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Classical Education and the Process of Independent Thought

“The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate.  They are the result of habit and long training.”
- Thomas Jefferson

On September 29th, Dr. Eleni Manolaraki of the USF Classics Department addressed parents at Classical Prep’s Back to School Night.  Her message about the importance of a classical education contained so much powerful content that we asked her to send us a copy so it could be republished for the school community.  We hope the written form of the speech allows time for additional contemplation of her important topic.
Classical Education as a Foundation for Self-governance

I was delighted at the invitation to speak to the Classical Prep community about the value of a Classics education for our children. At the same time, however, I was overwhelmed by the challenge: how could I fit such a rich and meaningful subject into a few minutes? Where would I start from?

It so happened that on that same day I had started completing my citizenship application for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. On the last page, I saw again the three questions to which I was asked to respond with a YES or NO:
  1. Do you support the Constitution and form of government of the United States?
  2. Do you understand the full Oath of Allegiance to the United States?
  3. If the law requires it, are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States?
My application for citizenship afforded me an opportunity rarely available to native citizens, the opportunity of conscious civic reflection. I was asked to think about the principles of America and to decide whether I wanted to join or not. I realized then that this is what I would share with the Classical Prep community: how Classics enables developing Americans to ask, consider, and answer these and similarly crucial ethical questions.

A Classical education affords us the luxury of intentionally observing our mental process and our reactions to their own thoughts and emotions; it offers an organizing system through which we can process, adopt, or resist information and experience in our daily lives. This process is what I understand as independent thinking and self-aware decision-making. Let me give you two examples of this structuring of experience, a political and a social-cultural one:

It is well known that the Founding Fathers selected and edited Classical stories to draft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  For instance, the assassination of Julius Caesar, the first Roman monarch, figured large in their letters and speeches as a model of rebelling against autocracy--in their case, the oppression of the British crown. The most important element they adopted from antiquity, however, was an unshakeable conviction in Greek and Roman humanism: a solid belief in the intrinsic value and nobility of the individual. Christianity, which originated in the Classical environment of the Near East and Rome, elaborated the ancient humanistic model and transmitted it to the modern world. The Church Fathers described Jesus as a new Socrates, a wise teacher who had come to educate and uplift humans toward the divine.

Today in America we take for granted this basic in human dignity, but one only has to look in certain non-western nations to realize that this dignity is denied to many people today. The issue of illegal immigration, a political hot button in the United States and in Europe, comes down to a simple fact of life: that people vote with their feet.  Throughout history, people have fled nations where the individual is physically and socially abused, to go where individuals are respected or at least left in peace. This stark division is what enables me to adopt wholeheartedly America's principles as an aspiring citizen. For American citizens, Classics is the collective equivalent of searching our roots in ancestry.com and through DNA tests; the popularity of these projects indicates how important self-discovery is for understanding and respecting ourselves.

In the age of the so-called 'social' media and Facebook 'friendships,' young people often experience friendlessness and isolation rather than community. This is because they are exposed to an aggressive amount of stimulants before having crystallized their sense of self and their moral certainties. A Classical education helps them do exactly that by showing them that what looks like original and 'trending' narratives is actually a banal repetition of ancient archetypal characters and stories. For example, shaming someone over their appearance reenacts the story of Hephaestus-- the lame god whom the other gods used as comic relief to decompress their own fights; the myth expresses a lowly human instinct, but it also explains it as a pathology in the community and not in the individual. The ubiquitous 'selfie' is nothing more than the manifestation of the self-absorbed Narcissus, who died alone pining after his own reflection; it is a cautionary tale about selfishness and vanity leading to spiritual death. The ALS bucket challenge became viral because, unlike other such campaigns, it affords the participant the opportunity to present him/her self as a hero to the community, a modern Hercules or Jason.

To conclude, Classics is an essential device that filters political, social, and cultural experience. It reveals the hidden links between past and present, cause and effect; it uncovers how story-telling and the fictional are still a huge part of our lives; how popular models are not original and absolute but ancient and relative. Classics enables us to reason with ourselves; to step back from our minds and to observe them be impressed; it intervenes crucially between thought and action.

USF Classics is delighted to participate in the Classical education of your students, and in your efforts to shape them in into independent thinkers and mature adults. Thank you.

Dr. Eleni Manolaraki

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