Classically Practical

Classical Christian Ed Must Lay Claim to the New “Job Training”

Classical education advocates often make the claim that true education—done classically—is not about career training, social advancement, or college preparation; instead, classical education is primarily, if not solely, concerned with virtue formation and a pursuit of the transcendentals—truth, goodness, and beauty. Any social or political benefits are simply ancillary to the real aim of a classical education: learning to think, becoming a better person, and knowing what to love. Insofar as this is merely a description, rather than a prescription, of how the modern classical education movement conceives of its own teleology, regrettably this may very well be true. Yet, rarely do such advocates interrogate how “classical” such a view of education really is. Is it really the case that education in the medieval and early modern periods did not aim at career training? Did early modern grammar schools (our equivalent of secondary schools) focus on preparing their students for further university education? What sort of education produced the likes of John Milton and John Donne, Francisco Suárez and Pierre Gassendi, John Owen and Gisbertus Voetius, Robert Boyle and René Descartes? 

Desiderius Erasmus’ De civilitate morum puerilium (On the Cultivation of the Manner of Boys)—a paragon of the new humanist educational program in early modern Europe—laid out four aims of education: piety, love for the liberal studies, instruction in daily life, and the teaching of customs and manners of civility. The first two were not unconnected from the latter two. Good people were to live good lives. Johann Sturm, the great 16th-century German educator, in his treatise on how the gymnasium (the modern equivalent of a secondary school) in Strasbourg makes this connection more concrete: “For as it was almost always useful for individual private citizens to have their children conversant with the discipline of the liberal arts, so in the public realm it was essential for all for the preservation of the state that some persons stand forth who, in periods of crisis and danger, would look after the needs of state not only advantageously, but also wisely.” In other words, liberal learning has its usefulness, especially in the formation of a political elite who would rule wisely. This is not my interpretation of Sturm’s belief. Lewis Spitz, the great Lutheran historian begrudgingly admits it: “Sturm’s inflexible standards fueled his determined optimism that the elite, and thus only a very small fraction of the youth, who were trained in the classics, could achieve the highest cultural goals their society had to offer them.” What were these standards? A mastery of language (grammar), a mastery of thinking (dialectic), and a mastery of speaking (rhetoric).

Of course, we should not overlook Sturm’s comment that the liberal arts have “almost always” been useful to all private citizens; but make no mistake about it, early modern education had the specific goal of producing a political elite class. We can see this quite clearly in their methods of teaching both grammar and rhetoric. A student’s whole education would have been largely in Latin—reading, writing, and speaking. Indeed, the books to be read and studied were often chosen not because of their content, but because of their style—Latin style. In his program for Cambridge students in the mid-17th century, the tutor Richard Holdsworth demanded that his university students spend nearly every moment of their afternoon focused on Greek, Latin and oratory. The purpose was practical: “Studies not less necessary than the first [i.e. those in the morning], if not more useful, especially Latin, and oratory, without which all other learning though never so eminent, is in a manner void and useless, without those you will be baffled in your disputes, disgraced and vilified in public examinations, laughed at in speeches and declamations. You will never dare to appear in any act of credit in the University, nor must you look for preferment by your learning only.” Knowing a lot of facts is useless for a man of letters without being able to wax eloquently about such learning! Even schoolmasters, who spent almost their whole time in teaching young boys to speak proper Latin at grammar schools, insisted on the practical importance of spoken Latin—often the only permitted language to speak in the schools. The elder John Brinsley, a prolific early modern English pedagogue, in addressing the reason why students are to learn to speak Latin well makes its end plain: “To the end to fit them to answer any learned man in Latin or to dispute ex tempore: also to train them [i.e. the students] up to be able to speak purely when they come in the Universities; as in some Colleges they are onely[sic] to speak Latin: or to fit them, if they shall go beyond the seas, as Gentlemen who go to travel, Factors [i.e. an agent] for Merchants and the like.” It was not because they could simply read good literature—indeed, the early modern period saw a plethora of translations of various classical works in English. Nor was the purpose so that they could learn their English better—what a waste of time; Just read some Shakespeare or imitate Milton’s style (following Ben Franklin’s method)! Instead, speaking Latin would help them professionally and prepare them for university.

We can also apply the idea of POSIWID to early modern education. What does spending endless hours on Latin, Greek, Logic, Rhetoric, Jurisprudence, Physics, and Metaphysics result in? An elite capable of navigating the scientific, theological, and political milieu of early modern Europe. No wonder the educational system produced such polymaths—renaissance men—able to discourse on law as theologians, theology as lawyers and politicians, and politics as theologians. The reason civil magistrates were so invested in university education was precisely because they were political institutions. Education is inherently political as one recent outfit has noted. Even our own American political tradition has recognized the political and anti-egalitarian nature of education. Thomas Jefferson, who was happy to provide basic education to all citizens, still envisioned an educational system that was designed to “assure wise and honest government,” which “necessitated the training of leaders” as one historian puts it. 

Early modern classical education was neither simply aimed at personal virtue formation nor career training, but both. It was intended to create (at least by the university level), an elite, learned class of men who were religiously and morally pious, having what the Greeks called εὐσέβεια. If we wish to return to classical education, we need to embrace its anti-egalitarianism, its political import, and its necessity for godly leaders who will shepherd us with an upright heart and a skillful hand (Ps. 78:72).

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Michael Lynch

Michael Lynch Michael Lynch (PhD. Calvin Seminary) teaches Classical Languages and Humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, Delaware and is a teaching fellow at the Davenant Institute. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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