On Westernization

In the March 18, 2024 issue of The New Yorker,  Emma Green writes about  so-called “classical schools,” a swelling trend in Anglophone education (“Old School“). These schools appear to be the latest exponents of the the long, somewhat rearguard campaign to unseat the “progressive” thinking of John Dewey, which can be caricatured as putting a child’s experience of learning ahead of the importance of learning anything in particular, and which has prevailed in American schools, more or less since the beginning of the Twentieth Century — to the dismay of conservatives, who claim to miss the good old days of obligatory Latin and rote memorization. (The motto of this movement is a remark attributed to Samuel Johnson, that nobody ever learned Latin without having it flogged into him.) Classical schools appeal, roughly, to two groups of parents: those who seek to infuse their children’s schooling with some variety of traditionalist ideology, and those who have concluded that American public schools simply aren’t very good. Both groups share the conviction that, to be worthwhile, education ought to be demanding, and the hope that, for good students, at least, it can be engrossing.

Green discusses various manifestations of the classics-school movement, such as the  lively growth of such schools in Kenya. In the United States, classical schools have long been a feature of Christian conservatism, but they also flourish in the Bronx, where white students and Republican-voting parents are very much in the minority. Green packs her piece with a good deal of interesting information. But the heart of the essay is as provocative as it is now familiar: what to do about the fact that the books on the classical-school curriculum were written, almost all of them, by white men who shared, whether they knew it or not, a Eurocentric viewpoint? And the even less pleasant fact that those books that were written in English reflect the outlook of the biggest player in the nasty game of exploitative Empire?

Having had what amounted to a classical education myself, albeit not a particularly doctrinaire one (I taught myself Latin, not very rigorously), I have ruminated on this problem for decades, just about since the unfurling of the banners of “diversity” and “inclusion.” (In my undergraduate days, the hot word was “relevance.”) The sad fact is not so much that all the writers of the foundational texts of the classical tradition were white males as that, with the marked exception of China and Japan, no other group anywhere on earth produced comparable secular (philosophical, not theological or legendary) texts. The comparable texts from China and Japan, moreover, are expressions of radically different cultures, founded on very different ideas, so that they are not nearly so accessible to Anglophone children, who grow up in a world still very much shaped by “classical” thought. If you are going to teach the Analects of Confucius or The Tale of Genji — works that were simply unknown in Europe until the last two centuries — you are going to have to lay a lot of cultural groundwork just to make comprehension possible — and it is not likely that you will do this as well as might be desired, because so much tricky translation (of values, not just words) is involved. The attempt to fashion a classical curriculum that is also inclusive, in a truly global way, seems hopeless.

As usual, however, I believe that a dose of historical perspective will dispel that hopelessness. First, we must look at the term “classical,” and discover that it entered the English language toward the end of the Sixteenth Century. The Greeks and Romans did not use the term to describe their philosophy or architecture; they did not use it at all. They were aware of participating in a tradition, but it was a Mediterranean tradition that regarded all those who did not speak Greek as barbarians. All the Roman writers knew Greek, and Greek works were not so much translated into Latin as completely rewritten by Romans, most conspicuously Cicero. Just as Greeks learned that their intellectual culture was taken up by Romans, so the Romans learned that the extended tradition was being taken up by Christians and Jews in the East and by barbarians to the North, in what would become Europe nearly a thousand years after Augustus. But the Greeks did not, it seems, take to reading Latin, nor did the Romans think much of barbarian gropings toward civilization. Unlike today’s forward-looking people, however, the Frankish leaders and thinkers who formed the nuclei of European cultures were far from disturbed by their exclusion from the curriculum. They insisted on it; they wanted only the best. And for centuries, imitation of the antique masters was their highest pursuit. Then, in the Fourteenth Century, there was a change that really does deserve the term, “seismic shift.”

This is not the place to inquire into the causes of that shift, but there is a strong hint to be gleaned from the very term by which it came to be known, a few centuries afterward: the Renaissance. “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” which would seem to be the ultimate form of imitation. In fact, the earliest figures of this cultural overhaul, such as Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini, were not imitators so much as examiners: they discarded the accretions of centuries of adaptations and corruptions and held up the originals, as best they could be known from surviving manuscripts, for study. In the process, they changed the language of culture. Insisting upon learning the “classical” Latin of Cicero (a tongue, it has been argued, mastered only by Cicero in Roman times), they also took up their own vernaculars. Petrarch wrote in Italian, as indeed Dante had already done so brilliantly. (And so powerfully that his poetry does not have to be translated into modern Italian.) Overnight, Latin, the lingua franca of Europe since Gregory of Tours and earlier but now deemed to be too precious to for roughing-up by everyday speech, became a dead language: the Renaissance killed it.  It is in this moment, not during the decline of the Roman Empire, that the idea of the “classical” was born.

Which is to say that the idea of a corpus of “classical” Greek and Latin texts was born (not reborn) in a civilization ruled, ultimately, by the God of Abraham and by his Only Begotten Son, personages of whom the writers of those “classical” texts took no notice whatever. If “diversity” and “inclusion” had been leading ideas during the fall of Rome, it is likely that Cicero and Vergil would have been “cancelled,” as indeed the Greek writers were. Plato and Aristotle were introduced into the “classical” corpus in stages, via their Islamic admirers in Spain and the flight of Christians from Constantinople in 1453. It was only in the Fifteenth Century that the works of Homer were known, not just known-of, in the West. So much for their venerable place in the “Western tradition.”

If you think that I am trying to make the point that there is something bogus about the “Western tradition,” you’re wrong. What I’m arguing is that this tradition, since the Renaissance, has been nothing if not inclusive, ever more expansively so. The proof is in the curricula. If you follow the changes in what university students have been expected to learn since universities were invented in the Eleventh Century, you will quickly learn that European culture is not just “inclusive,” but coercively so. Europeans may kill some of the peoples they conquer, but they do not destroy their civilizations; to a mad extent, they preserve and adapt them, with the result that we have today vibrant local cultures in French, German, and English — languages regarded by the initiators of the Renaissance as completely barbaric. To be truly versed in Western culture, it is essential to be fluent in all these modern languages, plus Italian, Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew. Without these languages, one is condemned to a Disneyland sham of the “classic tradition.”

One of the people with whom Green talked in her research, Angel Adams Parham, is a professor at the University of Virginia and the board chair of the Classic Learning Test, an alternative to the SAT (which is deemed elsewhere in the piece, quite rightly, as cynical and career-oriented). Parham decided to homeschool her daughter using the Classical Conversations program. This led to her opening Plato’s Republic for the first time in her forties. Why, she wondered why she had never “been exposed” (required to read, as I was) to the book in the course of earning her undergraduate degree at Yale and completing a Wisconsin/Madison doctoral program? Parham is deeply interested, one might say invested, in the “classical canon.” I put that phrase in quotes because Parham and Green both appear to believe that the list of foundational texts is fixed. It is not fixed. It is, rather, stable, settled enough to look fixed throughout the course of a lifetime. If the Westernizing process that I have looked into here is allowed to continue, I have no doubt that the list of essential books, which has already made room for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, will include writers with the distinction of not being white. With Dr Parham’s help, perhaps, the list might include James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, men of penetration and courage who also wrote very well. All the smart phones in the world aren’t going to alter the fact that minds take time.