Judging By Courses Taught

If I were placed in history entirely by what courses I taught each year I would be a different person. Consider the courses that this teacher marshaled on the field of battle last year: Latin, Geometry, Church History, Medieval History, Writing, Logic, Rhetoric. Why wasn’t I wearing one of these?

Sounds like a Late Medieval University Professor. I should have worn a robe and cap like so…

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fmedia.web.britannica.com%2Feb-media%2F84%2F148984-004-9B982B91.jpg&f=1&nofb=1
The different hats represent current grades – hair-net wearing ones being the ‘A students.’

This next year I am either moving into further into the future or deeper into the past. With Ancient History, Latin, Geometry, Morality, and Economics, I would think one of two things must be true. Either this person is a juggler fit for the circus, or he is literally from the school of Stoics.

Now the stoics had a great porch-game.

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fi0.wp.com%2Fstoicjourney.org%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F07%2Ficonstoic.jpg%3Ffit%3D816%252C486%26ssl%3D1&f=1&nofb=1
If I had a porch like this, darn right, I would have a lot of philosophical followers. We would play table tennis, offer libations, discuss the intricacies of corn-hole, and then test our theories with libations in one hand and a bag of potential life-giving seeds in the other. All in accord with the Logos.

But perhaps I am actually reenacting the life of someone at the other end of history, an Adam Smith who wrote on morality and economics and certainly knew his ancient history, or a statesman like John Stuart Mill, whose father forced him to learn Greek by age 12 and carved out from ancient philosophy and personal experience modern theories of liberty, economy, and ethics.

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.talkativeman.com%2Fimg%2FJohn_Stuart_Mill.jpg&f=1&nofb=1
The Greek language was contained in that bump on his head. Greek is like that.

To follow in the footsteps of these greats is good, but to pass on the best that I have discovered in my own life to others is an honor. Perhaps laboring in the human flourishing mines is the best one can do.

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Finthesetimes.com%2Fimages%2Fmade%2Fimages%2FSorrentino_Uranium_Mine_Mil_Uranium_Radon_MHSHA_Safety_Health_Cancer_850_593.jpg&f=1&nofb=1
“I loaded 16 tons of enriched Geometry, and what did I get?”

I get a lot out of it.

Why Economics and Probability Should be Part of Classical Education

Discussing prudence, St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Isidore of Seville, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.” Economics is the modern term for this ancient prudence, for the principles of economics allow us to foretell the likely consequences of an action, event, or law and then decide whether the prior action is desirable. Prudence, then, is our goal in such a class. This intellectual virtue empowers moral virtue to fulfill its ends.

When I was a kid, I had no interest in economics or money (except that one could use it to get things). I thought econ was for people obsessed with superficial stuff. By the time I was in high school, I had renounced superficial stuff and was trying to attain whatever high school me thought was wisdom, which turned out to be an exclusive focus on literature, poetry, and religion.

I was converted into an interest in economics when I learned about how incentives influence people’s behavior, and that people’s seemingly bad actions are more often unfortunate economic effects rather than deliberate maliciousness. People do what they think is good for themselves and those they care about by following incentives. In short, I learned not to jump to blaming individuals for the way things are and instead to think through what dynamics made things become the way they are. This study, just as the literature I love, reveals much about the tragedy of the human condition.

An economist as an economist studies how these games of exchange and choice work and how changes in the rules or environment will change behaviors of the players in the game. The ideal economist can foretell the effects of different actions, events, or laws with a high probability of being right.

The Armenian economist Alchian wrote, “What the economist can do with economic analysis is to deduce some of the consequences of a proposed act, presumably more accurately than a noneconomist. But to assess and appraise whether the consequences of the action are good or bad is, to the economist, forbidden fruit. Yet, like Adam, many economists eat of it.”

I have greatly enjoyed Alchian’s beautiful book Universal Economics from which I took this quotation, but no one is only an economist, and as sons and daughters of Adam, we need to learn how to appraise the likely consequences of an action AND judge whether the consequences are good or bad, for distinguishing good from evil is the most important thing for living a good life. I don’t know to what extent prudence can be taught, but I do know that the study of probability and economics lays the groundwork for wise decision making in personal, business, and political life.

If a classical education wishes to carry the torch of those liberal arts, which liberate people to know what is true and do what is good, then, strange as it may sound, the principles of economics and probability is not optional.

Classical Education and Industrial Civilization: A New Course

Nearly all of the Founding Fathers of the United States, with the notable exception of Ben Franklin who was sui generis and brilliant and in fact still serves my point despite not being what at the time was an “educated man,” looked to the Classics for practical wisdom. By practical wisdom, I mean neither technical guidance nor some philosophical ruminations deduced from axioms and postulates, but rather something harder to grasp: the wisdom that comes from dealing with the messiness of reality. They believed that by studying the political, historical, and philosophical works of antiquity light could be shed upon their own situation so that they could master it. Their purpose was not merely to understand history but to make it, to intervene in it. At its best, history gives us both who we are, where we have come from, and the tools we need to intervene in it.

