Blogs > Cliopatria > Jon Steffen Bruss and Christopher McDonough: Review of Lee T. Pearcy's The Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America

Jun 28, 2006 3:18 pm

Jon Steffen Bruss and Christopher McDonough: Review of Lee T. Pearcy's The Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America

[Jon Steffen Bruss is assistant professor, and Christopher McDonough is associate professor, of classics at the University of the South.]

THERE ARE THOSE WHO DATE the death of classics in America to a pleasant spring day in 1833, when President Andrew Jackson did not deliver the usual highly polished Latin oration at Harvard's degree ceremony, but instead rattled off the little Latin he knew: "Ex post facto; e pluribus unum; sic semper tyrannis; quid pro quo," he is supposed to have said, striking a blow for the common man and becoming persona non grata among the learned classes.

The story isn't true--he spoke briefly in English--but there is some truth in it all the same. By and large, Americans hate pomposity and prize practicality, and the image of Old Hickory cutting feckless Ivy League elitists down to size with a sneer accounts for the story's popularity.

There's more to it, though. While the Founding Fathers had been steeped in classical culture, and were deeply conversant with the thought and languages of ancient Greece and Rome, by the time Jackson came on the scene 50 years later, the nation was talking and acting in a radically different fashion. While the reverence for classical education would remain in place in the century to come, reverence is not the same thing as relevance. Looking to the ancient world, the new nation increasingly saw little with which to concern itself.

This story of America's disenchantment with the study of classics is the theme of Lee T. Pearcy's The Grammar of Our Civility and, as a story really about what Americans think of themselves, it is very compelling indeed. classics, as it had been studied from time immemorial in Europe, was always the elitist preserve of the self-defined ruling classes. There was no reason that Americans might not excel in such study but for the nagging suspicion that, since "all men are created equal," such elitism was somehow out of place in a democracy.

Nevertheless, in a republic whose monumental emblems include such neoclassical buildings as the Supreme Court, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument--in which the architecture itself consciously binds the newest of republics, the United States, with the oldest, Rome, and overtly alludes to the classical Greek democratic ideals that underlie the American experiment--in this republic, Washington does indeed have something to do with Athens. In the "secret history" told by Pearcy, we read how our culture, like Andrew Jackson, has not just denied classics its place at the podium, but has even unceremoniously pushed it off the platform.

While not rushing to restore classics to its former position, the author of The Grammar of Our Civility argues that Latin and Greek should at least have a seat on the stage. But the "pragmatic classicism" that Pearcy envisions at the end of his book, while stirring, may ultimately be more closely connected with the problem than the cure. Pearcy's solution to the predicament of classics in America includes the development and implementation (albeit without specifics) of schools of "classical liberal education" at the primary and secondary levels akin to what is already widely practiced in the United States. Even if this recommended reform falls into the nihil novum sub sole category, it is welcome to see the idea in print.

More exciting yet is his suggestion of the creation of classical liberal arts schools in colleges and universities on the analogy of business and education "schools." As one among many options, these faculties would give takers, neophyte and veteran alike, a classical liberal arts education and culminate a seamless system from kindergarten to the senior year of college.

The problem comes before he makes the case for this newly formed American classicism, however. In a lengthy third chapter, Pearcy considers a number of counterarguments to the study of the "dead languages." To begin with, he argues, they are inextricably impractical and elitist, and so at odds with the fundamental spirit of American culture. Latin is, in this view, "a language whose historical users shaped it as an instrument of civic domination," and so of use only to an elite that no longer exists.

This perception of impractical elitism is something that all but the most oblivious American classicists feel at times. The intellectual self-discipline required for any amount of study in classics, especially in the doorkeeping courses of elementary Greek and Latin, is admittedly rigid. This is not a branch of study for those seeking easy validation of their intellectual abilities. Couple that with the lack of immediate applicability in meeting the needs of modern American economic and social life, and we see why classics seems more elitist than ever.

But is that perception accurate? Here Pearcy is too quick to concede the argument: Classical curricula--once, yes, the private domain of the cultural elite--are today widely available in all manner of institutions in a higher education system that boasts the widest accessibility in the world. And according to the College Board's online analysis of last year's SAT, Latin students scored far higher on the SATs than those studying any other language, averaging a score of 681 Verbal / 675 Math. That's better than the scores of those studying French (643V/ 639M), German (637V/652M), Hebrew (620V/646M), Spanish (573V/585M), and Chinese (546V/667M).

In fact, Latin students have been outstripping students of all other languages on the SATs since at least 1996, the College Board's oldest online record, and the trend probably extends much further back than that. But no matter. The conclusion to draw from the data is clear enough: If you want not just high but the highest scores on the SATs, start studying Latin as soon as possible. That's not elitism speaking; that's good old-fashioned pragmatism of the sort that, all pretensions aside, Americans looking to get ahead have always embraced.

PEARCY LIKEWISE ALLOWS the argument that, because, in our postmodern age "it is possible to live at last as an educated person without privileging Latin and Greek," the discipline is clearly on the verge of extinction. That may be so, but, while the bell has been tolling for classics since before the Middle Ages, oddly enough, obituaries on "the death of classics" have become something of a growth industry.

