They cave in to the mistaken notion that the humanities merely produce “critical thinking skills” that don’t depend on any particular content or vision. Higher education has moved so far away from character formation that any content will do to conform students to a system or an ideology rather than shape human beings for a good life. Ideologies don’t like to be challenged by the wisdom and experience of the past.

Adler begins by surveying the sorry state of contemporary justifications for the humanities (“Skills Are the New Canon”) and then traces the historical development of the humanities as the best way to define them, giving priority to the Romans over the Greeks. Cicero is the main character here, as he must be in any coherent defense of the humanities. Cary Nederman’s recent book, The Bonds of Humanity on Cicero’s legacy in social and political thought in 12th- through 16th-century Europe, further confirms Cicero’s centrality to the West. With this preparation in place, Adler tells the story of the attacks on and defense of the humanities and classical languages in 19th-century America, faulting even the venerated Yale Report of 1828 for relying too much on “mental discipline” at the expense of a specific content that leads to character formation. I suspect that the Yale faculty would have responded that a college education merely complemented the much broader, culture-wide task of character formation undertaken by family, church, and community, but Adler makes a compelling case that the defenders of the classics conceded too much ground to the demands of skills-based education, a tendency that accelerated rapidly in the years ahead.

Adler’s depth and breadth of research are impressive. He seems to have read every newspaper account, magazine article, and speech related to the key episodes in his history. His footnotes open a world of primary and secondary sources that indicate how much more can still be done to flesh out this story. In fact, I hope Adler will consider editing an anthology of primary documents on the “battle for the classics.” Such a collection would arm today’s defenders with the vocabulary, arguments, and historical precedents they need to rebuild and defend classical education. The market for such a book is there.

Classically educated college presidents and other intellectual elites led the charge against Latin and Greek in favor of utilitarian, romantic, and progressive education.

There is a palpable sense of betrayal in Adler’s history. We find Charles Francis Adams, Jr, in 1883 delivering his Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard and using the occasion to blast the University for still requiring Greek for admission, calling it “a positive educational wrong” and a “superstition.” He was supported by E. L. Youmans, editor of Popular Science Monthly, the very magazine that at the same time was pedaling the mythology of the warfare between science and religion. For a Comtean Positivist like Adams, the age of science would triumph over the doomed epochs of religion and metaphysics. Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, famous for expanding the elective system, made the Classics fend for themselves in open competition with other disciplines. Adler faults Eliot’s public adversary, Princeton’s distinguished James McCosh, for not challenging the presuppositions of Eliot’s skills-based approach to curricula nor reasserting the specific content and telos of the humanities. What can superficially look like a range of arguments from A to Z was in fact an argument from A to B. Where McCosh failed, Irving Babbitt succeeded—if not in stopping the decline then in articulating the clearest defense of the humanities heard in generations. Adler rejects the mistaken view of Babbitt as a reactionary and instead reintroduces us to a scholar who broadened the humanist tradition beyond the West while continuing to insist on content-driven education in pursuit of wisdom and virtue.

I have read Adler’s book twice, and I have been urging classics professors, classical school administrators, faculty, homeschooling families, and others to read it. Adler does not write as a political partisan. He does not offer a cliched defense of Western civilization, or a culture-war polemic. It takes courage to defend the classics in our time, and Adler’s work will re-invigorate those who feel as though they are fighting a losing battle.

There are signs of hope. Thousands of Americans are building alternative institutions. Classical schools are springing up in community after community. Online instruction in Greek and Latin is flourishing. And small publishers are meeting the demand with complete curricula. When I published The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, my target audience was my fellow college professors who wanted to ground themselves in the tradition that they themselves had been denied in their own education. To my embarrassment, I knew nothing about the emerging classical school movement. That was only 14 years ago. Since then, growth has been explosive. I marvel that so many parents, board members, teachers, and their allies are sacrificing time, money, and energy to give children a better education outside of the public school system. The next step may be to reform and found colleges and universities that can continue the good work begun in primary and secondary schools. Sadly, Christian and other liberal arts colleges are closing down their classics departments along with philosophy, politics, modern foreign languages, and even history. These are desperate strategies resorted to by institutions staring bankruptcy in the face. More imaginative college presidents need to read Adler’s work.

My nephew and so many students like him have opportunities today that I never had in the 1960s and 70s. I studied German for four years, but now I find myself teaching college freshmen who have been reading Vergil and Cicero firsthand while I continue to encounter these Romans through the fog of translation. Early in my career I would have felt threatened by students who know more than I do, but now I admit my ignorance and let them teach me what they know. In an unexpected turn my work has taken recently, I also find myself needing Latin for my research and writing on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theology. The past is smarter than I am, better educated. And that is humbling. If we wait until we are as educated as the past, we will never get the job done.

Being 14, Jack is not as impressed as I am with his studies. During his visit, I made sure he had the chance to talk informally with a friend who happens to be a very fine Latin teacher. The conversation quickly turned to Jack’s frustration, impatience, and boredom with Latin. But my friend wisely told him that “Old Jack” will thank “Young Jack” for sticking with it. I know this is true, and I pray that Young Jack will continue to trust his parents and teachers and that we old folks will be worthy of that trust.

Young America didn’t stick with Latin and Greek. And Old America may not care. What had been the cherished norm for generations was rejected by the very people who should have been its staunchest defenders. The ironies are painful. Classically educated college presidents and other intellectual elites led the charge against Latin and Greek in favor of utilitarian, romantic, and progressive education. Middle-aged America, thinking itself so sophisticated and up to date, betrayed the rising generations and, wielding ridicule and smugness, robbed youth of a great legacy that had been nurtured for centuries with self-sacrifice, patience, and a lot of hard work. Today, we find ourselves without an Old America with the required wisdom, virtue, and eloquence to rebuke Young America for its folly. We need to grow up, take responsibility, and reclaim our squandered inheritance.