A classic education for the rest of us
Stanley Fish has a useful rundown of several new books defending “classical education.” (Full disclosure — I haven’t read any of these books, though I ordered Nussbaum’s book and will report back.) What’s odd about his piece is that it seems to suffer from one of the main defects he identifies with modern education — an unwillingness to recognize and evaluate alternate perspectives.
Two objections go strangely unaddressed. The first is that, especially in this moment, those that aren’t equipped with the vulgar arts of profit-making are having a hard time, well, making any profit. This piece could easily have run opposite the near-weekly NYT piece about unemployed English majors from one Ivy or another. There is a real risk associated with leaving one’s education without the dreaded employable skills. There’s an argument to be made that a life of the mind can be lead successfully in a low-wage job, but that life involves serious tradeoffs that are not made clear to teenagers choosing their paths.
Fish and his interlocutors could well respond that they’ve seen many liberal arts grads end up in gainful employment. (In fact, each of the writers of this blog studied philosophy and ended up in gainful employment in the political/public sector, with the exception of myself as the lone profit-monger.) But of course this begs the next question — what are we to do with the vast majority of students who, with or without a classic education, will not graduate from the handful of elite schools Fish and friends attended? The comments offer an almost parodic demonstration:
I almost always disagree with Stanley, but this time I am in complete accord. Perhaps that’s because my husband & mentor, the Italian scholar Aldo Scaglione — a friend of Stanley’s since their days teaching at Berkeley a half-century ago — is the product of a classical education at Torino’s (Turin’s) public prep school. By the time he went to the University of Turin, Aldo was fluent not only in his local Piedmontese dialect & Italian, but also in French & Spanish. He read Latin & Greek, & knew English & German. At 85, he’s still a walking encyclopedia of classical literature & history, much of it learned at the Liceo.
It seems unlikely that we can all learn 4 languages and go on to teach at Berkeley (or that we can have the nature to name-drop our own spouse in a blog comment).
It sure is a lot easier to go through 17 years of schooling without marketable skills if there will be high-level family friends willing to help on the other side or admissions opportunities at the nation’s best law, business, and medical schools (where, yes, profitable skills are taught). There will always be opportunities for the best-positioned in society regardless of the pedagogy they have been exposed to. The hard part, which Fish never wrestles with, is what to do with everyone else.
I am sympathetic to Fish’s argument in that I agree that there’s much in classical education to be admired. I would not have traded my education in philosophy for knowledge of accounting or finance (which I could now really use). However, the idea that this kind of education can exist for large percentages of the population is fanciful.