Victor Davis Hanson, who often brings a fresh perspective to commentary on contemporary politics and society because of his training and experience as a classicist, has a great piece in City Journal in which he elegantly describes the role that a classical college education (i.e. the kind where one learned Greek and Latin, and then read the literature of those languages) once played in the life of our republic.
At its most basic, the classical education that used to underpin the university often meant some acquaintance with Greek and Latin, which offered students three rich dividends. First, classical-language instruction meant acquiring generic methods of inquiry. Knowledge was no longer hazy and amorphous, but categorized and finite.
Classical languages, like their Western successors, were learned through the systematic study of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Such philological study then widened to reading poetry, philosophy, history, and oratory. Again, the student learned that there was a blueprint—a structure—to approaching education. Nothing could ever be truly new in itself but was instead a new wrinkle on the age-old face of wisdom.
With the qualification "like their Western successors," Hanson of course betrays the hard truth that a genuinely classical education rooted in actually learning Latin and Greek is not something that even an autumnal classicist like himself actually remembers. It may not even be something that the professors he studied under as a college student remembers, but they in turn would have known scholars who had received that kind of intensive education while sitting beside future businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and public servants.
But something approaching it, with required proficiency in a couple of modern European languages, a core knowledge of Western history, a familiarity with Western works of art, and deep reading in great works of Western literature -- that is within the living memory of many who still are with us.
Hanson notes that a classical education had a very practical effect on those who imbibed it:
..classical education —- reading Homer, Sophocles, and Aristotle, or studying the Delphic Charioteer and red-figure vase painting—conveyed an older, tragic view of man’s physical and mental limitations at odds with the modern notion of life without limits. Love, war, government, and religion involved choices not between utopian perfection and terrible misery but between bad and worse alternatives, or somewhat good and somewhat better options—given the limitations of human nature and the precarious, brief span of human life.
Humility permeated traditional liberal arts education: the acceptance that we know very little; that as frail human beings, we live in an unforgiving natural world; and that culture can and should improve on nature without destroying it.
But universities embraced the idea of being primarily places for acquiring technical knowledge and skills -- and today, under pressures of cost, alternative ways of acquiring much of that specialized knowledge and many of those skills are burgeoning. Interestingly, there remains a hunger for a classical education among many, and Hanson reviews the explosion in various forms of independent education in the classics that are attempting to fill the void in our educations -- probably mostly in those with college degrees or higher who now realize that they didn't get what they were supposed to get while at university. A lot of learning is moving off campus.
This is similar to a theme that Hanson and others have touched on when they talk about the fact that consumption of good works of biography and history has never been higher with the reading public -- but little of the writing is being done by the university professors who in theory should be best positioned to tell those stories.
But as he points out, these are poor substitutes for the real thing:
...the university living experience—on-campus residence, close association with professors at dinners, and attendance at university lectures—helped reinforce the abstract lessons of the classroom and promote a certain civic behavior. Students had a precious four years in such a landscape to prepare their intellectual and moral skills for a grueling life ahead.
The university was a unique place; it thrived because liberal arts in the holistic sense simply could not be emulated by, or outsourced to, private enterprise or ad hoc self-improvement training.
How ironic that the struggling university, in its efforts to meet changing political, technological, and cultural tastes and fads, willingly forfeited the only commodity that made it irreplaceable and that it alone could do well.
Again, all of this is acquiring the patina of ancient lore passed down in fireside stories told by the old ones. Meanwhile, lovers of classical learning today continue to pick through the rubble like so many WALL-E's -- knowing that something is missing that was good and beautiful and yes, useful, but not really having even tools and knowledge sufficient for comprehending the magnitude of the loss.