When I was a confused youth, I believed in what might be called philosophical wisdom. I had this caricature in my head of Cicero who studied philosophy in his youth and thus was fit to rule in old age. I would commit my youth to the intellectual life and my adulthood to leadership, like Cicero. In fact, I knew nothing about Cicero. But I believed in the myth of Cicero and myth of the ideal Roman who worked in the fields all day, traveled late into town to debate politics, and returned home still later to eat a bowl of black gruel. I hoped that my study of philosophy would make me a great debater of affairs of state, someone who could cut the Gordian knot of any problem. And while it is true, so true, that philosophy does not cease rewarding those who study her, for Aristotle was right to say that contemplation of true things is one of the finest pleasures of life, there was another part of Aristotle I had somehow missed.

In Book 6 of the Ethics, Aristotle makes a distinction between practical wisdom and philosophical wisdom. Philosophical wisdom is the search for truth, contemplation of it, and enjoyment of ideas. Reading Isaac Newton’s Principia is an intoxicating Caribbean cruise for the philosophical mind. But philosophical wisdom is in some sense transcendent, our enjoyment of it is an intensely individual experience. The positive benefits of such study in other ways are far enough downstream from the study itself, that the person who partakes must primarily be motivated by a sense of wonder, not a sense of strict efficiency (though oftentimes the long way round is the only way!). Philosophy requires time and there is no law of the universe that all philosophical wisdom will have public utility. Practical wisdom on the other hand is directed more towards public utility. Aristotle describes it as the capacity to calculate and act with respect to the goods of human affairs. It is practical wisdom that discovers and implements better management strategies, improved processes for construction, discovers medicines, and secures the common good.

I have said before that classical civilization is the perfect sandbox for students to play around with the primary questions and concepts of civilization. The Greek and Roman world is of a manageable complexity, distant yet familiar, something we can both approach with impartiality and yet make our own. And more than this, understanding the rise and fall of the classical world teaches us valuable lessons about the hard work of building, preserving, and extending civilization. The early Americans fostered their own practical wisdom out of study of the classics, recent history, and personal experience with law and mercantilism. What will we find in the classics to help us today? There is always something.

Practical wisdom today in industrialized civilization needs both the wisdom of the classics and the wisdom of the present. Today’s world is extremely complicated. How many of today’s problems are caused simply because the world is complex, and many people were not taught how to navigate it? Building, preserving, and extending present civilization cannot happen without educators taking the herculean effort to get a grip on industrialized society and fill the gap between modern history and modern science with practical wisdom. This is work that has yet to be done. While it has been proposed that we need a new science of progress, another way to see the problem is that we need more people who can teach us both how to thrive amidst the complexity, maintain the fragile good things we have achieved, and build towards something better and higher. We need to teach people to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for themselves and society, not just with regard to health or wealth say, but about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general. This task is hard, and it is well past time to begin.

Or to put it in old Ben Franklin’s jovial pithiness, “I find the best way to serve God is by serving my fellow man.” This from a newspaper printer whose contributions to civilizational progress included everything from a guide on how to swim, to roasting a turkey with electricity, to founding a fire brigade, a militia, and a library, and hosting a Constitutional Convention.

How is Classics related to Classical Education?

Classics is the academic field devoted to the study of the Greco-Roman world. One of the amazing things about studying classics and, I have found this, being a classicist myself, is the immersive quality of classics. When a person studies classics, they become immersed in languages, philosophy, politics, economics, mathematics, rhetoric, art, architecture, religions, cults, and scores of great and awful men and women. Students who climb this stair come to see how many little decisions create both the big picture and all the subtle flavors of a civilization.

Classical antiquity, both because it is fundamental to our civilization’s history and because it is so far removed from us, makes it uniquely suited for educational purposes. I don’t need to rehearse all the ways that the Mediterranean ancient world is relevant today. Here we find breakthroughs in philosophy and science, the spread of Judeo-Christian religion, democracy and republican government, challenging and stunning literature and rhetoric, and two languages which ground the technical and scientific vocabulary of today. But in addition to their relevance, the distance between us and the Greeks liberates our assessment of them, making us more impartial and thus better judges. To study politics and government in the Greek and Roman world gives students and teachers enough distance from contemporary issues that teachers can host and truly foster civil debate and discussion in a low stakes environment. Since we want to teach students how to think about life in society, we must offer them the opportunity to critique and debate, to defend propositions and attack policies, employing reason to its fullest extent without anyone’s identity being on the line. In this way classical studies becomes a sandbox for learning how to reason about hundreds of elements within society, offering grand riches from which to draw.

Classical antiquity serves an essential role in classical education. It is our first step, not our last. In most schools 9th grade is the classical year: Ancient Literature, Ancient History, Geometry, and Scripture. History, literature, and religion march through time arm in arm, and these courses constantly reinforce and cast new light upon each other. Humanity did not cease in 500 A.D. and so classical education continues its historical progression while preserving a coherent curriculum. By keeping the course of study coherent, we bring the same level of seriousness and depth to the study of the other civilizations in our curriculum.