A classical education is not elitist because it makes one humble and simultaneously empowers, and builds empathetic curiosity into a tenacious, ethical muscle.
This lovely article was originally posted at Dragons in the Flower Bed by one of our friends in the Sandbox to Socrates Facebook group. She has articulated much of what I’ve wanted to say but have been unable to. Thank you, RCD, for allowing us to share your words with our readers. ~Editor
I enjoyed reading this thoughtful essay at Sandbox to Socrates, and it left me thinking about how work is where infinity really is, and the edifying nature of permanently unfinished things.
That happy thought was tempered by concern for all the many billions of human beings who have toiled at the unfinishable task of keeping themselves fed, never enough margin to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets they worked through. I think about one of my favorite folk songs, a round I taught the boys when they were babies because it makes work go so sweetly: “I believe to my soul I can pick a bale of cotton…” It is a gorgeous, hopeful tune, but it was sung by freed slaves who could never have picked a bale of cotton in a day and had to in order to get paid.
When I worry about whether classical education is elitist, I try to frame it through that social justice lens, as much as I currently can. I have spent many hours in my adulthood, thus far largely lived in a poor city neighborhood, catching myself up on anti-racism movement with the help of many thoughtful bloggers, authors, speakers and activists. I’m learning and there’s so much I still don’t see.
So far, I cling to the classical model of education, anyway. Many times I’ve heard that you can’t disassemble a system with the same tools that built it. I suppose I don’t think it was the formal practice of logical debate, foreign language immersion, and the insistence that everyone read fiction, that built the oppressive, patriarchal system my children will inherit. Those skills are what I put into practice in order to understand the socioeconomically marginalized peers. In order to understand what happened in my own family. Saying classical education is elitist because it has been taught only to rich white straight boys in centuries past is like saying that vegetables are bad for you because pesticides and GMOs cause cancer. It completely skips over the responsibility of the whole society to create an environment in which farmers need not and do not use pesticides or GMOs, and in skipping that over, demonstrates the foundational problem that we all assume an illogical individual non-responsibility to the common good.
As it’s practiced by non-racist, non-sexist educators, classical education is not elitist.
It is not elitist because classical education is like chop-wood-carry-water. It is a task you can never complete, and that very endlessness of it, the hard and tricky endlessness of it, humbles and inspires and keeps one in the moment. This endlessness, and focus on process over product, means that the child chanting enthusiastically and diligently “amo amas amat” is doing the same work in a very real sense as the scholar who has been at it for forty-five years.
It is not elitist because a classical education assumes auto mechanics, pig farmers and the cleaning lady all are living an intellectual life. In classical education, no one is written off as unable to handle something so hard as Latin or Homer, and dissecting bit by bit the ideas inherent in our culture is viewed as irrelevant to no one.
This very dissection is what is changing me and challenging me as I raise three people who are the very picture of The System. Someday my children will be grownup, and then they will be white American men, richer than most of the world’s population across time. But they won’t be imbued with prejudice, because they will have had a liberal — freeing — education that taught them to turn all things over incessantly, to approach something as foundation as the syllables in the words they speak every day with a critical eye of analysis. The whole world needs my boys to be so aware of what silly place, exactly, our mores come from, and how to dig into the heart of a culture — its language — to find the soul of it.
A classical education is not elitist because it makes one humble and simultaneously empowers, and builds empathetic curiosity into a tenacious, ethical muscle. That is my goal for my children, and all children, and if I can seed my white American straight boys with the skill to pass that on, I’ll be taking a step towards a fairer world for everyone.