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Polymath: ‘A Renaissance Man’
Know something about everything and everything about something T H Huxley
The only thing that I know is that I know nothing Socrates
Definition of polymath: [n] a person of great and varied learning
There is an increasing demand for people who can work across boundaries and in many different fields: people who can understand the linkages and connections between the various disciplines of modern life. This article and the essays that follow were compiled principally as an aide-memoir to me – I make no apologies for repetition of the work of others who have enhanced my understanding – I hope their wisdom may prove as useful to others as it did for me.
This web section on polymath explores the connotation ‘A Renaissance Man’ and the relevance of wisdom to current life. Various links at the page bottom take one to other articles within this section and to the sections that follow.
The Renaissance Man
The Renaissance man (or woman) knows a great deal regarding a variety of topics and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences: everything from how to gain weight; to how to take care of legal work without a lawyer. He is man who has broad intellectual interests: he is also known as the Universal Man, Italian ‘Uomo Universale’, an ideal that developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), that “a man can do all things if he will.” The ideal embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance Humanism, which considered man the centre of the universe, limitless in his capacities for development. During the Renaissance, academics thought that a well-rounded man should be proficient in both the arts and science. While we remember painters and scientists separately for their artistry and science, they would not have seen a clear division.
It was thought a Renaissance man should -
• Be able to defend himself with a variety of weapons, especially the sword.
• Be able to play several musical instruments.
• Be able to paint and output other works of art.
• Be forever interested in advancing knowledge and science.
• Be able to engage in debates regarding issues such as philosophy and ethics.
• Be a skilled author and poet.
Because the Renaissance was the rebirth of interest in classical Greek and Roman culture, it is likely that these were traits that the ancients were thought to have held. Renaissance men, with the culture of striving for increased knowledge and ability, were vital to advancing Europe beyond the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment.
Modern day Renaissance men can probably be split into two sections - the "formal" group, who are the well-known poets, authors and painters, and the "informal" group, who are the geeks and hackers that forever strive to advance their own knowledge, and in doing so benefit society.
Wisdom is one of those slightly old-fashioned words, the type that slip out of style because they sound less punchy than the jargon we start using in their place. In time we forget about using it at all. And because the words we substitute aren't quite the same, we're made poorer by the substitutions, losing slices of the original meaning with each change. So wisdom, good old ‘sapientiae’ in Latin, hardly ever gets airtime these days. Instead, we talk about "cleverness," "I.Q.," "managerial know-how," or any of 50 not-quite synonyms. None of those really are interchangeable with wisdom, but they get used in its place. Meanwhile, wisdom, the original concept, is forgotten.
Wisdom is the ability to make sound choices, good decisions--the best decision. Wisdom is intelligence shaped by experience. Information softened by understanding. And it is in very short supply these days.
Wisdom is not something a person is born with. Intelligence is. Cleverness is. The ability to appear dynamic is. But Wisdom isn't. It only comes from living, from making mistakes — or from listening to others who have made mistakes and learned from them.
If wisdom is in short supply among our leaders, we don't have far to look for the culprits. It started disappearing along about the time we stopped expecting it.
Wisdom is a state of the human mind characterized by profound understanding and deep insight. It is often, but not necessarily, accompanied by extensive formal knowledge. Unschooled people can acquire wisdom, and wise people can be found among carpenters, fishermen, or housewives.
Wherever it exists, wisdom shows itself as a perception of the relativity and relationships among things. It is an awareness of wholeness that does not lose sight of particularity or concreteness, or of the intricacies of interrelationships. It is where left and right brain come together in a union of logic and poetry and sensation, and where self-awareness is no longer at odds with awareness of the otherness of the world. Wisdom cannot be confined to a specialized field, nor is it an academic discipline; it is the consciousness of wholeness and integrity that transcends both. Wisdom is complexity understood and relationships accepted.
The scientific literature was written to help us understand the laws of nature. The traditional Wisdom Literature was written to help us understand the laws of life and our place in the universe. Some of this literature dates from 3000 years ago, or before, and includes works from India, China, Greece, the Middle East — and later from Europe. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we have the teachings of Moses, The Book of Job, The Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, the teachings of Jesus, and later, those of Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and other Christian Mystics. In the Hindu tradition we find The Upanishads, and The Bhagavad Gita. In Taoism the Tao Teh Ching and the I Ching. In Buddhism we have teachings of the Gautama Buddha embodied in the Sutras, and elaborated upon in a myriad of later works. From the Greeks we have the works of Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus.
To get a taste of this literature, compilations can be helpful which can be found in ‘Books that have added to our culture’.
Herein follows a series of articles on the ‘polymath’ concept:
What is a polymath?
How to become more of a polymath
Some people who are generally regarded as polymaths
The Book of the Courtyer
Classics: An entry to a polymath education
The Teaching of Wisdom
Modern Physical Accomplishments:
a) Concentration and Memory --use of vocabulary and acronyms
b) Reduce your reading time
What is a polymath?
A polymath is a person who excels in multiple fields, particularly in both arts and sciences. The most common term for this is Renaissance man. Other terms for this are Homo universalis and Uomo Universale which in Latin and Italian respectively is translated as "Universal Man".
