I’ve been invited here tonight to talk about the value of a Classically-based, liberal arts education—fitting because ultimately values are what shape an educational curriculum. They are what cause us to make certain choices, to direct our activities to certain ends.
An interesting word to consider in this context: “tradition.” A modern view, or rather a consumer view of tradition, where “new” is synonymous with “better,” might suggest that tradition needs to be thrown out. Let’s innovate. Change. But a more thoughtful and nuanced approach might suggest examining tradition—finding what works and what does not—and accepting that tradition is often a reflection of what is best about the past, the ideas that exemplify Darwinian survival, passed on as the collective wisdom of hundreds of generations of mankind. This more conservative view might suggest that what is old and remains is eminently more valuable than the shiny, the new, the un-tested.
But what about the current state of education in this country? What are the values that inform the ends to which education is directed?
If we ask the students themselves, according to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute, college freshmen report the main purpose of getting a college education is “to get a better job.”
And so we have this vocational desire—this desire to get an education to get a job—that manifests itself throughout our entire educational system, in what I refer to as a “downward spiral of educational choice,” a situation in which education is pursued merely as a means to an end: take the “right” courses, to get into the “right” college, to get the “right” job, to get … well, what is next? Is the end of education to turn children into workers?
I know you’re all here because you believe in a higher purpose for education. Sure, we want our children to become productive members of society, but we need not define “productive” merely in dollars-and-cents terms. Instead, we can seek to create productive citizens, those who can engage in reasoned debate, who can lead with clarity and conviction, and who can contemplate and articulate the most profound aspects of the human condition.
If that is our goal, then education is not a means to an end. It is an end in and of itself. It is not training for a job, but training for life.
The question is: how do we achieve this end? The answer lies in the very way in which Classical Prep. has designed its curriculum: by looking back to the past, to tradition, and taking the best of that to create a board-based liberal arts curriculum, grounded in the Classics, that prepares citizens, who will lead their lives with direction and meaning.
The liberal arts train the mind. The habits of mind needed to solve a calculus problem, a physics equation, to read and understand and appreciate Shakespeare or Cicero are varied and rigorous in the extreme. What sets Classical Prep. apart from other schools grounded in the liberal arts is the value it puts on such traditional subjects as Latin, rhetoric, logic, and the recitation and memorization of poetry, to name but a few. It is a curriculum that merges the digital—the clarity and logic of calculation—with the analog—a qualification of life and the human experience, rather than just a quantification. It is a curriculum that invites students to delve deeply into the human condition. A sophomore can experience, however tangentially, Oedipus’s suffering, and be prepared for misfortunes that may lie ahead in his own life. He can study the growth of Rome’s empire and understand what it takes to build a powerful and functional organization, and what might cause it to fail. He can read Thucydides and understand the origins and ideals, and, even the failures of democracy. Homer and, well, understand it all.
And sometimes, even when we don’t know the answers, the liberal arts train us to at least ask the right questions. And sometimes we gain that most elusive and valuable Socratic wisdom in this way: we understand where we are lacking, the limits of our understanding, and at least know that we do not know.
Classical Prep’s grounding in Latin is truly special. Not only does it tie students to a timeless past, to those who built the foundations of our modern world, our art, literature, government, and architecture, but it teaches students to understand language with a sort of mathematical precision. A student of Latin understands the power of words: the effect of a phrase, the nuance of meaning applied through diction, the precise placement of a clause, having studied the art of rhetoric. The board room is a place of persuasion, as are the courts, and the floors of the House and Senate. I have three children. So is the dinner table. Speaking with clarity, passion, and precision is the root of all power and influence, it is an imperative skill to possess in a free and democratic society. Why not learn from the masters: Socrates, Swift, Churchill, and Jefferson?
I’ll close with the eminently practical. We still want our children to attend the best college, to get the best job. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that sort of security and opportunity. And happily, the study of Latin provides it. According to ETS’s Total Group Profile Report in 2014, students who took the SAT Subject Test in Latin scored on average 554 points higher than their peers. These students had the highest average Critical Reading and Writing scores of any discipline and the highest overall score of any discipline, higher even than Chemistry, Math II, or Physics.
Sometimes us Humanities types just love the numbers.
As for college admissions. Consider William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, who says of Latin, “We certainly do take notice. It [Latin] can end up tipping the student into the class.” Or Quenby Jackson Mott, Vice Dean and Penn’s Director of Admissions, “Applicants who indicated a potential major in classics this year had an admission rate of 19 percent compared with 14 percent for aspirants generally.” The study of Latin allows a student to enter new worlds of thought and experience, giving that student ground level entry into the very blueprints of the linguistic and cultural edifices of the Western world. Classical Prep. is dedicated to providing its students with this opportunity, and your support is crucial to the mission of the school. Enter the doors of Classical Prep. and many others will open, whole new worlds, in fact, grounded in tradition, but directed to the future.