Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Were Homer's Works Taught in Classical Schools? A Second Rejoinder to William Michael

Of the seven points William Michael makes in response to my response to his critique, one of the statements he makes is this: "There is no evidence of anyone ever studying Homer as part of any school curriculum in classical or Christian history." 

I'll have to hand it to him: he's doesn't pussyfoot around. He comes right out and says what he thinks. 

I have read this assertion about the role of Homer in classical education. I have read it again. I have tried to think if there is something I am not seeing. If there is possibly a shade of meaning I have missed. I have looked for another statement nearby that might mitigate the definitiveness of the statement. But, no. There it is, with no qualifications whatsoever. He really means it:

Homer was never a part of any school curriculum in classical or Christian history.

Now this is what, in formal logic, is called a "universal negative," that is, a universal denial. There is no case in which Homer was taught in a school curriculum. And the only thing required to falsify a universal negative is one case in which the thing denied happened. Just one. That's all it takes. But this statement is so at odds with reality, and there are so many examples and statements from historians of education that directly contradict it, that we need not settle for just one example.

So my first response is to simply point out that this statement is completely, utterly, and demonstrably false. And it doesn't take much to establish that fact. I simply walked into my library and pulled out a few books, all of which say exactly the opposite of what Michael claims here.

1. Homer was explicitly taught in the schools of ancient Greece

Let's start out with Greece, and with one of that civilizations most exemplary figures. Plato explicitly calls Homer "the educator of all of Greece" (literally, Homer "has educated" Greece). Now his famous critique of Homer in the Republic does not detract from this fact, but only enhances it, since it is very clear that Plato is pushing back against practices then extant in Greek education. He wants to exclude Homer's account of the gods (and the accounts of other poets) from the education system of his Republic because they portray the gods as acting badly and god he thinks it reflects badly on them, and that, since God is good, this is a false portrayal.

And not only was he generally the "educator of Greece," he was explicitly taught in Greek schools.

Athens, notwithstanding this [Plato's] expulsion, continued to learn Homer by heart, and this ancient custom was continued far beyond the Athenian age. Even at the close of the first century of our era there were Greeks in the Troad [a reference to Troy] who taught their children Homer from the earliest years [emphasis added]. In fact, from the Athenian age to the present day, the study of Homer has never ceased. (John Edwin Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship: From the Sixth Century B. C. to the End of the Middle Ages, (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1906), p, 31)

There is a scene in Aristophanes "in which a father, who believed in the old-fashioned style of poetic education," who is "represented as examining his son as to the meaning of certain 'hard words in Homer'." (Ibid, p. 32) "[F]rom the days of Solon to those of Aristotle, Homer is constantly studied and quoted, and was a favourite theme for allegorizing interpretation and for rationalistic and rhetorical Treatment." (Ibid, p. 37) In Sparta among the efforts to "cultivate their children's minds Homer and Hesiod "were recited and committed to memory (James Bowen, A History of Western Education: Volume I: The Ancient World (London: Methuen & Co, Ltd., 1972), p. 54).

"According to Plato, Heroditus, Thucydides and Xenophon, as well as Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Nietzsche, Homer was the educator of the Greeks, the theoretical founder of classical civilization." (Peter Ahrensdorf, Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 2) The Sophists, says Sandys, "had naturally much to say of one whose poems formed the foundation of all education in Athens." "To be a Greek was to be educated, and the foundation of all education was Homer" (Ahrensdorf, p. 3)

Not only do we know that boys in Greek schools recited Homer, but they sang his poems. We even know what instrument was specifically used by students for the singing of Homeric poems: the lyre. (Sandys, p. 43)

2. Homer was explicitly taught in the Roman Curriculum.

The Latin poet Andronicus authored a Latin translation of Homer's Odyssey which was used as a "text-book" in schools when Horace was young. (Sandys, p. 169). 

And then we have probably the greatest educational mind Rome ever produced, Quintilian who puts it quite plainly: It is therefore an admirable practice which now prevails, to begin by reading  Homer and Vergil ..." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, (London: Harvard University Press, trans. H. E. Butler), p. 149) [Emphasis added].

