Has Classical Education Been Discredited?

Objection: Classical Education was Discredited and Dismissed by the Educational Establishment Nearly 100 Years Ago

Indeed this is largely, if not completely true. And we must admit that American classical educators in the late 1800s and early 1900s had become calcified, provincial and ornery in the face of the rising criticisms coming from the emerging discipline of psychology. While we disagree with many of the assessments of these early 20th century critics, we admit that classical educators at that time made several wrong turns and that some of the criticism was just. Mortimer Adler aptly describes the reaction to the stuffy classicism at the end of the 20th century:

Classicism names the arid and empty formalism which dominated education at the end of the last century. It emphasized the study of the classics for historical or philological reasons. It was interested in the past for the past’s sake. It mistook drill for discipline. Against such classicism, the reaction [progressivism] which took place was genuinely motivated and sound in principle. Unhappily, as always the reaction went too far. (Adler, RE, 67)

Many classical educators at the time, from a position of strength and dominance, scoffed at their critics when they suggested that education should be differentiated to meet the needs of a diverse population, most of which would not have a practical use for the study of Latin, classical literature and history. Studies showed that less than 5% of the population would become teachers, lawyers, doctors and architects—why should the other 95% of the population be made to take these classical subjects? Why should college students be made to study one curriculum? Why not let them choose a course of study (a “major”) from among a collection of growing options? Many of the first psychologists began to suggest that education could be scientifically understood and modified as we learned more about how the mind actually worked. At this same time these new educational leaders suggested a differentiated curriculum for various kind of students, classified according to ability (via mental testing) in order to foster an efficient social order in America. Vocational education was urged as the right curriculum for many American students. A battle for changing the traditional classical curriculum began, and slowly the nascent progressive educators grew in strength and influence, emboldened by the work being done in psychology, mental testing, sociology and statistics. Education was becoming a science more than an art, and the classical educators found themselves isolated, defensive and increasingly out-of-date.

Perhaps the greatest blow against the classical educators was the claim of the progressives that research had shown that the study of classical languages like Latin and Greek had no value except for learning Latin and Greek—there was no “mental training” or “mental discipline” gained from language study that could transfer to other studies and academic work. The mind, they said, was not trained by studying Latin. This was a great blow, since this is precisely what defenders of Latin study had argued for years. Who could argue with what the latest research from the latest new science proved? As it turned, out the latest research turned out to be anything but certain and determinative, and is still contested today. While progressive educators did eventually emerge to be the leading force in American education , the traditional classical approach to education never really did die out—it retreated in some cases to smaller numbers of private schools that maintained the classical approach but also continued in limited ways in uneasy alliances with many public schools. For example Latin continued to be a popular subject well into the 1960s and after a dip of several decades is increasing in popularity once again.

Latin, of course, is not the full measure of classical education, but is one important indicator. Latin and the classical curriculum were severely criticized by a rising educational elite. The classical curriculum was dismissed by many but continued on with diminished strength, now growing. In the eyes of many it was discredited even if not destroyed. Classical education did not die, but slumbered, and now appears to be waking once again. The new versions of classical education that are emerging are not the reactionary, defensive and grumpy version of the classical educators who saw their dominance eroding in the early 20th century. The new version is young and energetic, flush with the thrill of discovery.