BMCR 2006.04.38

The Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America

, The grammar of our civility : classical education in America. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xii, 184 pages). ISBN 1423729617 $24.95.

In this meticulously researched and eloquently written book, Lee Pearcy (hereafter P.) argues that, “Classics, the study of ancient Greece and Rome, has never developed, as other academic subjects and disciplines have, a distinctly American form in response to American social and cultural conditions” (x). Instead, Classics has imitated European models designed to underwrite European culture and, therefore, is weakly connected to American culture and in danger of becoming little more than “an irrelevant curiosity” (6). After surveying the goals and assumptions of classical education in Europe and America from the Renaissance onwards, P. lays the groundwork for an American form of classical education (and for a concomitant reorientation of classical scholarship) that reflects the pragmatic nature of American culture. In particular, P. suggests that the utility of studying antiquity lies not in uncovering timeless truths about human nature or models of cultural excellence, but in considering how the Greeks and Romans defined the self in relation to society: “by entering into dialogue with classical ideas of the human self, Americans can deepen their understanding of the possible ways to think about hard questions posed by their cultural situation” (134). Because he offers concrete suggestions about contemporary education, P. writes not just for classical scholars, many of whom will be familiar with these issues, but “for the body of educated Americans who may have some vague recollection of high school Latin, or of a college humanities course, and who may believe, without knowing exactly why, that there is something important about the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome and the languages that convey them” (xi). The Grammar of Our Civility is indeed one of those rare works that will appeal to both specialists and non-specialists alike, as P. makes a compelling case for why the study of antiquity is important for contemporary American culture.

In Chapter 1, “The Grammar of Our Civility,” P. demonstrates that Classics held a central position in European education from the Renaissance to WW I in order “to form the tastes, values, and attitudes of the governing class” (2). A classical education, therefore, helped to explain and reinforce the complexities and values of European culture for those who aspired to govern. When the concept of classical education was transplanted to America, however, it was not realigned to meet the demands of individuals carving out a new colony or, later, a new nation with a character (and governing class) profoundly different from its predecessors. P. suggests that because Classicists have never adequately considered the purpose of a classical education within contemporary American culture they have in effect created for themselves false paradigms to justify the inclusion of Classics in a liberal arts education: “their practice of their profession makes sense on its own terms, but it is connected only weakly to the society and culture within which they act” (6). Traditionally, according to P., Classics has been organized around two basic principles (or “true paradigms”): Altertumswissenschaft, which emphasizes the objective study of what survives from antiquity, and “liberal arts education,” which emphasizes the effect of antiquity on those in the present. Until the early 20th century, these two principles enabled the transmission of important lessons from antiquity to the European and American governing classes, but “amid the ruins of that culture, its broken phrases and fragments of utterances are admired and only half understood by the new Goths and Vandals, the managers and professional persons, encamped among them” (7).

P. traces the origins of a liberal arts education back to the Renaissance and to humanists such as Vittorino da Feltre, who came to Mantua in 1428 to educate the children of Gianfresca Gonzaga. Classics, along with Christianity and physical exercise, formed the backbone of his pupils’ education because Vittorino intended to form their “minds and souls in such a way that they would be the best rulers” (8). Vittorino’s approach to education would be challenged later by John Locke (and others) on the grounds that it was useless in the modern world and that other subjects were more appropriate for the majority of people. A classically-based liberal arts education was defended in a series of lectures by John Henry Newman (later published as The Idea of a University). For Newman, a liberal arts education did not imply (as it usually does now) “general education,” but an “education based on the study of Latin and Greek and of classical literature” (13). Newman’s vision for a liberal arts education would in turn be challenged by works such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and Marx’ Capital (1867), as well as the two world wars: “what he [Newman] could not have foreseen was the democratization of education at all levels and the consequent fragmentation of the curriculum into a mob of subjects, all equal, all competing for a student’s attention” (14).

P. then sketches the origins and evolution of Altertumswissenschaft; in particular, the contributions of Scaliger, Winckelmann, Wolf, Boeckh, and others. P. identifies three traditions that grew out of the original German concept: the “Idealist,” a “comprehensive, aesthetic Altertumswissenschaft“; the “Empiricist,” equated with the language-centered studies of Housman and British philology; and the “Humanist,” identified with Newman. P. is quick to add, however, that “the traditions intertwine and cross-pollinate, and no scholar or piece of scholarship shows an uncontaminated pedigree” (21). Furthermore, all three traditions influenced American higher education: “just as the third tradition. . .was the inspiration for the liberal arts curricula of American undergraduate education, so German Altertumswissenschaft, sometimes in an uneasy tension with an essentially British philology, shaped American graduate programs” (21). P. concludes Chapter 1 with an engaging discussion of the rivalry between Nietzsche and Wilamowitz, a misunderstanding of which has led many Classicists to create for themselves a “false” Altertumswissenschaft : “too many scholars in these times claim to practice the Altertumswissenschaft of Wilamowitz without the moral engagement that he knew was necessary before the ghosts [of antiquity] would speak” (41).