Many notable polymaths lived during the European Renaissance period, and a rounded approach to education was typical of the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal.
During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione, in his The Book of the Courtier, wrote a guide to being a polymath. On the other hand "polymath" may be applied more strictly, taking Leonardo da Vinci or Goethe as prime examples, and requiring a universality of approach.
A polymath may not necessarily be classed as a genius, which is a more debatable classification; and certainly a genius may not display the breadth to qualify as a polymath. Albert Einstein is a prime example of a genius who was not a polymath.
The word itself comes from Ancient Greek, poly meaning 'many', and mathanein meaning 'to learn'. In many ways, it is fitting that Ancient Greek should be the root of the word, as many of the greatest polymaths were Greek.
A polymath, then, is someone who is particularly knowledgeable in many subjects, and the word is most frequently attached to people who have excelled in more than one field of intellectual or artistic endeavour. However, it is not clear just how many fields one must excel in, nor the extent to which one must excel, before one call be called a polymath. Some people hold that a strong interest in a wide variety of fields is enough to earn this most prized epithet, while others would reserve it for a few truly great achievers.
Other people, however, argue that being a polymath is not a state of being, but a state of becoming. Being a polymath is not what one knows now, but what one desires to know. Not a matter of intelligence, but a matter of intellectual and creative ambition and curiosity.
A further question is how wide a range of excellences are needed. Thomas Edison is perhaps the greatest all-round inventor ever, but does his proficiency in a wide range of sciences and crafts qualify him as a polymath? There is no hard-and-fast definition of a polymath but it's a title that should be given to someone by others, and not self-appointed. Perhaps there's a sliding scale of polymathy....
How to become more of a polymath
The most important thing to do when attempting this is not to confuse polymathy with pretention. Whatever being a polymath is, it certainly isn't showing off.
One school of thought holds that if you want to be a genuine, top of the range, premier league elite polymath, the chances are that you've left it far too late. As the sum of human knowledge grows, scientific discoveries become not the work of one person sitting under an apple tree and watching the fruit fall, but of teams of people working on collaborative projects in massive laboratories. The individual is nothing, and the research project is everything. As humans now know so much, it's impossible for one person to know enough to advance knowledge very much. The old joke about academic research, that "one learns more and more about less and less until one knows everything about nothing" might be all too true.
Another problem is that the competition is much fiercer. It's all very well being a rich bright spark with too much time on your hands in a time of general poverty and ignorance, when there's still lots to discover, but it's rather more difficult at a time where a university education (in the "developed" world at least) is become more and more common.
Another school of thought holds that polymaths are needed, now more than ever. Even if it is the case that it's more difficult than ever to make telling contributions in one field, never mind two, it could be that people with broader interests are needed to hold things together. The alternative is a technocracy - government by expert - a prospect that most people will find worrying.
How do you become more of a polymath? Read magazines. Read books. Read (quality) newspapers. Look for connections, form your own opinions. It's the connections that are really important - many people may have the knowledge, but the connections are your own. They are the work of creation. Seek out those who seem wise and knowledgeable, but don't leave your critical faculties (nor your cynicism) at home.
Something common to all polymaths is a refusal to be conveniently pigeon holed. It's tempting, after achieving in one field, to either continue in that field, and invest time and energy in becoming better and better at something you're already good at, particularly as that's what people will expect you to do. Follow your interests - even if they seem to be leading in bizarre and even contradictory directions!
Some people who are generally regarded as polymaths
Aristotle must number among the greatest polymaths of all time. His work covered "philosophy, politics, ethics, biology, astronomy, literary criticism and the forgotten art of rhetoric." Not to mention a massive contribution to the development of formal logic.
Leonardo Da Vinci was the archetypal renaissance man. Apart from painting, he studied anatomy, biology, maths, and engineering. His notebooks contained detailed plans for what look like a submarine and a helicopter.
Albert Camus was a Algerian-French existensialist philosopher, novelist, playwright, essayist, member of the French resistance .... and international (soccer) goalkeeper for Algeria!
Richard P. Feynman assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, translated Mayan hieroglyphics, and was also a fine painter and musician.
Douglas Adams was a writer, environmentalist, and visionary. A modern polymath.
Benjamin Franklin: journalist, politician, revolutionary, scientist, inventor. He invented bifocal lenses, and nearly fried himself investigating lightning.
Terry Jones is a film director, author, television presenter, literary critic and historian. Not to mention a member of the Monty Python team.
Andrei Sakharov was a brilliant nuclear physicist, human rights campaigner and a fearless advocate for international understanding and world peace.
Umberto Eco is one of the foremost of modern polymaths. A man of truly awesome intellect, he combines being Professor of Semiotics at Bologne University with writing best selling novels, and is also an expert on literature, medieval philosophy, and pop culture.
Alexander Porphyrievich Borodin was a 19th century chemist and composer, who wrote three symphonies, conducting scientific research, and campaigned for women to be allowed to study medicine.
1.What could learning Latin ever do for us?
3.Become Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford and wear a miniskirt?
