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The Classics and the Traditional Liberal Arts Curriculum

The Classics and the Traditional Liberal Arts Curriculum

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The
Classics and the Traditional
Liberal
Arts Curriculum
E.
Christian
Kopff
BEFORE
STARTED
writing this essay,
I
wentto University
of
Colorado library andtook out one
of
the best books in Englishon education, Albert Jay Nock’s
TheoryofEducation in the Unitedstates
(1932).
It
is
significant for our topic that, whileNock‘s irritable tirade,
Our Enemy, theState,
is
easily available
in
three separateeditions and
is
featured
in
most Libertar-ian book catalogues that come my way,Nock’s masterpiece, delivered
as
thePage-Barbour Lectures at the Universityof Virginia in
1931,
is
difficult to find andalmost unknown, although in the
1950s
itwon the praise of
a
young man namedWilliam
F.
Buckley, Jr.
Nock
makes the central distinctionwithout which discussion
of
our topic
is
futile,
the distinction between educationand training. Education
is
the study andmastery
of
a body of knowledge which
is
formative in character. Training involveslearning information which
is
instrumen-tal or banausic and which
serves
to
solve
some immediate problem or accomplishsome specific goal. Both training andeducation are important
for
a society.Anyone, however, can be trained to
do
something. (Naturally the complexityand difficulty of the jobs will vary
from
being
a
short order cook to being
a
brainsurgeon.) Fewer can profit from educa-tion. The goal of education
is
to producethoughtful people capable of judgingmatters of general importance in
a
disin-terested manner, with maturity, with awealth of general knowledge, and withthe courage of the commitment (a condi-tion which
is
both intellectual and moral)to face facts.
A
society without trainedworkers will not get its work done.
A
society without educated citizens willcollapse in times of crisis and will witheraway in times of
ease
and prosperity.
As
Nock saw, there are a number
of
very good reasons why a liberal artseducation in our society must begrounded in the study of the languages,literatures, history and philosophy ofancient Greece and Rome. The cultures
of
the ancient Mediterranean, includingIsrael, have provided the
basis
of
educa-tion from the Colonial and Revolutionaryperiods through the nineteenth century.Greek
fell
from its position of educa-tional preeminence just before WorldWar
I
and Latin remained a “more com-monly taught language” until the
1960s.
It
is
often asserted that the knowledge
of
the ancient world possessed by ournation’s Founding Fathers and the gen-erations that followed heRevolution wassuperficial and consisted mainly
of
clas-sical
tags and exempla. Even were thistrue, a recent popular work
of
ProfessorE.
D.
Hirsch, Jr.,
Cultural Literacy
(1987),
136
Winter
1992
 
has shown how significant such sharedinformation
is
in creating a common cul-ture. Anyone who reads Jefferson’s liter-
ary
commonplace book, however, or whoperuses the correspondence of Jeffersonand Adams will realize how deeply im-bued America’s revolutionary leaderswere with knowledge of antiquity. Thiscontinued to be true throughout the nine-teenth century,
as
William L. Vance’srecent two volume work on
America’sRome
(1989) has demonstrated. Thoreaucomments that the only theft from hiscabin on
Lake
Walden was his copy
of
Homer. (Harvard had
a
Greek require-ment until 1886.)It
is
important to distinguish betweenthe classics as the foundation
of
educa-tion,
aspaideia
in Werner Jaeger’s sense,and the technical scholarly study
of
theancient world. The scholarly or scien-tific study of antiquity has been a centralaspect of the history
of
scholarship fromthe late Middle Ages until today. Ameri-cans have contributed relatively little tothat study, although there have beensome important exceptions. By the latenineteenth century, when the Greek
re-
quirement was disappearing from Ameri-can colleges and the elective system wasslowly gaining ground, both under theinfluence of Harvard, a few Americanswere beginning to show distinction inthe study
of
classical antiquity. Thecreation of research institutions
on
theGerman model, such
as
the Johns HopkinsUniversityand the University of Chicago,helped change the direction
of
the highereducation in the United States, but in theclassics these institutions rather tookadvantage
of
than created the importantAmerican classical scholars.The
Pater Philologiae
in the UnitedStates was
Basil
Lanneau Gildersleeve(1831-1924). Born in Charleston, SouthCarolina, veteran
of
the War between theStates, professor for twenty years at theUniversity of Virginia, he was appointedby President Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908)
as
the first Professor,
of
Greek, atthe Johns Hopkins University in 1876.Gildersleeve helped found the AmericanPhilological Association, founded andedited
The American Journal
of
Philology,
composed a masterly edition of Pindar,and was agrammarian
parexcellence.
He
was a devoted Son
of
the South, whofought each summer in the Army
of
North-ern Virginia, and in the 1890’s defended“TheCreed
of
the Old South”in
heAtfun-tic Monthly.
The generation after himincluded
a
few other figures whose con-tributions to scholarship are still read:Paul Shorey (1857-1934), first Professorof Greek at the University
of
Chicago,editor
of
Classical Philology
and pro-pounder
of
the theory
of
“The Unity
of
P
1
at
0s
Thought
;
W
1i
a
m Abbot tOldfather(1880-1945), founderof theclas-sics library at the University of Illinois,editor
of
the
University
of
Illinois Studiesin Language and Literature,
and author
of
some
500
articles in the great German
Realencyclopaedie.
At
Harvard, WilliamWatson Goodwin’s
Syntax
of
he Moodsand Tenses oftheCreek Verb
(1889)
is
stillin print and still used by every Greekscholar as John William White’s
Verse ofCreek Comedy
(1912)
is
still indispens-able for its field.Most of these men had German disser-tations and German scholarly ideals. TheGreat War of 1914-1918 saw the virtualdisappearance of the study of Germanfrom American high schools. Since mostimportant work in the humanities in thenineteenth and twentieth centuries hasbeen done in German, Americans werecut
off
from the possibility of makingsignificant contributions to the study ofmany aspects
of
the ancient world. It
is
possible to draw up
a
small list
of
exceptions in language and literature
and
phi-losophy. In the areas of ancient historyand archaeology there has been
a
con-tinuous tradition
of
accomplishment andeven excellence. The general trend canbe briefly exemplified. After World War
Modem
Age
137
 
