9/09/2019

Classical Education Without Tears?

"I recognize in many classical programs this same modern spirit. They have a vastly better set of books than I was given, but the message is the same: truth, beauty, and goodness are naturally attractive. Give students great books, great works of art and music, and they will love their education. It is easy to forget the observation made famous by George Orwell, reflecting on his own experience learning Latin as a boy: “I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment.” Classical education to be sure offers much that is wonderful. But the most important discoveries come by effort that is often painful. A joyful tour of the “true, good, and beautiful” without pain is likely a superficial substitute for a real education.

C.S. Lewis makes this point in his essay, “The Parthenon and the Optative.” Everyone knows the Parthenon, the symbol of the Golden Age of Athens. But the “optative” is known only to those who have been exposed to Greek grammar. It is a “mood” of the verb that expresses wish or desire, just as the “indicative” expresses matters of fact or the “interrogative” expresses questions. Lewis opens the essay by remembering a colleague of his looking over mediocre entrance essays and lamenting that “The trouble with these boys is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the Optative.”

What does this mean? As Lewis explains, “I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in ‘Appreciation’ and ends in gush. When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it. But the other fails most disastrously when it most succeeds.”[*]"