In 1998 Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath issued their impassioned Who Killed Homer?, which hurled accusations at professional classicists and their all-too-often leaden academic prose, and followed this up with 2001's Bonfire of the Humanities. That same year spawned Page duBois's Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives, a rejoinder to Hanson and Heath which nonetheless conceded the discipline's loss of vitality. More recently, Professor James O'Donnell, provost of Georgetown, delivered the 2004 presidential address to the national classics conference, the American Philological Association, and noted that "the old story [of classics] won't work any longer," although he conceded that it "will always deserve to be taught, even if it must then be untaught." It is interesting that, though O'Donnell had come to bury classics, he instead simply asked it to commit suttee.

But the most pernicious argument Pearcy entertains is in many ways the most fashionable. The real feather in the cap of the case against classics--that it teaches lies about the world--is so much a caricature of itself as to refuse being taken seriously.

"[The fictions of grammar] teach . . . an image of the world that cannot any longer be believed," he writes. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, journey with us for a moment to the postmodern world. Here, nothing is real, and every statement is a violent construct imposed on the Other by our willful ego. In this deconstructed realm, to say that Cicero was murdered in 43 b.c., or that the genitive singular of the Latin second declension always ends in -i, is not to speak truthfully, but to enter into the "fiction of grammar."

Or as Pearcy puts it: "Those who study Classics are led to believe in the reality of Socrates or Aeneas and in the truth or falsehood of statements about them. These beliefs are as harmful to us as the belief in the objective reality of our predications."

Funny thing is, you'll notice that doesn't change the fact that the sun always rises in the east, which means it's morning. And when the day is ended, all but the steepest skeptic must accept the truth of facts and their meanings merely for survival. Like it or not, had you been in Rome to see dawn and dusk on December 7, 43 b.c., you would have also witnessed the head and hands of Cicero mounted on the rostra--a signal, even if you weren't ready to accept it, that the Roman Republic had expired.

Unfortunately, Pearcy's concession to the postmodernists comes back to roost, and in a way that can only smother the brood. His concession saves the classics only by appeasing postmodernism, "reconstructing" classical education to make it about "negotiating the self against society." (A word to the uninitiated: That's Foucauldian for "rising above the externally imposed determiners of your material circumstances.") If we've learned anything since the Renaissance, so Pearcy argues, it's that classics is less about the classics--the works of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid--than it is about what students, teachers, and scholars do with them as expressions of themselves.

The texts, artifacts, and monuments of ancient Greece and Rome thus become empty vessels. We lend them meaning, and in so doing, "negotiate" ourselves "against society." Ah, but there's more. So Pearcy: The "self" of classical-era humans and littérateurs "is indeterminate, unstable, and almost infinitely negotiable against multiple ideas of what is given by nature." Thus the new American classical education is not only justified in taking, but even required to take, the classical literary inheritance as a workshop in self-negotiation.

If texts are so devoid of meaning, how do we know whether authors were negotiating themselves against society? And aren't there better and more efficient ways to learn how to negotiate oneself against society than by reading classical literature? A four-year stint in a theory-driven literature department comes to mind. What, then, can possibly justify the continued use of rigorous grammatical training and the slow reading of classical texts?

It's not that there's no justification. It's just that using the lever Pearcy chooses to pull to reactivate classical education in America has its own perils. You'd think we'd be happy to have any suggestion to help classics thrive; but we are loath, in the words of Livy, to use "a medicine that is worse than the disease." In fact, classical education has its own internal raison d'être, and we're better off arguing for that than grasping at the straws of an ultimately nihilistic perspective whose collapse will bring down itself and all hitched to it.

Because it helps us know ourselves, our world, and our place in it more completely, a classical education never ceases to be relevant and can gain very different significance upon successive readings. But this does not mean that the text is an empty vessel or that the reading of texts is primarily about projecting ourselves on a blank movie screen. Sane critics have long known this. What makes a piece of literature a classic is its imperviousness to a finalizing interpretation.

Danielle Steel's novels are not classical literature precisely because their meaning is transparent and simplistic. Homer, conversely, lacks this transparency. He's not devoid of a message; it's just that one can read and reread Homer with successively more profound and different insights into the matters he raises. The Iliad cannot be reduced, as one flaccid student recently put it, to "Achilles is a big crybaby." Rather, tangled up in the beauty of Homer's language and the rawness of the struggle for life are the perennial questions of honor, rage, and the quest for a life that on death's cusp can be said to have been worth living.

In the end, the classical literary tradition amounts to more than a collection of mottoes for politicians to string together, or a tabula rasa against which postmodernists can negotiate themselves. Academic trends come and go, but somehow the classics endure.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

John Chapman - 8/7/2006

There could be “better and more efficient ways to learn how to negotiate oneself against society than by reading classical literature” but I’d bet on what the classics have to offer first were I seeking to unlock the mysteries of our social order.

The Italian novelist Italo Calvino gives one definition, "A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much a sense of discovery as the first reading." I believe knowing even a little of the classics empowers one to better engage life, even if it affects no one else but yourself. The relevancy is always there. Yet this tool seems to be often denied to today’s students who are also distracted with the fluff in our culture.