4.Is ‘US’ classical education dead? A Question and Answer
5.Greek and Latin set to die out in schools
6.A Summary Overview of Classical Education in Classical Athens and Republican Rome
Latin and Greek, dead languages? Let me say at the outset that I have no axe to grind. I am not a retired or redundant classics master bemoaning the disappearance of my subject from school curricula.
I have, on the other hand, made my living for the past 30-odd years as a modern linguist with sufficient knowledge of Latin and Greek to appreciate how vital they are for anyone who wants to acquire more than just a superficial knowledge of a modern foreign language.
If we believe that the only reason for teaching French or Spanish in schools is to give children the wherewithal to order a baguette in Boulogne or a tortilla in Torremolinos then, yes, there is little point in wasting time on the classics. But if we want to encourage students to think about how language works and to regard the study of languages as the key to understanding different cultures, then we should be exposing them to the benefits of the classics.
So why were Latin and Greek ditched? I remember the arguments put forward in the Sixties and Seventies by those who wanted to make education more accessible to the masses. Basically these can be reduced to three reasons: these ancient languages were deemed to be irrelevant, elitist and dead.
Those who considered classical studies irrelevant in the modern world were nothing if not short-sighted. They must have thought that in Wilson’s era of white-hot technology there was nothing to be gained by studying the languages and cultures of societies which existed 2,000 years ago.
The question implicit in their criticism was: How could reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars or extracts from Homer possibly produce the kind of citizen required by Great Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries?
Such blinkered thinking missed the point. The ability to cope with highly complex languages such as Latin and Greek requires not only linguistic flair, but a willingness to submit oneself to a rigorous mental discipline which few other subjects demand.
For a student to make a reasonable attempt at, say, translating passages from and into Latin or Greek - yes, that is what they had to do - he or she had to develop patience and determination, pay attention to detail, develop a concern for accuracy and submit his or her thinking processes to ruthless logic.
Obviously these abilities and attributes apply to the study of modern languages as well, but there is one very big difference. Modern teaching methods stress an ability to communicate orally but every student of French, German etc knows (even if few will admit) that when engaged in conversation with native speakers he or she will rely heavily on other, non-verbal forms of communication. A smile here, a nod there, a particular facial expression or hand gesture will frequently convey as much information as speech and fill in the gaps when our knowledge of the language is not as good as we thought it was.
But we get no such help with the classics. When translating from or into Latin and Greek all the pieces have to fit together grammatically and students have to marshal their thoughts and express themselves in a manner which avoids sloppy use of language and its concomitant misunderstandings. There is no room for error or guesswork in tackling the classics.
Then there is the question of cultural heritage. How can a study of the classics be irrelevant to a modern society when that modern society evolved in no small measure from ancient Greece and Rome? Can we not trace many of today’s ideas concerning government, society and the nature and problems of democracy back to the philosophers of ancient Greece? Is our legal system not based largely on Roman law? Are not the literature and art of the western world heavily indebted to cultural innovation and experimentation begun in ancient Greece and Rome? And are we not doing our young a great disservice if we no longer make them aware of this rich heritage and deprive them of the tools for appreciating it to the full?
The second charge of elitism is perhaps even more ridiculous than that of irrelevance. If, by elitism, we mean selecting the best and offering them opportunities and rewards which are not available to the less gifted then, yes, there was a certain basis for the criticism.
But what is wrong with that? Life is elitist. Society is elitist. A quest for the best is discernible in every walk of life. Were Real Madrid not guilty of naked elitism in wooing David Beckham away from Manchester United? When the business community head-hunts a financial wizard to run a multi-national enterprise in exchange for a co-op number salary, does this not smack of elitism? And do the Armed Forces not run unashamedly elitist selection boards in order to separate those whom they consider suitable for officer training from those whom they do not?
So why should those with the necessary intellectual acumen to do well at difficult languages be deprived the opportunity of doing so, simply because they are in the minority? Now we come to the most ridiculous charge of all: Latin and Greek are dead. How can a language be dead when it is in constant daily use?
It is almost impossible for a native English speaker to write or utter a complete sentence without using a Latin or Greek word. Just think about it. We use words such video, television, telephone, computer, architect, dramatist, antibiotic, centre, zone, pedestrian, cinema, and many more too numerous to mention in everyday conversation without batting an eyelid - and yet most of us remain blithely oblivious of their origins.
And then there are the more specific occasions when communication would break down completely were it not for these "dead" languages.
If a parent walks into school (the Greek, believe it or not, for ‘leisure’) and asks to speak to the head because he is not happy with little Johnny’s progress in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, physics, history, geography or biology, he will be speaking Greek. If the two of them go on to discuss the curriculum or the size of the classes and the number of pupils taking French this year, they will have switched to Latin.
Or let’s suppose that after his chat with the head he then has to go and see his wife in hospital. As he walks through the doors he will see signs directing visitors to the various wards and departments: gynaecology, ophthalmology, psychiatry, cardiology, oncology, neurosurgery etc. etc. He may not realise it, but he will be reading ancient Greek written in the Latin alphabet! And if he asks to see the surgeon to discuss the diagnosis and requests a prognosis he will be speaking Greek again.
Even the word "surgeon" is from two Greek words which form a compound noun meaning nothing more than "someone who works with his hands".
No, these languages certainly are not dead. Rather it is just our awareness of the contribution they make to modern English that is asleep. Latin and Greek may no longer be evolving and changing the way a "modern" language does, but a more positive view would be to say that they are preserved in the aspic of time as a rich source of social, cultural, and linguistic information for those who have the knowledge and the ability to extract it.
Unfortunately, with every year that passes there are fewer and fewer people with such an ability.
As a postscript to this article, I would just mention a conversation I had some years ago with an army officer who wanted "the best education possible" for his son.
He informed me in no uncertain terms that he did not want his son wasting time on Latin and Greek, "which nobody speaks any more", as he intended to study astronomy at university and so was concentrating on mathematics, physics and information technology.
The irony of his remark escaped him.
SPEECHWRITER for President George Bush once prepared a stump speech peppered with a bit of Thucydides, a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C. But after the President tripped over the name one time too many, another staffer decided to avoid further embarrassment by drawing a line through the word and writing in "Plato." One dead Greek was as good as another, and who would know the difference?
Who indeed? Once a common possession of the well educated, classical knowledge now bobs like flotsam amid the wreckage wrought by a century of educational scuttling. In 1962, 700,000 American high-school students were taking Latin; by 1985, that number had dropped to 176,000. Consequently, classical studies in higher education have suffered. Out of more than a million BAs awarded in 1994, only six hundred went to classics majors. And these figures tell only a portion of the story. For with the passing of Greek and Latin we have lost part of the soul of our civilization.
Our Founding Fathers saw in education the key to national prosperity, both as an insurance policy against political tyranny and as an investment for worldly success--although even then dissenters disputed the premium placed upon the classics. Benjamin Rush, a physician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, dallied in 1789 with the idea of a Federal University built on a new model. "While the business of education in Europe consists in lectures upon the ruins of Palmyra and the antiquities of Herculaneum," Rush wrote, "the youth of America will be employed in acquiring those branches of knowledge which increase the conveniences of life, lessen human misery, improve our country, promote population, exalt the human understanding, and establish domestic, social, and political happiness." Expelled from the new university, therefore, would be those "tyrants" of the old curriculum, Greek and Latin, along with their cornucopia of poetry, drama, history, and philosophy, which had nourished minds and spirits for centuries. Rush's proposal sounds a modern note, confirming a cherished view we hold of ourselves as makers of a novus ordo seclorum (a new order of the ages).
Yet most educated men of the colonial and Federal era were not beguiled by this rash form of cultural independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his grandson, just setting out for college, "Your Latin and Greek should be kept up assiduously." John Adams, keeping close tabs on the education of his sons, wrote to young John Quincy in 1780: "My wish at present is that your principal attention should be directed to the Latin and Greek tongues." "I hope soon to hear," he added, "that you are in Virgil and [Cicero's] orations, or Ovid, or Horace, or all of them." And Jefferson and Adams were not mere savants; they typified their class and generation. Greek and Latin furnished their minds, formed their taste, and perfected their style. Allusions to Greeks and Romans run as a constant motif in colonial correspondence and public documents.
Classical education continued to define the standard curriculum for the elite through most of the nineteenth century as well--although, in proper American fashion, plenty of others joined them in aspiring to pry open its vast treasure trove. James Garfield took his early education at a modest school in Ohio where he drank heady draughts of Homer, Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, and Virgil; it was said that, years later, the ambidextrous Garfield, on hearing a sentence in English, could translate it onto paper, one hand into Greek, the other into Latin. Theodore Roosevelt, the quintessentially American man of action, is said to have maintained his Greek and Latin reading amid trust-busting and big-game hunting till the end of his life.
Why were generations of students made to suffer the inky travails of learning two difficult languages they would never speak? With concerns about education figuring prominently in the public mind today, we might well ask. After all, if another Constitutional Convention were convened next year, it's not at all clear that the current generation could bring to the chamber the same blend of practicality and learned wisdom--or want of cliché and jargon--that armed the delegates at Philadelphia in 1787.
Al Gore's inability to translate E Pluribus Unum might then be the least of our worries.
Classical education has always signified more than Greek and Latin. The two languages secured the basis for a humanistic training, being the necessary preconditions to access to Greek and Roman writings. But they were means, not ends; the text was the thing. Implicit in classics was the Virgilian dictum of Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas: Fortunate the man who can understand the causes of things. A classical education conferred full citizenship of the West, forcing its students to plumb the depths of their origins and tap into the vigour of their civilization, to understand it from within by the direct witness of men and women who had presided over its beginnings.
Classics as a discipline, in fact, reigned as the queen of the "humanities" before they became soft, soulless, and politicized--when, in other words, they were still the exacting study of man and his achievements. Classical study opened the student's eyes to another world both like and unlike his own, affording him multiple images of the noble and the good. It supplied him with a lifetime of historical exempla, philosophical axioms, and phrases that shone like gemstones and lent poignancy and éclat to the world he knew.
It is no accident, then, that so many who gathered at Philadelphia to declare independence and a decade later to draft a constitution were men who had apprenticed themselves to Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, and who could debate at length on the various constitutional forms of the classical world before they chose one for the new American nation. We owe our very existence as a people in great part to classical learning.
But are classics useful today? Probably not, at least not useful by the lights of anyone prompted to ask the question. Like all humanistic learning, classics are not so much useful as they are supra usum, beyond use. The classical pursuit contributed not so much to bodily survival as to intellectual and spiritual sustenance--like scaling mountains or surmounting the Goldberg Variations. "To seek utility everywhere is most unsuitable to lofty and free natures," Aristotle observed. Or, as Emerson put it, the unchecked lust for utility "would abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage."
The best education isn't confined to the Three Rs; it instills the ineffable. In the words of Phillips Academy's Alfred Stearns, true education aims to develop a human being who is "something bigger and finer than a mere piece of mechanism designed to fit into place in a practical world but devoid of aspiration and idealism, bereft of vision and imagination, forever denied the privilege of tasting the things of the spirit which alone is life."
But what about the Rubicon of Greek and Latin? Why, in a time teeming with good translations, should anyone expend time and energy pounding paradigms, memorizing vocabulary, and mastering obscure points of syntax? The short answer is intimacy. Classical knowledge does not consist only of discrete facts amenable to quick swallowing. Such knowledge is also freighted with thought and expression, exuberant and penetrating utterances not always easily rendered in another tongue. Imagine paraphrasing a poem by Keats or Shelley in contemporary lingo: we know instinctively that the result would be lacking. For literature isn't just ideas; it's sound and sense together. Epic and lyric poems are more than plot lines and naturalistic images; they're products of the human imagination which must be heard and felt in a certain manner.
Furthermore, long after proficiency with the languages had lapsed, the pains taken early on kept those who had learned them aware that words grant keys to the precincts of the mind. Reading or writing Latin is an exercise in brevity; not even the taut suppleness of Greek matches for economy the lapidary quality of the Roman tongue. Long exposure to its syntax may well account for some of the finest prose of yesterday, for even those who never had Latin inhabited a culture where its drive for the mot juste was felt and emulated.
The decline of classical studies leaves a vacuum within American culture which is more discomfortingly apparent every year. And the real loser is the educated public at large: the people who vote, who read books, newspapers, and magazines, who watch clever talking heads spouting opinions on cable news networks with exquisite in-articulation and then imitate them. The people, in short, who can't retain disciplined habits of expression because they never learned them. Perhaps the most telling legacy of the passing of Greek and Latin isn't the college freshman incapable of declining Latin nouns; it's the schoolteacher unable to distinguish can from may.
Once a classical education could be rejected; now it can't even be described. Yet classicists still march under the tattered standard of hard learning. They are the fifth column of the last legion. "Classics, in spite of our friend Rush," Adams wrote to Jefferson, "I must think indispensable." "It sticks," Kipling's Mr. King says to Stalky. "A little of it sticks among the barbarians."
Susan Greenfield went up to Oxford in 1969 to read classics, promptly switched to psychology and is now Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology. She worries that there is a growing philistinism, particularly among younger scientists who are too focused on their CVs and frightened of being adventurous. "But that might be a problem with all young people who no longer read classics or ask the big questions of life. They feel they have to fight to survive in their careers, so they toe the line, rather than being challenging and brave. To be heretical, I don't know if we're doing better science than 30 years ago. I understand what it's like to regard scientists as dysfunctional nerds, which is their image, but they're just normal - neither cleverer, stupider nor less emotional than anyone else - although they do sometimes like to make things obscure and can have a monastic attitude, cherishing the idea that academics live in ivory towers. Increasingly, though, the scientific community realises we have to mesh with society - especially if we're raising issues of concern which have real impact." Baroness Greenfield is now (2004) President of the Classical Association, as well as of the director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
"Dressed in a black Armani miniskirt, black stockings and red sweater, looking a decade younger than her 49 years, she is a whirlwind in everything - career, marriage, eating, talking - bouncing ideas and metaphors with the care- free, but deadly, insouciance of a kamikaze. She invites controversy as she strips mystique and elitism from brain surgery to make it understandable to a lay public, bewildered, as at no previous time, by rapid scientific developments that are changing our lives." (from a BBC interview by Andrew Duncan).
Q & A prompted by Kathryn Jean Lopez with T L Simmons, a US journalist who advocates classics.
Tracy Lee Simmons, an NR contributor, is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He holds a master's degree from Oxford in the classics and is author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: When you write about classical education you mean more than learning enough Latin to help with the SATs. What is a classical education?
Tracy Lee Simmons: This was the Humanist's education, in the sense in which Erasmus and Thomas More were Humanists. A classical education used to mean simply a curriculum based upon Greek and Latin. Of course, that curriculum also included math, history, and literature, but they were secondary; the two ancient languages were primary. Greek and Latin were what made the curriculum classical, nothing else. Unfortunately, as I say in the book, a classical education can mean lots of things these days, practically everything from Shakespeare to phonics. But, on the upper end, most definitions seem to have in common a fairly demanding curriculum and a serious reconnection to the history of the Western world — but often without the languages themselves. I think this is deadly, because it excludes the rigor. Over time it gives us the illusion of knowing things we don't. So I've tried to reemphasize Greek and Latin as being vital, in fact central, to a classical education. It's not really my definition, mind you. It's what everyone from T. S. Eliot on back for hundreds of years would have recognized. A classical education forms the mind by classical models of thought and language and gives us a past.
