I recently discovered I was ignorant. Ignorance is not a bad thing if you ask me, especially if, firstly, you admit it frankly and secondly, if you know how to cure it. And I realized I was ignorant in the classics.
Well, I thought. I can’t possibly be a classical unschooler and be ignorant in the classics, so away I went to the bookstore to fix that. My plan was – is – to read the great works of literature, philosophy and history chronologically.
Where are the greats?
Imagine my surprise then when I had trouble finding the first writers of great Western literature – the Greeks – at a bookstore that seemed otherwise overflowing with books! What? No greats of Western culture? How could this be?
And yes, I found Homer, thank goodness, but no Herodotus, no Aeschylus, no Hesiod, no Quintus, no Thucydides. And just a smattering of Plato and Aristotle in the middle of a large area of philosophy replete with existentialism and nihilism.
And I haven’t even started with the Romans.
I’m not blaming the bookstore, mind you. They stock what they can and what sells. They have to work within their space constraints and make a profit. I get it. I’m as capitalist as they come.
What bothered me was that if the bookstore wasn’t stocking Greek and Roman classics, it meant that no one was buying them, which meant that no one was reading them.
What are colleges really reading?
Clearly, there’s a disconnect somewhere. Fareed Zakaria, in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education claims that a common base of culture and knowledge is important for people to form a common identity. People get along better when they have it. E. D. Hirsch says the same thing. Lists like these confirm the idea that books which matter to western culture are alive and well read.
This second list matched my experience at the store. Yes, of course there are people other than college students buying books. However, it seemed to me that when it comes to reading what is referred to as “good literature,” the pool that people choose from stops more often than not in the Modern age. And even that is now being scrubbed clean.
We love Shakespeare, but…
… we don’t read those who influenced him enough. I was dismayed when I saw so many copies of Ibsen’s A Doll House on the shelves and not enough copies of Greek drama.
It reminded me of my own education which followed a chronological order that was all wrong.
We do a disservice to our children (and ourselves) if we only throw in a smattering of Greek & Roman mythology in their childhood because they are fun and then leave it out completely when we enter the middle grades and high school.
We do a serious disservice to our children if by the time they enter the Rhetoric stage, all we present to them are Modern writers and philosophies of nihilism and existentialism.
I know because I’ve been there.
Speaking anecdotally, I can tell you that I adopted existentialism as a personal philosophy because it seemed “cool.” There was very little thought that went into it.
I received a good education. Having read Greek and Roman mythology in the elementary years to Medieval writing (in simplified English) in middle school, we were reading Shakespeare in high school. Unfortunately, we went from that to Moderns, Moderns and more Moderns in college. We also threw in a generous helping of Post Modern literature until we all concluded that hell was other people.
My worldview – along with my education – was apparently complete.
Structure Your Curriculum Differently
In my book The Classical Unschooler, I mention how to structure every subject so that the student can pass through the three levels of learning – the grammar, the logic (or dialectic) and the rhetoric – for each subject individually.
I also mention that the rhetoric stage can be the most fun stage because at this stage the student already has a grasp of the basic knowledge each subject requires, has tested what is true and what isn’t and is at the point where he can make arguments for and against a specific topic.
It is precisely at this stage – the rhetoric stage – that we want to reintroduce him to the classics. The rhetoric stage is when we want to challenge the mind with new ideas, to grapple with them, to find the beauty, the poetry and the pathos in them. Sure, if you so wish, throw in some Postmodern ideas in there, too, but make sure they are questioned, not just imbibed.
This the tragedy of education today. Don’t let it happen to you and yours.