Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Value of a Classical Education

Guest Commentary by Melanie Brooks-Nelson

We are bombarded with the news almost daily: schools struggle to educate students, who are graduating lacking basic skills and knowledge. We could have many conversations about this vexingly complex issue, the causes, the challenges faced by educators every day. I want to offer a lesson for teaching the humanities suggested by a pair of articles in the Post: "History diversified" (Feb. 18) and "It's old school-and it's the future" (Feb. 20).

A classical education in literature, history, and philosophy is often perceived, even by teachers, as less than cutting edge, not central to students' concerns or to contemporary issues; and teachers' virtually automatic response to this perception is to approach cultural studies by making connections to popular culture and to students' own ethnic identities. Metaphor may be taught by an example in a hip hop song, spelling by texting, and literature by recent authors (Megan Nix, Feb. 20 article). The "so what?" of history is answered by a proliferation of personalized stories of distinct ethnic groups students identify with, relegating all those "dead white men" (Feb. 18 article) of traditional history to decidedly secondary status.

As forward-thinking and excitingly relevant as these approaches may appear, an insidiously fatal flaw lies beneath this kind of thinking, however well-intentioned. Education is a never-ending shuffle of resources: allocating time and money most efficiently and effectively. To the extent we focus on contemporary culture, we deny resources to teach the great literature, history, and philosophy of western civilization; for every personalized ethnic story we teach, we lose the chance to talk about the grand sweep of world history, of radically different times and places.

Failing to build a classical foundation leaves students without a way to organize and make sense of multiple histories and with no standards to evaluate cultural products of our own or any other time and place. Classical education is a gift; to minimize it is to build an educational edifice without a foundation.

So our focus in teaching students the humanities should be this: the big story-of western civilization's literature, philosophy, and history; classical languages; and world history. Far from being a reversion to old thinking, this is the way out of our current humanities dilemma. When we teach great literature and great ideas and insights into societies far removed in time and place, we are teaching students the story of humanity; it is the story of all of us. The universality of the ideas in classical education means that students become engaged; it is all about them.

Teachers must make this vital, vibrant connection to great ideas and great civilizations and reveal their inherent relevance. So study the timeless ideas and the great literature; talk about the societies from which great thinkers emerged. Then use students' growing classical knowledge as a basis for exploration of ethnic identity, contemporary issues, and cultural meaning. Ask questions: How does the systematic exclusion of women and non-elites from the halls of power through most of history change our historical legacy? Where, when, and how do all the groups that make up the American mosaic feed into the story of western civilization? Would scientific explanation be as authoritative today without the scientific revolution? How do the great ideas enlighten our understanding of contemporary society and the direction we envision for it? Embrace classical knowledge as a connection to the past, a light on the present, and guide for the future.

Far from diluting or trivializing classical education, then, we need to teach it as the foundation of knowledge for the humanities. With that foundation firmly in place, students have a guide to their personal and ethnic histories and cultures and a way to actively and meaningfully participate in the civic conversation. They will possess the tools both to access the culture of other times and places and to critically assess the ideas and products of contemporary society. This is the stuff of which a great education is made.

Melanie Brooks-Nelson lives in Englewood, Colorado, and is a teacher at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School.

No comments: