Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Graduation

We here at APLV would like to extend warm congratulations to a fine young woman, Derpina, upon the eve of her graduation from college. Congratulations Derpina! As you know, though, we're a curious bunch here at the blog and simply can't resist thinking about things. We just cannot stop wondering: what's Derpie going to do with her gilt diploma? Join us in a little speculation?

Right away we're a little worried because Derpie spent a lot of money on  her education, $100,000 in fact. Unfortunately Derpie didn't have that much money coming out of high school so some generous folks lent her the money. They were so kind in fact that they didn't even ask what Derpie was going to study in college or whether her degree would get Derpie a job and whether she would be able to pay back the money. Fortunately Derpie's parent's have a good amount of money saved so maybe they'll help. Let's move on then.

So what's Derpina going to do with her degree? Well let us see, she majored in comparative literature. Hmm, what can Derpie do with that? Uh oh! Derpie's having trouble getting a job. For some reason she can't find an employer who needs his literature compared. Shocking? Perhaps. Yet Derpina went to a liberal arts college. What does that mean? It means she went there not just to prepare for getting a job but to enrich her mind and character. She went there "to ask important questions." Well what did she ask, we ask.

Here we need to make a teensy distinction because while Derpina's school wrote "A Liberal Arts School" on the brochures and they offered music and philosophy and history, poor Derpina didn't actually get a Classical Education. What is a classical education in contrast to a progressive education? Well, why don't we just compare a classical education to what Derpina actually got in a few of her classes.

I. History

Since Derpina didn't major in history she only had to take two classes of history to satisfy the demands of the "core curriculum" for the "Bachelor of Arts" degree. Both classes met twice a week for four months and cost several thousand dollars each, plus the cost of text books. What did Derpina get for her money and time? In her American history class they spent the first class making some general remarks about history. Then they went to a play instead of class. Another time the professor was away and sent a graduate student to fill in, who showed a video. They spent one class watching a movie about women's suffrage and another about Christopher Columbus enslaving natives. Several classes were taken up by exams. There aren't that many classes left for teaching are there? The professor taught one class about the "robber barons," one on child labor, another on FDR's "Second Bill of Rights," and lastly one on the Vietnam War protests.

In her European history course the professor taught the class like a seminar instead of teaching and the students discussed the role of women in different periods of history.

A Classical Education in history would have taught Derpina a great deal more. She would have analyzed the Classical historians as authors with their modes of analyses: Herodotus' stories to preserve the deeds of the Greeks, Thucydides' painstaking accounts "not meant to entertain," Livy's exemplars, and Plutarch's "parallel lives." She would have learned of the different types of government, republican, democratic, oligarchic, monarchical, the characteristics of each, how each one might degenerate into another, and which Plato and Aristotle praised the most. Derpina would have seen the bright side of democracy in Pericles' shining funeral oration and its dark side in the Melian debate and the invasion of Sicily. She would have seen both the need for change in the expulsion of the Greek tyrants, but also the terrible price paid by subverting the traditional laws in the legacy of the Gracchi. She would have seen that sometimes returning generals leave their armies at the gates, like Cincinnatus, and sometimes they enter with them like Marius, Sulla, and Caesar.

In American history, then, she would study the American republic in the light of the ancient republics and the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution in the light of Roman Twelve Tables, Solon's reforms, and the Greek and Roman courts. In short, she sees that the ancient problems are our problems. Hooray!

II. Logic and Rhetoric

Uh oh! Isn't this embarrassing? Unfortunately Derpina did not have to take a single class in logic in college. She never reads Plato's dialogues or any of Aristotle's logic. She doesn't know about different forms of argumentation, fallacies, about appeals to emotion, about induction vs. deduction. What to do? How can Derpina think? How can she systematically and reliably interpret the world around her? Nothing else in the world, no other experience or form of study, can fill this lacuna in her education. Oh noes Derpina!

It looks like Derpina didn't study rhetoric either. She never read Cicero and Demosthenes to see examples of the best oratory ever written, its attention to cadence, rhythm, periodic length, imagery, argumentation, small and large scale structure, rhetorical devices, and so forth. She doesn't know from Aristotle and Quintilian the different components of a speech, the types of speeches, or topics which one debates. She doesn't know what the emotions are or how to appeal to them. In the absence of such understanding she cannot express herself well or determine when someone else is expressing himself well. Oh my!

III. Literature and the Arts

We've been so harsh on Derpina's education let us see if we can put her major, comparative literature, to good use. Oh good, it seems she studied Shakespeare and George Eliot, surely that must be of some good? Indeed such are worthy studies, yet Derpina cannot really appreciate Shakespeare without a knowledge of Classics, especially Plutarch. Without a knowledge of Plutarch's history, the classical mythology, and the classical languages, Derpina's study will be considerably hobbled. How? Well it's hard to understand, let alone appreciate and enjoy, Shakespeare's vast vocabulary without knowing the lives of his words and many images without knowing the stories of the Greeks and Romans. Yet there is another way in which Derpina's study is hobbled by a dearth of Classical learning.

Wolfgang Sebastian Handel,
composer of Aida.
Derpina only took a survey music course and no art courses. She knows a half note is larger than a quarter note, the oboe is a woodwind, and that Beethoven was deaf, but that's about it. She has not knowledge of musical structures of counterpoint and harmony or historical contexts of styles. She doesn't know it, but this makes her major all the harder to pursue because each of the arts enlivens the others. She can't let Handel and Tiepolo bring Julius Caesar to life, Verdi Macbeth, or  Mendelssohn the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream, because she doesn't know who they are. In short, she studies her discipline in isolation without the Classics weaving the strands into something greater than the sum of its parts.


Perhaps we ought to stop here lest we be thought cruel. It's not a point in need of repetition that a Classical education in fact is education. In need of emphasis, though, is this: it is one thing not to be educated and quite another to be uneducated and think you are wise. To lack a liberal education is not the worst of things. Nietzsche praised the Romans when he said they were at their best when they lived without philosophy as a traditional agrarian people. To graduate from a liberal arts college without a liberal arts education is indeed a waste but such a waste is often the fault of the student. It is something different altogether to spend a small fortune on a liberal arts education, follow the school's curriculum to the letter, and still get nothing for your time. Like Derpina, that student takes from such an education an undeserved confidence dangerous to others and a gross and dangerous ignorance dangerous to himself. Told you have been given all the tools for life, wouldn't it be fair for you to think that when life goes awry, there's nothing more to be done?

Such a student doesn't have Plato and Aristotle to form the bedrock of his mind. Latin and Greek don't teach him to read and write with precision. The advice in the Rhetoric doesn't make him skeptical of the demagogue and the Republic doesn't make him wary of the social engineers. Ovid and Catullus don't ease his heartbreak and Horace doesn't teach him to enjoy simple pleasures. Marcus Aurelius doesn't tell him to get over himself and suck it up sometimes. To understand such a loss as an absence of guidance gives one a sense of the gravity of the deprivation but it is worse still because understanding binds one to the world. The world is for knowing and we are epistemophiliacs, lovers of understanding. The desire to understand is part of our nature and thus to begin to know the world is to begin to know oneself. So indeed it is a crime that the student has no map and a catastrophe that he has no world, but it is a tragedy that he, unawares, goes about without a self.

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