In Chapter 2, “The American Dialect,” P. describes the evolution of the liberal arts education in America from its European roots. Early American education reflected traditional English education, which centered on Classics. By the mid 18th century, Americans began to question the importance of a classically-based education at a time that demanded practical knowledge: “the debate over the merits of practical versus liberal education became a debate about the merits and usefulness of classical studies” (49). Reformers such as Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine, for example, viewed a classically-based education as an element of Old World tyranny and demanded the removal of Greek and Latin from American schools. Despite these attitudes, P. asserts that, “the idea of our nation grew out of a dialogue between the founders and the ancient world, and from the columns in our Capitol to the Latin on our currency, superficial signs of their engagement with Greek and Roman antiquity are everywhere” (53). After the establishment of the new nation, however, even Thomas Jefferson questioned the value of classical models for the nation’s future. By the 1830’s, Classics had moved from the center of American education to the periphery, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America suggests that Americans were becoming civilized in a way that did not rely on knowledge of antiquity. By Jackson’s presidency, “Classics moved from the arena of political life into the academic world of schools and universities” (61).

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, two models for higher education were evolving: the “Old College,” in which everyone followed the same classically-based curriculum, and the “Jeffersonian university,” which offered Classics as one course of study among many. It would not be long, however, until even the Old Colleges, “prompted as much by diminishing enrollments and declining revenue as by a sense of their own declining importance to American society,” began to reform (72). Classics would be momentarily revitalized in the half century between the Civil War and World War I by a group of American students who received PhDs from German universities and introduced the tenets of German Altertumswissenschaft to America. According to P., most American scholars produced concordances and editions, but they “did not for the most part, handle big ideas, ask large questions, or engage in dialogue with their own society and culture” (80). P. concludes that because Classicists have never been able to demonstrate satisfactorily the relevance of their subject to American education, “even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is possible to imagine the demise of Classical Studies in America” (83).

In Chapter 3, “Finis: Four Arguments Against Classics,” P. relates four arguments that demonstrate why Latin is in danger of being taught as frequently as Akkadian or ancient Sumerian or even of disappearing from formal higher education, “as ancient Greek nearly has already” (86). The first, simply put, asserts that, “because the study of Greek and Latin no longer serves any social function, Latin should no longer be studied” (86). This argument takes two forms. The first (weaker version) suggests that Latin has no practical value, but is refutable on the grounds that “the value of many subjects. . .lies in what they do to students’ minds, not in their content” (87). The second (stronger version) suggests that Latin and Classics, in general, have become alienated from their socio-economic base: “the self-conscious governing class whose tastes, values, and attitudes classical education was intended to form has vanished, and with it the social function of that education” (87). The second argument regards the study of Latin and Greek as an elitist activity that acts as a barrier to understanding antiquity for all but the best students. In addition, the argument continues, “Latin. . .presents an especially clear and enduring case of the unbreakable link between language and the oppression of elitist patriarchy” (99). The third argument against (the curricular subject called) Latin holds that because grammar cannot describe the world studying grammar is actually harmful to the intellect: “grammar and metaphysics, in fact, are equally suspect. Both represent doomed totalizing attempts to master and understand a world whose diversity forever resists all mastery and all understanding. If grammar is to be taught at all, it must be taught as one among many fictions” (103). Finally, the fourth argument asserts that classical education is a cultural practice that began in the Renaissance and “developed in response to historical, social, and cultural needs and pressures,” but now that it is possible to be considered “educated” without much of a knowledge of antiquity, Classics “may be on the verge of becoming extinct” (105).

In Chapter 4, “Prolegomena to a Pragmatic Classicism,” P. outlines three features of a distinctly American classical education. First, “American classical education will connect with one essential aspect of its tradition by remembering that it must be a way of becoming human and humane” (118), especially within the context of contemporary American society. According to P., this goal may be achieved by classical scholars through three processes: “representation,” the process of understanding antiquity in its totality by utilizing the apparatus of Altertumswissenschaft; “presentation,” an interpretation of antiquity (such as a performance) that puts the past before us “not as a distanced object of historical understanding but as a present reality” (120); and “re-presentation,” the process of giving represented material meaning in the present by locating our understanding within a “continuum of understandings” (121). Second, an American classical education at the secondary level will model a “structure of knowledge” that will begin with “the close study of language, basic questions in philosophy, and fundamental interpretation of texts, and then spiral outward to large historical and aesthetic questions about the self and culture” (127); mathematics and science will also be taught. Postsecondary schools would then offer a classical education as one possible curriculum. Third, a distinctly American classical education will be predicated not on European humanistic traditions that emphasize immutable truths about human culture, but on “the idea that the Greeks and classical culture in general offer a continual invitation to explore and renegotiate the self against culture” (132); i.e., it is the questions that the ancients asked, and not necessarily the answers they found, about self and society that will benefit American students of antiquity.

In Chapter 4, P. comments that, “this short book aims at provoking a conversation, not solving a problem” (118). Indeed no one person could hope to solve the problems in contemporary American education, but P.’s ideas constitute a significant contribution to this crucial issue, which will influence the course of American society and its place in the world. Although P. acknowledges that, “a distinctively American classical education seems at best a distant hope,” he is quick to point out that “radical transformation” of the American educational system did take place in the fifty years between the Civil War and World War I, so comprehensive reform is indeed possible (145). The Grammar of Our Civility is sure to provoke discussion among Classicists, in particular, as P.’s criticisms about the study of antiquity are timely, insightful, and address an issue of vital importance: the relationship between Classics and contemporary culture. In fact, one of the book’s greatest strengths is that it outlines a framework within which classical scholarship and classical education would complement each other for the purpose of creating a distinctly American form of classical education. All in all, a highly original and provocative treatment of the history and purposes of the study of Ancient Greece and Rome in America’s schools.