The Berlin Wall fell thirty years ago. Here’s what it meant—and what we need to remember today.
What to Do if School Bores You Out of Your Mind
I had eighty-two absences my senior year of high school—true story.
Not that I stayed home and committed misdemeanors. Rather, I read books by myself in my parents’ quiet living room. I studied European history and researched the nearest school proctoring an Advanced Placement exam in that subject. I submitted essays and short stories to contests, winning scholarships to pay for future undergraduate tuition.
My public high school offered me no challenge and no way of excelling in my gifts. At home I could pursue knowledge for its own sake. From my parents’ sofa, I delighted in wisdom and beauty as I read Shakespeare over and over again until I could recite most of Romeo and Juliet. When considering education for my own children, I wanted a community where students wanted to be there, where they found joy in botany, geography, Greek myths, and so on.
So, I founded a classical academy.
Perhaps you, too, have been distracted by questions other than the ones in your classroom and were bored by social studies but haunted by literature and history.
There is a place for your curious, polymath mind, whether or not there’s a classical academy nearby. Allow me to explain.
What Is Classical Education?
Classical education is founded on the idea that human beings should pursue studies that magnify their humanity and that this education should be joy-filled.
The culture at many classical schools is one of community, holistic formation, and slow and deliberate practices, with a focus on the lifelong learning process rather than on quick results. You learn history by memorizing a world timeline that begins with creation and integrates all of human history. You read literature tied to the history or geography you are studying; in fact, as much as possible, your studies fluidly flow between disciplines rather than divide into subjects.
From grammar to logic to rhetoric, you learn in stages that fit your development so you always feel confident and excited about learning.
What It Is Not
Although many people reduce classical education to little more than a celebration of old, white power structures and financial elitism, it’s better to remember that good ideas often have bad followers. Classical education should principally be about a love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Granted, for those of us who have inherited the Western tradition, our sources are Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, and a hundred other dead males, many of them white.
Yet, if the conversation is eternal and universal, then it means that amazing discoveries will be made when we encourage women to read (and write!) the Classics, as we began to do in the nineteenth century. So too when slaves were finally freed in America and began teaching their white brothers and sisters what the Declaration of Independence really meant—see Frederick Douglass’s speech “What for the Negro Is the Fourth of July?” or Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman.”
Classical education should be a beginning, a foundation on which to build, but not an end. You need look (or listen) no further than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, where the Schuyler sisters ask for women to be added to the Declaration’s sequel and Miranda highlights John Laurens’s efforts to form the first black battalion. What a phenomenal example of a contemporary work of genius dialoguing with the classical tradition of the past!
To read more about how classical education has influenced people of color, check out African American Writers and the Classical Tradition or read the charge led by W. Robert Connor from 2016, “Black Learning Matters.”
Starting a Classical Education
Maybe you didn’t experience this kind of education in high school. Never fear. For those of us that missed these methods and this content, it is never too late to join the movement.
If you are looking for undergraduate schools that commit themselves to classical approaches to education, there are a host of options, such as St. John’s College, which focuses on a Great Books curriculum for all four years.
But if you are already enrolled in your college of choice, simply borrow the reading list from schools with Great Books programs, such as can be found at the Graham School at University of Chicago or the Torrey Honors Program at Biola University. Start with the ancients—sample some Greek tragedy, a Platonic dialogue, a few notes from Aristotle. Then initiate yourself into the medieval world with Augustine, Anselm, Boethius, Dante, Julian of Norwich. Move through time, reading philosophy, politics, literature, poetry, and history, focusing on primary sources, meaning the original texts, rather than on what another writer tells you about these works.
Really, that’s key for classical education: read Descartes’s Meditation itself, not a critic’s or author’s interpretation of the work. Granted, it may be necessary to add others’ arguments into the conversation or to seek master teachers after you’ve read these great books; consider Invitation to the Classics, edited by my former teacher Louise Cowan, or audio lectures from the Great Teaching Courses—the best is by the late Rufus Fears, “Life Lessons from the Great Books.” Enroll in courses at your college that promise to read whole texts (talk to the faculty beforehand or ask for the syllabus). The most famous college course that models classical education is a revamping of W. H. Auden’s 1941 “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” taught now by three professors at the University of Oklahoma. No longer requiring six thousand pages of reading and nine opera libretti in one semester, this version still keeps the focus on original sources and the history of the great ideas, and in one year you will read from the ancients to Auden.
After you have read these great books, memorize excerpts and tell people what you are reading. Those are key methods for learning in classical education. Memorize poetry, memorize the best quotes from the wisdom of worldwide history—and share. Instead of posting on Twitter what you watched last night or the news story that is preoccupying everyone else, share the wise words of those who lived before us. Instagram books on your nightstand that are from the grand tradition or works of art that you stumble across: Rouault’s clowns or Wiley’s striking portraits. Experience the culture occurring around you—the plays and musicals and symphonies nearby, either produced at local theaters or in urban settings or on college campuses.
Hopefully, others will join you in your move toward classical education. It is an enterprise that really should not be attempted alone. Seek out like-willed people (especially from different backgrounds) and force your schedule to open up at least one hour a month to discuss a book.
One Poem at a Time
When students graduate from my university, they always ask me two questions (beyond What am I supposed to do with my life?): What books do you recommend we read? and How can we continue the conversations we started in your classes?
Book clubs, as simple as they sound, are an antidote to the fast-paced, distracting, trivial traffic of the online world. They require no detailed organization or planning, no curriculum or flyers or a grand auditorium. Choose a text, invite some friends, meet somewhere, and talk about the books. Perform a simple act like this and you join the ranks of the faithful remnant across time and space who refused to assent and conform to the waywardness of mass culture.
Begin classical education today: with one poem at a time, one line from one great work, one day without your smartphone, one weekend at an art gallery instead of a Marvel movie, one month asking questions that matter—and suddenly you’ve spent one year thinking and loving good things, and maybe experiencing longing for something more.
Annie Dillard writes: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” If you have an inquisitive mind and find that your current education can’t keep up with it, seek out your own classical education. By doing something small, like reading a poem or talking about a book, you are spending your days well.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is an associate professor of literature and creative writing at John Brown University, where she also serves as the Associate Director for the Honors Scholars Program and the Director of Giving Voice: A Festival of Writing and the Arts. She is the author of three books: Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wipf & Stock, 2017), Walker Percy, Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence (Ohio State University Press, 2017), and A Guide to Walker Percy’s Novels (Louisiana State University Press, 2018). Visit her website at jessicahootenwilson.com.
Image by Siora Photography via Unsplash.
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