In a debate between diversity and "hero-worship," both sides miss classical education's role in the current moment.
Restoration, Not Representation
To walk into the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican is to encounter three walls of paintings aside from the famous “The School of Athens.” While “The School of Athens” looms the largest because of its influence on the tradition, there is also the “Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament” with biblical characters, including Judas Maccabees and a handful of saints; “Parnassus” which includes Homer, Dante, and Sappho; and “Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law,” showing seven virtues depicted in embodied female forms. What happens when we open up our eyes beyond the one panel and receive a 360-degree view of the room? Suddenly you see more than merely Greek philosophers at the heart of the tradition, but also the Eucharist, a Jewish revolutionary cut from Protestant Bibles, literary heroes, including a female poet, and a dozen women (granted of mythical muses and allegorical virtues) not formerly seen as part of the picture.
If we only attend to one wall of this room, we miss so much about the reality of the tradition. We miss out on the place in the story for the Greek philosophers. We miss how philosophy fits with theology, literature, and virtue. When I write on classical education as a diverse and universal tradition, I am not falling prey to twenty-first-century ideological culture wars, as Josh Herring has suggested in these pages; rather, in the same way that I want to draw people’s eyes to the other walls in Stanza della Segnatura, I am hoping to restore a fuller picture of what tradition means—a picture that has too often been constricted.
Because of the polarization of the American landscape, my stance on classical education has not been understood with nuance but has been treated as another fracture in our public square. Although I agree with much of what Josh Herring has written concerning the tempering of Greek and Roman classics with Christian thought, he mistakenly portrays my argument as “a conservative version of identity politics.” To be clear, I am not proposing that we employ representation as a rubric for choosing our great books canon. I am saying that specifically in classical education as it was developed in the 1990s and has been propagated by some leaders, publishers, and so on, we have used representation in the way that we have elected certain books to our canon—you had to be a “white” man to have written a great book (The adjective “white” is anachronistically applied here, but we could also say Western or European descent). For one example, consider Mortimer Adler’s famous great books list (here’s a 1972 edition): it is a list of 136 white men (and one woman, Jane Austen). This list, and others like it, have left out too many writers because of a narrow view, a lens that was itself representation-oriented.
Instead, I propose we exercise the measures of goodness, truth, and beauty when we seek to find the books worthy to hand down in our tradition; however, we should stop ignoring the writers who are already there but were severed from our tradition because they weren’t Western, white, or male. I’m not being woke in proposing we read Sappho—Raphael shows her in his 1511 painting. Nor am I being a feminist in wanting to read Julian of Norwich—T.S. Eliot quotes her in his 1945 “Four Quartets”; she is already in the tradition despite our attempts to sideline her. I don’t want to tokenize minority voices, to throw out Virgil to make room for Terence because the latter was Libyan. I am merely suggesting that classical, Christian education be as restorative in its movement as it promises to be: telling the whole of history from the beginning of the world to now, from Japan and India to Africa and America; sharing the classics from Babylon alongside those of Greece; showing that classical education has always been for everyone and does not belong merely to some people.
In his defense of classical education, Herring too wants all people to see themselves in this tradition, but he incorrectly frames my position as thus calling for representation. I agree with Herring: “The goal of a classical education is not to help each student see himself, but rather to perceive in himself a representation of the whole.” It is our humanity that we all share. We should see ourselves in one another’s stories. Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread with the Dead is helpful here, with his litany of examples of writers such as Zadie Smith who saw herself in John Keats.
As Herring writes, “Classical education seeks…to give the education that once belonged to the elites to everyone.” Yes! Classical education is a restoration movement that takes stock of where we are now by learning from where we’ve come. But that means we cannot repeat the errors of the past—we cannot limit ourselves to those writers listed by Adler or curated by the first few classical schools in America. We exclude too many people from the invitation to classical education when we refuse to admit certain authors to our canon, which should be dynamic and alive, not static and dead. G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The classical education movement will fall into traditionalism if educators do not embrace Chesterton’s democracy of the dead, if they continue to clutch tightly to their white-male-dominated syllabi.
My ideal is not set by a twenty-first-century agenda. The book that has influenced me most is the Bible, and that is not a Sunday-school default answer but the truth. When I imagine cultivating a reading list, I keep before me the ideal of the city of God, the “great multitude” that stood before St. John in his vision in Revelation, “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7:9 NIV). I desire a great books list where human blindness does not omit those invited to the final banquet and where our folly does not keep us from listening to other nations and tongues. To create such a list, we must all—as the multitude does in John’s vision—bow. Humility must replace pride. A love for what is worth loving must replace every ideological battle.
I want to borrow some witty syntax from my favorite author, Flannery O’Connor, who once quipped about the Eucharist that if it was only a symbol, to hell with it. For this very different context, I’d like to say, “If classical education is only for some people, to hell with it.” And I mean that. Rather, we should look beyond the narrow view we’ve received of this education and embrace the fuller picture.