We extend a special thank you to guest blogger, Dr. Lindsey Scholl.
Classical education is experiencing a resurgence in Texas and across America. It’s an exciting option for parents who want their students to read great literature and think rationally about what they’re learning.
But classical education also has a stigma of being elitist, expensive and impractical. Why would parents pay thousands of dollars a year for their child to read Homer when said child is going to grow up to be a dental hygienist? This sounds like a good question, but let’s rephrase it: “Why should my child study great literature and the theories behind math when her only purpose in life is to clean teeth?” Now it doesn’t sound so good. No one should argue that a person’s sole purpose is to clean teeth. But how often do we, through our educational system, tell our kids that the only goal of their life is to get a job, keep it, and go on vacation sometimes? Then, if they’re lucky, they will have a nice retirement and die peacefully.
That’s fine, if our concern is our immediate comfort. But classical education forces us to look outside ourselves, beyond our immediate situation. It tells us that civilizations do rise and fall, and their falling does not cause the world to end. It empowers us to look beyond the campaigns of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and whoever is next. It forces us to think like a church father or to learn what life was like before television or computers or America or Texas.
Some of you have heard the phrase “the great conversation.” It’s a wonderful way to characterize what we’re about at classical schools. It feeds our mind’s eye with images of Homer, Thomas Aquinas, and Blaise Pascal sitting around a table, sipping wine and discussing philosophy, while at another table, Archimedes, Kepler, and Einstein are gouging scientific diagrams into the wood.
Ironically, the “great conversation” is not a classical phrase. It was coined in the 1950s to promote a series called Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopedia Britannica. The author of the series, Robert Maynard Hutchins, states that “The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day.”¹ Mortimer Adler, author of the second edition of the series, clarifies:
What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways.²
Adler paints a wonderful picture of men and women responding to each other through the ages, and in doing so, he paints a picture of humility. To participate in the Great Conversation, you have to listen to it first, which means you must set your own opinions aside for the moment.
At classical schools, God willing, we will train students to not be arrogant. It is sadly ironic that classical schools have the stigma of being elitist. It should be the opposite, since we will train our students to learn from those who have gone before them. We will train them to be humble, to know, like Socrates, what they do not know. But we will not stop there. We will invite them to take a seat at the table and join in, no matter what their day job is. And we will remind them that a human life is worth more than the amount they have saved for retirement.
Lindsey Scholl is a teacher of humanities and Latin at Trinity Classical School in Houston. She holds a doctorate in Roman History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition to teaching, she is a writer and speaker on a variety of subjects, including education, and the author of The Advocate Trilogy, a youth fantasy series. She is married to Dr. John Scholl, a St. Thomas Episcopal alumnus.
¹ The Great Conversation, Encylopedia Britannica, 1952.
² Mortimer Adler, “The Great Conversation Revisited,” in The Great Conversation: A Peoples Guide to Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1990, p. 28.