Lopez: Should everyone be getting a classical education, to some degree? Where do you start in terms of grade/age level?
Simmons: Well, after admitting, as we should, that no time is too late to start — high school, college, or later — we must also acknowledge a few humbling facts. If the classical languages are to serve their formative function, a training in them should begin as early as possible. It's still common in European countries, for instance, to begin Latin around the age of ten, and that's usually after the child has already begun a second modern language. Let's not kid ourselves: that kind of schooling is not merely different from ours, it's superior. Children end up maturing sooner and knowing more. Who should get a classical education? In a perfect world, everyone would have a shot at it, at least at the beginning. But the real answer is, whoever can. That is, whoever is blessed with a good mind, as well as with the advantages of good schools with traditional values and practices — remember, we need both. Where Latin is still available in America, students still start somewhere near the ninth grade. That's okay, but it's later than it needs to be. Under the older system, which some American schools followed, a Latin student could be reading Virgil — or a Greek student, Homer — by that stage. I see no reason to waste time the way we do in this country, though we can see where we've gone wrong. If we're not worried about the immediate and obvious utility of a subject, we're worried that our children will feel bad about themselves if they don't get straight-A's. Both motives are low and unbecoming, and they don't, as we say now, send a very good message to young people about the life of the mind.
Lopez: What are the current trends? Who is getting classical educations? Who is studying Greek and Latin?
Simmons: Again, whoever can. It's a parched world out there, but there are signs of hope. The Catholic schools could once be counted on at least for teaching Latin, if not Greek, and many still do. But you find a disturbing number of Catholic schools getting rid of Latin, and failing to stress it where it survives, which means of course that it probably won't survive very long. Many home-scholars are trying to provide Latin, and mostly for all the right reasons. But if the parents haven't had Latin, or not much of it, they can't take their children very far without expert tutoring. The best places remain good private schools where, for whatever reasons, the good and rigorous subjects remain and are well taught by extraordinary, if underpaid, teachers. Those schools are out there. You even see Latin returning here and there to public schools, and that should put the Catholic schools to shame.
Lopez: Among the advantages of Greek and Latin is the discipline that comes with memorization. Rote learning is out these days. Is a comeback possible?
Simmons: Yes, I think a comeback of rote is probable. The Gross National Stupidity might force the issue. To say that Latin helps your English is to say the least, but it still doesn't say much. More disturbingly, people are beginning to see that their intelligent children don't know very much. Here they are, with minds as strong as any the world has seen, and those minds simply don't contain very much, nor are they very well moulded. And they've frittered away their childhoods on public-school silliness like multiculturalism and time-wasting projects instead of reading books. They know things, but they haven't learned much systematically. If they had taken, say, French and Latin by the age of twelve — along with Algebra I — they'd not only know all that comes with them; they'd have gained the ability to teach themselves whatever comes along. Rote memorization is a prerequisite to real knowledge. As my colleague Jeff Hart has said, what else are you supposed to do with French irregular verbs? Well, use them, obviously. But first you must learn them, and that can be hard work for a while.
Lopez: You say this is all a lost cause, don't you? Is it really? Then what are your goals?
Simmons: It's mostly a lost cause, but not completely. It's certainly a lost cause as far as the educational establishment — the NEA and AFT and so forth — are concerned. Talking to them is like talking to a mud fence. I guess my goal is to encourage the creation of a remnant of those who know what's good and what will promote a healthy society, which is of course healthy, intelligent individuals, not big schemes for social improvement. We need to start small. And since I've pretty much given up on the education establishment to reinstate some decency, I suppose we must form a dis-establishment of civilized people. It's possible. Maybe we'll need to return to monastic schools, where the mind and soul are formed together. That would be best. The Benedictines have had it right for 1,500 years. They brought salvation, sanity, and civilization — not a bad deal, all things considered.
Lopez: You teach college students. How much enthusiasm to they have for classics?
Simmons: Here's another reason why this is not a completely lost cause. I see tremendous enthusiasm for classics, at Hillsdale College and elsewhere. When I was an undergraduate, twenty years ago, most classics students I knew studied classics in order to become classical scholars, or at least classics teachers. Now I see undergraduates — and remember, I teach journalism and writing, not Greek and Latin — who wish to major or minor in classics and carry that credential with them for the rest of their lives, to take it to their professions, professional schools, what have you. They're not worried about their curriculum helping them to get jobs. They want to be complete as intelligent beings. That makes them a cut above my self-serving group. I can't tell you how much I admire them for that.
Lopez: Where would you send parents who want to ensure their kids get a classical education or some sort?