I1
the American Philological Associationpublished the first volume of
a
new criti-cal edition
of
the most important ancientcommentator
on
Virgil, the fourthcen-tury A.D. scholar, Servius. Under thedirection
of
the noted Ovidian,
E.
K.
Rand,the “Harvard Servius,”
as
it
came to
be
called, employed the work and scholar-ship of many
of
Harvard’s most promis-ing younger scholars. It was reviewed inthe
Journal ofRomanStudies
in a massivetwo part-review
in
1948-49
by EduardFraenkel, a student
of
the great Germanscholars
of
the previous generation whofled to England because
of
his Jewishancestry. The point was made devas-tatingly that one German classicist wasworth the most prestigious Classics
De-
partment in the United States. The nextvolume of the Harvard Servius appearedtwo decades later and the work has yetto be finished.It would be possible to mention a fewAmerican Hellenists whose work has wonconsiderable attention in Europe andinfluenced the course of scholarship.Milman Parry
(1902-1935)
was
the
founder
of
the scientific study of
“oral
poetry.” Trained at Berkeley and theSorbonne, he published significant workwhile at Harvard and trained Albert Lordof the Department
of
Comparative Lit-erature at Harvard. George MelvilleBolling
(1871-1963)
of the Ohio StateUniversity has won much attention inEurope for his work
on
the text of Homer.Few American classicists know his name.
In
the
1960s
Elroy L. Bundy
of
Berkeleytransformed the study of Pindar, althoughAmericans had to wait for German andScottish scholars to point this out tothem. It may be
no
accident that thesethree men were educated in the Westand South. One occasionally comes uponAmerican scholars at Ivy League schoolswho had great influence
on
a field, suchas William Scott Ferguson
(1875-1954)
atHarvard or Gregory Vlastos at Princeton,but they are both Canadians.
138
It
is
hard to characterize the contem-porary situation of the classics inAmerica. The necessity
ofa
command
of
Greek, Latin, and German for serious re-search tends to discourage the type
of
publication now
so
common in modernlanguages. People committed to “liter-ary theory” have been successful in dis-couraging serious research and opendiscussion, but they have not been ableto win prestige or recognition for them-selves. The gap created has been filledby many foreign scholars, only a few
of
whom are
of
genuine international dis-tinction, but none
of
whom
is
interestedin sacrificing himself
to
develop a dis-tinctive American philology
of
high qual-ity. It
is
possible to hope that classicswill
be
spared the almost total collapseof scholarly standards that character-izes the study of English and the modernEuropean languages. It
is
hard to
see
therise of a new creative generation.When the
Chronicle
of
Higher Educa-tion
announced in the summer
of
1990
the near completion of the Plato Micro-film Library of Plato manuscripts at
Yale’s
Sterling Library, it
also
announced thattime had passed the project by and that“literary theory” was the route to suc-cess in the humanities. The sponsor
of
the project was a member
of
the philoso-phy department, Robert Brumbaugh.When Donald Kagan, an ancient histo-rian, addressed the National Associationof Scholars in June
1990,
he said that
as
new Dean
of
Yale College, he planned toimprove the quality of the faculty byhiring scientists.
He
had given up on thehumanities.
Yale
in the past decades hashad excellent scholars
of
high standards
on
its faculty, Robert Brumbaugh of Phi-losophy and Fred Robinson
of
English, toname only two. The
kudos,
however,went to Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman,Harold
Bloom,
et
al.
I
myself believe thatClassics Departments in America haveproduced younger scholars capable
of
distinction and creativity. For the most
Winter
1992

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