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.


William C. Michael said...

Hello, Mr. Cothran.

You posted a link to this response in the comments on my YouTube channel, which I approved and made accessible to my subscribers/viewers.

I trust that you will show the same respect to me and share the following link to my response to your blog post.

Thank you,

William C. Michael, Headmaster

Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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Anonymous said...

Touché. This is absolutely brilliant!! Thank you so much for taking the time to skewer the verbose and cantankerous Mr Michael and to post it for the far less eloquent of us to enjoy!