3. The reading of Homer and other classical authors was part of the curriculum of European and early American schools.

The entrance requirements at the University of Virginia established in 1826 by Thomas Jefferson included "the ability to read Virgil and Horace and Xenophon and Homer, sight translation of Latin into English, and knowledge of basic algebra and plane geometry." (Stanley M. Burnstein, "The History Teacher," Nov., 1996, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Nov., 1996), p. 30) Other colleges of the time had similar requirements.

In other words, a reading knowledge of Homer was expected to already have been accomplished before entering the university, indicating that even secondary schools (at least the more elite ones) must have been teaching Homer. Jefferson also famously claimed that even American farmers read Homer, which is undoubtedly an overstatement. But the fact that he even claimed it is an indication that there were some farmers probably did, and that says something about the then current education in America.

At Yale the freshman class "read Latin out of Livy and Horace and Greek out of Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, and Euripides..." (Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The National Experience 1783-1876 (New York: Harper Collophon Books, 1980), p. 404)

This education continued on at many English and American schools well in to the 19th and early 20th centuries, where schools were teaching the Greek and Latin poets, many times in the original languages. It is hard to believe that Homer, the chief of the Greek poets, was not represented in many, if not most them. This was still going on (and, in a handful of schools still is) in boarding schools when Simmons attended one. He can still hear him (I was there on one occasion when he did it) recite the first lines of the Iliad in Greek from memory. 

In have said nothing about continental European schools since the Middle Ages, nor of the education conducted in the Eastern Roman world, although there is evidence Homer was a part of the Eastern Christian Greek education. And Homer was not read in the Christian Middle Ages for the simple reason that the text was not available in the West, although the stories of Troy were available in a few other, secondary sources.

The only way in which Michael's claim could make any sense is if he is assuming a very restrictive definition of the term "classical Christian education." I have noted before that he seems to be assuming a definition that would confine the scope of classical education to some medieval iteration of it. And, indeed, on his website he commends to his readers a very specific version of classical education. It is the Ratio Studiorum of 1599, a Jesuit document which outlines in very fine detail how education should be done. "It is this very mission" he says about the document, "that we seek to serve and promote."

But here's the problem: P. 77 of the Ratio Studiorum, the statement that articulates the "very mission" Michael seeks to serve, contains, in the section on "Rules of the Teacher of Rhetoric," this passage:

The Greek prelection, whether in oratory, history, or poetry, must include only the ancient classics: Demosthenes, Plato, Thucydides, Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and others of similar rank (provided they be expurgated), and with these, in their own right, Saints Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. During the first semester, orations and history are to be studied, but may be interrupted once a week by reading some epigrams or other short poems. [Emphasis added]

In other words, not only is the study of Homer a common and customary practice in classical education in Greek, Roman, English, and modern versions of classical education, it is a stated part of the very kind of education that he himself recommends on his website.

But all that one needs to do to prove it wrong is to point the actual practice of classical educators and, apparently, to Michael's own website.

Look, I am sure that a student would get a very fine classical education at Michael's school. But to prowl around the internet casting aspersions on those who are trying to classically educate their students and calling what they are doing "fake classical education" when your own claims are demonstrably false is not going to help anyone.

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Definition of Classical Education: My Rejoinder to William Michael

My last post was a response to William Michael, who critiqued a short promotional video I did for Memoria Press called "What is Classical Education?" Michael then published a rejoinder to my post. 

He begins his response by stating that I "ignored most of the content" of his video. Yeah, well, when responding to a video that is an hour and eleven minutes long (responding to my puny five minutes), it's kind of easy to leave a few things out. So I responded to what seemed to be his major points. 

But he has now laid out his case in seven discrete points. So I will respond to each, the first three on this post and the others in later posts:

1. I "dismissed" my own video despite the fact that it has been viewed over 33,000 times. I think it fairly self-evidence that I was contrasting the length of my video (about 5 minutes) with his response (1:11 minutes). I was remarking, first, on the disproportion between the sledgehammer and the fly. Should it really take that long to refute remarks so few and so short?

