You might not expect the controversial English literary theorist Stanley Fish to endorse a return to classical education, but that is exactly what he has done in a recent New York Times editorial, entitled “A Classical Education: Back to The Future” (June 7, 2010). Stanley Fish is known for his subjectivist or communal theory of literary interpretation–he suggests that the interpretation of texts is dependent on our subjective experience in a particular community that gives us a particular way of reading a text. Fish, therefore, has been critical of “universals” or absolute, objective notions of truth, fairness and reasonableness.
In his editorial, Fish recounts his own classical education at Classical High School in Rhode Island (founded in 1843) where he was required to take “four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs…” Though Fish attended Yale and taught at Johns Hopkins, U.C. Berkeley and Duke, he says that the Classical High School “is the best and most demanding educational institution” he has ever been a part of.
In his article (well worth the quick read), Fish reviews three books on classical education from three authors, who though quite unlike each other, share a common interest in renewing classical education. They are Leigh Bortins, an engineer and founder of Classical Conversations, Martha Nussbaum a classicist and law professor and Diane Ravitch, a renowned historian of education. All three authors advocate the cultivating of the human via the liberal arts for the benefit of humanity.
Classical educators and leaders in the growing renewal of K-12 classical education might find Fish a surprising ally. But an ally he is–at least of a general sort. His high school alma mater touts the motto “certare, petere, repirere neque cedere,” (to struggle, to seek, to discover and never to withdraw). Apparently a classical education has led Dr. Fish to struggle well, for he has attracted his share of critics from those inside and out of the study of English literature and theory, and he shows no sign of withdrawing from combat after over 70 years on this earth. A classical education often produces men and women with sharpened minds who will cut their own paths, and not always the paths we would hope for. The French skeptic Voltaire, for example, was classically educated by the Jesuits. He thanked the Jesuits for his rigorous education even as he rigorously worked to undermine many of their cherished convictions and beliefs.
Now Fish did not attend a Christian school as Voltaire did, so Fish has no Christian heritage to betray or undermine. Instead Fish embodies the secular classicist, who trained by the liberal arts wields an incisive mind and pen, but does not display a character formed by faith, hope and love and some of their associated intellectual virtues. Christian classical educators must note secular classical training as lacking just one thing: an anchor in the love of Christ, the world’s creator and redeemer, who provides coherence to the entire educational enterprise–an enterprise that is cracking up each passing decade. Still, Christian classical educators share Fish’s admiration and appreciation for rigorous training in the classical liberal arts. Still, we can admire his obvious skill even as he writes and cuts where we would not. We can admire him the way Chesterton admired George Bernard Shaw–an ideological opponent with enviable training, skill and an expansive mind. And we can join him in his call to revive and renew training in the classical liberal arts–for our common humanity is at stake.