A Promiscuous Label

A Promiscuous Label

In 2002, ISI Books published the landmark Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons. However, it was not until 2005 that the CiRCE Institute awarded Simmons the prestigious Paideia Prize for Lifetime Contribution to Classical Education. This award places Simmons comfortably alongside other classical education heavyweights such as David Hicks and James Taylor, winners of the Paideia Prize in 2002 and 2007, respectively.

The CiRCE Institute describes Climbing Parnassus as follows:

In Climbing Parnassus, … Tracy Lee Simmons presents a defense and vindication of the formative power of Greek and Latin. His persuasive witness to the unique, now all-but-forgotten advantages of study in and of the classical languages constitutes a bracing reminder of the genuine aims of a truly liberal education.

Early on in Climbing Parnassus, Simmons offers his own authentic definition of classical education:

Here I trust that the reader will allow me the archaism of reverting to the older definition of classical education as a curriculum grounded upon — if not strictly limited to — Greek, Latin, and the study of the civilization from which they arose. For though my allies have appropriated the term for good purposes, I can find no other that carries the weight of classical study as does “classics,” the pursuit of which results, if we’re lucky, in a “classical education.” (p. 20)

Why does he consider this “the older definition”? Because he hearkens back to an earlier era:

Once classical education pointed to an elite course of instruction based upon Greek and Latin, the two great languages of the classical world. But it also delved into the history, philosophy, literature, and art of the Greek and Roman worlds, affording over time to the more perspicacious devotees a remarkably high degree of cultural understanding, an understanding that endured and marked the learner for life. Classical education was classical immersion. Students in the great and exclusive Public Schools of England were once made to learn far more about the archons of Greek city-states and emperors of Rome, and commit to memory far more lines of Greek and Roman poetry and drama, than they ever had to learn about Tudors and Stuarts, about Chaucer and Shakespeare. (p. 19)

Simmons’s choice to use the “older definition” is not arbitrary. For him, it is an authentic decision, consistent with his values and beliefs:

To use any other term would also break my rule of respecting the past, not to mention causing a semantic severance with generations of men and women who used the term quite differently and, I think, more accurately. I’ll stick to the antique ways. (p. 19)

But if that is the “older definition,” what is the “newer definition” that this Paideia Prize winner refuses to use?

Thus nowadays may classical education refer to something not linked to the classical world at all — never mind the languages — and get equated with what might once have been called simply traditional or orthodox education. This is schooling based on “classics,” on books of the Great Tradition, an education that serves to inform us of the best works of our civilization and to provide us with models for spotting ethical and aesthetic norms. These two functions the valuable “Great Books” programs try to perform. Used in this way, classical education describes the quest for what has also been called a “liberal education” or, more particularly, an education in the “humanities.” And now legions of well-intending home schoolers rush to put dibs on the term and bask in the light of the glory they believe it to exude. To many home schoolers, “classical education” simply means the opposite of whatever is going on in those dreaded public schools. We can sympathize with them. I will only say to all these good people that extending “classical” to mark an approach or course of study without reference to Greek and Latin seems an unnecessarily promiscuous usage.

I can’t help but notice the deep irony in Simmons’s words. In the rush to “bask in the light” of classical education, Simmons alleges that “home schoolers” violate the very tenets of classical scholarship by introducing a “semantic severance” with the very forefathers they wish to emulate.

When I contemplate Simmons’s commentary, I think of the home owner who longs for antiques and the classic look. But instead of going to antique stores, he wanders over to Restoration Hardware and buys brand-new machine-manufactured objects which bear some resemblance to hand-made items from an earlier era. A house populated by Restoration Hardware artifacts sure looks classical. But is it?

Simmons recounts when someone with this apparent mindset interviewed him:

Once I was asked my field of study. “Classics,” I replied. To which my interlocutor responded, “Oh, you mean Dickens, Melville, and all that?” — a response common and understandable now. (p. 19)

Similarly today I observe many “home schoolers” survey the educational method of Charlotte Mason and seem to repeat the interlocutor’s conversation with Simmons. “Oh, Mason prescribes Shakespeare? I am so happy to hear that she is classical!”

To this naïveté, Simmons explains the true colors of classical education:

Greek and Latin, this unique and rarefied base of education, revered so long by the best and brightest, is not for everyone… Critics of classical education have, in one sense, been right for centuries: classics is, in at least one inescapable sense, elitist… Can someone be “classically educated” without a reading knowledge of Greek and Latin? This sticky question, despite dogmatic claims on both sides, should not be answered glibly. One must probe a little to discover precisely what kind of knowledge the questioner wishes to gain. The judgment of history is No. (pp. 27-28)

With irrefutable frankness, Simmons explains in so many words that the judgment of history is that Mason is not a classical educator. She did not insist on a reading knowledge of Greek and Latin. She did not define a method of education for the “elite.” She did not focus her attention on something that “is not for everyone.” She pointed the way in her method to an awakening centered in the Lord Jesus Christ that could bring new life to all people of all classes, abilities, and conditions.

As for me, I will stick with Simmons’s definition of classical education. I will join him in respecting the legacy of the classical educators the term is meant to evoke. I will not use that term to describe Mason’s revolutionary ideas. To do so would take a perfectly meaningful word, classical, and reduce it to a promiscuous label.

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