2. I was incorrect in my criticism of his manner of criticism. In order to avoid the infinite regress involved in criticizing his criticism of my criticism of his criticism, I'll simply point out that he repeatedly criticized positions he falsely attributed to me before he even heard me out. 

Just go to the beginning of his video, where he stops the tape before I get more than two or three sentences out of my mouth, and goes through an extensive critique of the great books set behind me in the studio and telling his audience: "This is an example of what I am talking about. This idea of the great books. This is just modern gobbledygook book publishing, a cool product that you can buy, and, you know, it looks impressive on the shelf, which is why it makes for a good backdrop, but this is not classical education." Now let's remind ourselves that I have said nothing about the great books up to this point (three sentences in). And, in fact, never say anything about them throughout the entire presentation. He's literally criticizing me for something I never say, and doing it because he has not bothered to listen to what I say. 

Now I think the critique he offers of the great books is nonsense, and that his assertion that the great books do not have a part in "classical Catholic" education is just misguided, but to launch off on a critique based on what books are behind me on a set would be like me judging what he has to say on the basis of the white paint on the walls in the hallway behind him on his video. No telling what I could infer from this. 

I'm just glad he didn't notice the old map of Greece behind me. Imagine the lectures that could be made on the mistaken geography that has been corrected in recent times that I could be accused of perpetrating on children.

3. I made false historical claims about the education of the past. I made the claim that the kind of education I described--schools that focused on how to think and what to do (wisdom and virtue)--had constituted the education of older schools. Training students to think and express themselves well. He then says that this is historically inaccurate. And accuses me of not addressing this. Note that he says that that is historically inaccurate. Not proves. Not establishes. Says

He nowhere shows that what I said was inaccurate. He just asserts this. What am I supposed to do? Assert back? If Michael wants to make a case that what I said was false, then he needs to do it. But he doesn't. He just shakes his head and grimaces into the camera ominously and condemns this clearly preposterous assertion I have made that he does nothing to refute. And until he does, I have literally nothing to say because there is nothing to respond to.

All I can do is lay down the gauntlet and assert it again. So let me be plain about what I was saying, so he has a clear target to shoot at when he chooses to actually engage in an argument, which he has not yet done.

I contrasted this classical vision of education with the two other primary educational purposes: that of progressivism (the political/social reform impulse) and that of pragmatism (the preparation of students to fill jobs). In other words I articulated a logical division of education according to final causation--a definition based in the purpose of a thing--the kind of definition Aristotle considered to be the most fundamental kind of definition. The purpose of classical education is to use schools to pass on a culture and to teach individual students to be wise and virtuous; the purpose of progressive education is to use schools to change the culture and teach children to be social reformers; the purpose of pragmatism is to benefit the modern industrial economy by fitting children to it.

This general shift in the definition of education is quite well documented by educational thinkers like Arthur Bestor, Jacques Barzun, and Lawrence Cremin. It was what education was thought to be by most people before the turn of the twentieth century.

The purpose of education was to pass on a culture and improve human beings as human beings. That is admittedly a broad definition of classical education, but it is not false or misleading for being general. If we want to be more specific and historical we can say that it is the system of education whose purpose was to pass on the specific cultures of Greece and Rome. That is why it has always been characterized by the teaching of Latin and Greek, a practice some have considered essential to this enterprise. 

The term classical Christian education is simply a reference to that system of education as it was transformed by the dialectical clash between the cultures of Athens and Jerusalem negotiated by Christian thinkers such Origen, St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa in the East, and Augustine in the West. It was characterized by a dual emphasis on the liberal arts of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, and the theological, moral, and, later, the natural sciences. It also added the great works of the Christian writers to its curriculum.

This is what is articulated in R. W. Livingstone's A Defense of Classical Education in 1917, when the great debate over the value of classical education was taking place, a debate in which Livingstone was the representative, and most articulate advocate.

If Michael wants to refute this, he's welcome to it. But let's dispense with the unargued-for assertions.

Next up: An analysis of Michael's assertion that Homer "was never taught in schools."

