Classical education — “learning to read.”

In his Confessions, Augustine expresses gratitude for his classical education. Although he is highly critical of the pagan mythology that saturated his curriculum, he observes, “those primary lessons were better, assuredly, because more certain; seeing that by their agency I acquired, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing myself what I will.” (I.13.20) As modern people, it is easy for us to see the phrase “the power of reading” and understand this as “basic literacy.” On the contrary, the curriculum of Augustine’s day studied a limited number of authors (Virgil, Terrence, Sallust, Cicero) with slowness and care almost unknown in our time.

st-augustine

As Peter Brown explains in his classic Augustine: A Biography, “The great advantage of the education that Augustine received was that, within its narrow limits, it was perfectionist. The aim was to measure up to the timeless perfection of an ancient classic. ..Every word every turn of phrase of these few classics, therefore, was significant. The writer did not merely write. He ‘wove’ his discourse; he was a man who had ‘weighted the precise meaning of every word.’ We need only see only see how Augustine as a bishop will interpret the Bible as if everything in it were ‘said exactly as it should be said’ to realize the lasting effect of this education.” (p.25)

 

One can find support for this characterization of classical education from a thinker whose views on almost everything else are diametrically opposed to St. Augustine, namely the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is famous as a philosopher, but it important to remember that Nietzsche’s “day job” was a philologist, that is a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Basel. (Ill health and academic politics forced him to retire early.) Nietzsche commends the study of the classics in Greek and Latin as a discipline of “reading slowly”:

 

“For philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all — to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow — the leisurelyNietzsche art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. For this very reason philology is now more desirable than ever before; for this very reason it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of ‘work’: that is to say, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry, which is intent upon ‘getting things done’ at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not ‘get things done’ so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes!” (Dawn of Day, Preface, 5)

 

A classical education should be approached in a radically different way from contemporary schooling, which studies too many unrelated subjects in a broad but shallow way, and which virtually guarantees that the student will retain little or nothing. A return to the classical tradition means rethinking what we teach and how we teach it. For the goal is not just to “expose” the student to knowledge, but rather to form his mind through the greatest works, to think critically and deeply about the world around him.

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