Simmons: Start from home. As I said before, some public and parochial schools continue to retain their classics, and they might be just around the corner. You may not need to go to an expensive private boarding school. Here's one sign to watch: generally, the earlier the students start their languages, with grammar and everything, the better and more serious the program is likely to be. Be wary of those who prefer smiling children to intelligent children; same with adolescents, only more so. Be careful with those schools offering Latin because it's a current fad; they must be committed to it, regardless of what the latest studies are saying. Incidentally, make sure that the parents aren't running the school, because that's a recipe for an oozing demise of anything like real education. Sad to say, the average Baby Boomer parent these days is as ignorant of the goals of a humane education as children are, and good things and good people always get hurt when ignorant busybodies prevail. If your local private school isn't offering Latin, be bold and ask the headmaster or principal why, and watch him squirm. Often the reasons are not very good, and usually schools that provide more computer training than intellectual formation are ensuring a lifetime of mediocrity for those children. If that's what you want, go for it. Otherwise, politely walk away.
Lopez: How has the decline in classical education effected modern thought?
Simmons: The decline of classics has made us more trivial, less weighty, in our thinking, and certainly less wise. The decline of the serious study of rhetoric, for example, has reduced politics to sound bites and number-crunching. We don't see many statesmen about nowadays. We don't care if politicians talk like snake-oil salesmen, but we should. I suppose that a more direct effect of that decline is its exposing us to pseudo-sophisticated language of the kind we get from the social sciences, like psychology and sociology: if it sounds scientific, we think, it must be intelligent. Anyone with a humanistic education would see through that very quickly — and act accordingly.
Lopez: What's the relation between virtue and the classical languages?
Simmons: Well, that's the best question of all. The wisest ancients, both sacred and secular, sought as their social ideal the good man or woman who could speak well. A clever use of words wasn't enough; one had to use words for right and good ends. And when we study the classics now, we can't help but notice the preoccupation with the connection between virtue and eloquence. Men of the Renaissance understood this as well, as did almost everyone till the 19th century. John Henry Newman — who, as a Greek scholar, was very much the believer in classical education — lived to see that idea slipping away. Also, the ancients have taught us to distrust, or at least question, our emotions, our passions, which they seemed to consider guilty until proven innocent. That would be heresy on the afternoon talk show circuit now but, between Seneca and Oprah, I know whom I'd rather trust.
Lopez: When did your interest in everything classic first take root?
Simmons: I really can't remember. It must have started with tales of Greek mythology I saw in children's books; I recall liking the quasi-biblical quality of those stories. They were foreign and familiar at the same time. Then watching Ben Hur, The Robe, and films like that. Then, after I started Latin, I noticed the way that that marvellous language opened up the world of words to me more intensely, and I guess I was hooked. There were no epiphanies; it was gradual. To be honest, in the earlier years of school, classics was mostly work, but I must have had some tiny talent with it all. Not until much later, in my mid-twenties, did I look back and see all I had gained. I would be a different human being altogether without classics. I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said that losing Latin and Greek would be like losing a limb.
Lopez: WFB wrote the intro to your book. How did you first come to know him?
Simmons: He tells the story of our meeting in the foreword. I wrote a review of one of his sailing books, he wrote to me, and a month later I was writing and editing for National Review. It was a fantastic opportunity, and I'll be forever grateful to him. And, in a sense, Climbing Parnassus was his idea. I must have talked a good deal about my devotion to the classics, and he said what he often does to others taken with something: Make it solid, write it up. It made all the sense in the world for him to write the foreword. I was, and am, honoured.
Lopez: Besides him, of course — who are you favourite modern writers? Clear thinking, classically trained, you'd want to hand a high-school or college student?
Simmons: Well, surely I've already said enough. But among modern writers of the older set, you can't easily go wrong with T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Greene. I always go back them. For today, Jacques Barzun is the finest voice we have. Victor Davis Hanson is writing the best war commentary conceivable. But I try not to let the fact that they were all classically trained prejudice my opinion!
LATIN and ancient Greek are on course to die out as academic subjects in Scotland according to leading education figures. The prediction comes in the wake of Strathclyde University’s decision to scrap the last available course for students to qualify as classics teachers.
Fiona Hyslop, the SNP’s education spokeswoman, warned that the decision is a turning point in Scottish education. "This is a short-sighted approach that could kill off the classics in Scotland. We need to look at creative and inventive ways of sustaining these subjects," she said.
"At a time when we are looking to bring in more diversity in Scottish education and there’s a growing demand for thinking skills, we need to think again. "As somebody who did Higher Latin, I would say it was one of the most useful subjects I did."
Judith Sischy, the director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said that news of the planned axing of the course at Strathclyde has upset many heads of classics departments. She said: "I don’t feel there has been sufficient consultation, and it seems premature when I understand that in Europe and the US the classics are coming back into fashion and being revived." Predicting that schools may have to recruit teachers from south of the Border, Mrs Sischy said: "As a nation, we should be able to cover all these subjects. I think feelings will be strong if we lose this course for ever." She suggested that the private and state sector could pool teachers in minority subjects, in order to retain a spectrum of choice for pupils. Schools could become specialist centres for classes on campus and possibly online.
Kristina Woolnough, the chairwoman of Parents in Partnership, said that many parents may be saddened by the disappearance of the classics from the curriculum. "Any reductions in pupils’ options would be a severe loss, and loss of these subjects has a particular price." Ms Woolnough pointed out that knowledge of Latin and Greek is important and useful when studying subjects such as law, botany, modern languages and medicine. She added that they also offer students a better understanding of the English language. Calling for a wider debate on the future of classics, Ms Woolnough said: "If Scotland wants to consider itself part of Europe, classics does offer the linguistic basis. It shows a willingness to take on all languages."
Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said that the declining number of pupils and students reading the classics at school and university suggests that it could be too late to prevent them disappearing from the curriculum in Scottish schools. She said: "I think the classics are gone, and I don’t think most people are going to care a tuppeny toss. People have voted with their feet. "These subjects are not seen as having market value. This is the market economy in action." In 2000, 346 candidates sat Higher Latin, but two years later the numbers had dropped to just 257. Mrs Gillespie added that Scotland is poorer for the decline of classics: "I think we have lost an important link with a previous culture, and one of the great benefits was that it encouraged a rigour of thinking, a discipline and an exactness. There is too much sloppiness now."
David Eaglesham, the general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, who studied both Latin and Greek, said he personally would be saddened by the possible disappearance of the classics. But he added that schools were also gaining new subjects such as computing.
Announcing the funds for each higher-education institution yesterday, Roger McClure, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council said universities across the UK have taken "tough decisions" to concentrate their funds on areas of greatest demand. Departments such as chemistry and physics have been closed, and many departments have pooled their resources with departments in other universities. Citing Polish as a minority subject "for which demand may increase as new countries join the EC", he said the funding council and institutions may consult on ways to protect certain subjects for the long term.
Tony Williams, who runs the Strathclyde classics course, was unavailable for comment.
In Athens circa 400 BC, the purpose of education was to produce citizens trained in the arts, to prepare citizens for both peace and war.
Other than requiring two years of military training that began at age 18, the state left parents to educate their sons as they saw fit.
The schools were private, but the tuition was low enough so that even the poorest citizens could afford to send their children for at least a few years.
Until age 6 or 7, boys were taught at home by their mother or by a male slave.
Boys attended elementary school from the time they were about age 6 or 7 until they were 13 or 14. Part of their training was gymnastics.
The younger boys learned to move gracefully, do calisthenics, and play ball and other games. The older boys learned running, jumping, boxing, wrestling, and discus and javelin throwing. The boys also learned to play the lyre and sing, to count, and to read and write. But it was literature that was at the heart of their schooling.
The national epic poems of the Greeks - Homer's Odyssey and Iliad - were a vital part of the life of the Athenian people. As soon as their pupils could write, the teachers dictated passages from Homer for them to take down, memorize, and later act out. Teachers and pupils also discussed the feats of the Greek heroes described by Homer.
The education of mind, body, and aesthetic sense was, according to Plato, so that the boys "may learn to be more gentle, and harmonious, and rhythmical, and so more fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm."
From age 6 to 14, they went to a neighbourhood primary school or to a private school. Manuscripts were very expensive and rare, so subjects were read out-loud, and the boys had to memorize everything. To help them learn, they used writing tablets and rulers.
At 13 or 14, the formal education of the poorer boys probably ended and was followed by apprenticeship at a trade. The wealthier boys continued their education under the tutelage of philosopher-teachers.
Until about 390 BC there were no permanent schools and no formal courses for such higher education. Socrates, for example, wandered around Athens, stopping here or there to hold discussions with the people about all sorts of things pertaining to the conduct of man's life.
But gradually, as groups of students attached themselves to one teacher or another, permanent schools were established. It was in such schools that Plato, and Aristotle taught.
The boys who attended these schools fell into more or less two groups.
Those who wanted learning for its own sake studied with philosophers like Plato who taught such subjects as geometry, astronomy, harmonics (the mathematical theory of music), and arithmetic.
Those who wanted training for public life studied with philosophers who taught primarily oratory and rhetoric. In democratic Athens such training was appropriate and necessary because power rested with the men who had the ability to persuade their fellows to act.
In Republican Rome, a goal of education was to be an effective speaker, to be ones own advocate in business, law, and politics.
The school day began before sunrise, as did all work in Rome. Students brought candles to use until daybreak.
There was a rest for lunch and the afternoon siesta, and then back to school until late afternoon. No one knows how long the school year actually was; it probably varied from school to school. However, one thing was uniform - the school began each year on the 24th of March!
In early days, a Roman boy's education took place at home. If his father could read and write, he taught his son to do the same.
The father instructed his sons in Roman law, history, customs, and physical training, to prepare for war. Reverence for the gods, respect for law, obedience to authority, and truthfulness were the most important lessons to be taught.
Girls were taught by their mother. Girls learned to spin, weave, and sew.
About 200 BC, the Romans borrowed some of the ancient Greek system of education. Although they did not add many subjects, they did begin sending their boys, and some of their girls, with their father's permission, to school, outside their home, at age 6 or 7.
The children studied reading, writing, and counting. They read scrolls and manuscripts. They wrote on boards covered with wax, and used pebbles to do math problems. They were taught Roman numerals, and recited lessons they had memorized.
At age 12 or 13, the boys of the upper classes attended "grammar" school, where they studied Latin, Greek, grammar, and literature.
At age 16, some wealthier boys went on to study public speaking at the rhetoric school, to prepare for a life as an orator.
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