Friday, August 26, 2022

Is Homer Classical? A Response to William Michael

You shouldn't mind being criticized as long as the person doing the criticizing knows how to criticize. If he doesn't, then you feel obligated, not only to respond to the charges, but to point out what a bad job the critic did in trying to criticize you, which, admittedly, is sort of like giving the guy who is shooting at you lessons in how to operate his weapon properly. Good criticism leads to some kind of enlightenment, both yours and the critic's; bad criticism only succeeds in making the critic look good--or, more accurately making the critic think he looks good--and alienating the discerning reader.

Several years ago, I taped a very short little promotional (around 5 minutes) for Memoria Press addressing the question of what classical education is. It has garnered some 33,000 views. It was a quick one-off, done to give people wanting to know what classical education is a brief, general overview. It was not intended to be complete, only accurate.

Now comes another Youtube video critiquing my five mine from a gentleman named William Michael, who runs, which offers a classical education program. This critique of my 5-minute presentation clocks it at a little over an hour and eleven minutes. He indicates in the video that this is some sort of series he is doing whereby he patrols the internet for people who articulate false definitions of classical education and sets them straight.

His method for doing this seems to be to take a presentation by someone else which he has not reviewed beforehand, set forth his conclusions about the video before he even starts, and interrupt to inject his opinion about what the person is saying before the person can even get it out of his mouth.

I hope he doesn't treat the books he teaches in his programs this way: judging them before reading them, putting words in their mouths, and placing on them the worst interpretation he can. This is the worst kind of critic: the one who doesn't listen, who prejudges you, who has his own Procrustean bed into which he will put you, even if he has to lop off body parts or stretch you to fit--and who attributes to the person he criticizes the worst motives possible.

Straw men don't stand a chance against a guy like this.

Before about ten words get out of my mouth, he stops the tape, something he does constantly throughout his critique, sometimes cutting me off before I say something that actually agrees with a point he has previously made, not knowing that I was going to address the same thing. This causes him to repeatedly have to change tactics throughout his criticism when he finds out that I don't do all the things he has already criticized classical educators for doing, not knowing yet (not having ever heard me address this issue or any other) that I don't believe those things.

The first interruption happens when his attention is captured by a set of Great Books of the Western World that is behind me as part of the set on which we are taping. This gives him the opportunity to issue a condemnation of the idea that classical education has anything to do with the great books at all. He takes his pointer and through each of the books behind me, exclaiming upon their shortcomings, which mostly consist of the fact that they contain erroneous opinions. Of course, the whole point of reading the great conversation is not agree with everything, but to assess everything, and judge it as we may. But clearly Michael is not much enamored of assessment. Condemnations must be issued at the beginning of any critical process, and of what use is judgment and assessment and evaluation when the works have already been condemned?

Of course, the only real reason the books were there was an aesthetic one: they look nice and give a generally academic feel to the set. But we must not sacrifice a single opportunity to critique the least little thing even when we have not bothered yet to find out why it is there.

He continues by giving his viewer a rundown of the problems he sees in how people in the classical education movement define what classical education is. He gives a litany of common misconceptions and mistaken definitions that characterize the rhetoric of classical education advocates. He's correct of course. Classical education is mis-defined frequently. I have attempted to correct this a number of times.

When I tried to nicely point out in the video that the two most frequently used definitions were not the historic definitions (after he referred to them as well in his intro, clearly not anticipating that I would know know them or to better than to use them myself), he has to change tactics. He seems surprised that I already know about them. So when he can't criticize me for using these definitions myself, he instead goes after me for saying that I "have no problem with these ideas," by which I mean that as ideas in and of themselves they are not necessarily erroneous. Although it is erroneous to say that classical education consists of stages of learning, it is not necessarily erroneous to say that there are stages of learning. Although it is erroneous to say that studying history in a certain sequence constitutes classical education, it not necessarily erroneous to say that history should be studied in a certain sequence.

But, as so often in his critique, he criticizes me for something I didn't say. He is too busy critiquing me for what he thinks I would say, but didn't actually say.

He not listening.

I could go on, but here are a few of the criticisms he makes:
  • He criticizes me for not going into detail on my sources. It's a five minute video, dude.
  • He critiques a curriculum he's never seen. If he can criticize me for things I didn't say, why can't he criticize a curriculum he's never seen?
  • After mentioning Homer, he asserts (without going into detail on his sources) that "Homer's writing was despised by ancient philosophers." (I think he is referring to Plato's banishment of the poets from his Republic. But not only is this misleading, since Plato elsewhere eulogizes Homer (so making that blanket statement is simply false, committing an error he accuse me of), but the study of Homer was by common scholarly consent at the heart of Greek education. If Michael wants to say Homer has nothing to do with classical education (which he doesn't say, but seems to imply), he's going to have to assume that Greek education was not classical, which is going to be hard to do because one of the legitimate definitions of "classical" is "having to do with ancient Greece." Classical is Greek by definition.
  • He asserts, with no evidence (the kind he constantly demands of me) that I champion what I call "classical education" for purely pecuniary reasons (My wife would laugh at that one). I can only say that that's a poor excuse for an argument. The only evidence to which I think he could appeal is that I am doing a promotional video for a company that sells a product, but if that is all it takes, then it would be hard for him to avoid the same charge, since his own video was done in promotion of his own program.

I could go on. But I want to address one major problem with Michaels entire presentation, which is this: He assumes (never argues for, never gives evidence for, never specifying any facts in support of--in other words, all the things he demands of me in a five minute presentation, but is himself unable to do in his 1:11 minute presentation) that classical education is specifically classical Catholic education, specifically the education for Catholic vocations, and more particularly that education administered in the medieval universities. That is, at least what he clearly implies in his critique.

Now obviously it is indisputable that this kind of education is classical, at least when its being done classically, which, I hate to inform Michael, it frequently is not. But Michael seems to suggest that it is the only definition of classical education. And my response to this is simply to say (and I say it as a practicing Catholic) that that is almost as misleading as saying it as three stages or that it is a particular way of studying history.

The words "classical" literally means "having to do with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome." Literally. In other words, his definition of classical education would exclude the education of the classical cultures themselves, and would include only the education that characterized the non-classical culture of the Middle Ages.

That's not only wrong, that's preposterous. He has demanded of me evidence that my use of "classical" is accurate. I can only point to scholars like Edith Hamilton, Werner Jaeger, Gilbert Highet, and R. W. Livingstone. These were among the great classical scholars, and they use the term as I use it, not as Micheal does.

Now Michael has every right to use it this way (I "have no problem" with how he uses it--see above), but he has no right to demand that everyone use it in this narrow a specialized and largely unhistorical way. If someone wants to use it this way, go right ahead, but it will require a rejection of the common usage of the term as it has always applied to the European institutions that required students to learn Latin and Greek and study the works of the classical civilizations, as well as the American system of education that did the same in this country during the colonial and founding periods and that lasted in an increasingly weak form until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was explicitly rejected by the progressives and pragmatists by its commonly accepted name (i.e., "classical").

I don't envy someone who champions a definition of classical education that classical scholars themselves do not use. But Michael can do that if he likes. I "have no problem" with it, except that it is quite simply mistaken.

Again, I don't mind being criticized, but I do mind when it's done badly. If it's done well, I can learn something by it and profit from it. But in order for that to happen, a critic should try not be needlessly uncharitable, he should be accurate in his criticisms, and he shouldn't commit very errors he accuses his opponent of.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Careful you don't get whiplash. Progressives are now against censorship again.

School Library
Censorship is acceptable when it restricts the free exchange of ideas, but not when it protects children from inappropriate material in a school library. 

In other words, they're kind of non-binary when it comes to logical consistency.

A Utah school district is removing a number of books that have little to do with the purpose of schools and at least some of which are clearly intended to familiarize children with the finer points of gender ideology, and the folks at Daily Kos are none too happy about it.

Among the books the elimination of which has scandalized the left-wing critics at Daily Kos, are Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens, This Book is Gay, and Two Boys Kissing. One of the books the Utah school librarian apparently thought was appropriate for children is Gender Queer, the same book Louisville parents have protested on the grounds (among other things) that it has explicit portrayals of two males, possibly minors, engaged in oral sex.

In other words, something that quite possibly constitutes child pornography.

No depredation dare stand in the way of the promotion of gender ideology.