GLEN COVE, NY — The content of the standard education
changes from generation to generation, but seldom, if ever, has it
deteriorated as it did in the twentieth century.
One of my grandfathers earned an engineering degree from Auburn in
1900. When he arrived at Auburn University in 1896, he was tested in
both Latin and Greek to see if he needed remedial courses in either
language. Fortunately, he had attended a single-teacher school (a “one-room
schoolhouse”), and his Latin and Greek were fine.
My grandfather received a “classical education,” similar
in content to that any schoolboy received in New York, California,
Western Europe, Eastern Europe, South America, or Australia. Students
throughout the Western World could read Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Livy,
and probably Horace in Latin, as well as Homer, Xenophon, Plato, Aesop,
Aristophanes, and some of the Attic orators in Greek by the age of
17. They were fully familiar with the Iliad,
Odyssey, Aeneid, and the
major classics of their own language. They could demonstrate geometric
proofs, resolve equations, describe in detail the geography of the
world, and do both a grammatical parsing and a logical analysis of
a sentence. They knew world history, only slightly distorted by a good
dose of patriotism.
Educated people throughout the world not only had a common basis from
which to communicate with each other; they also had a basis for understanding
the sources of earlier writings.
The United States was the first major country in which classical education
began to unravel. In the 1920s, high schools throughout the country
began to drop Greek from their curriculum, or at a minimum to make
it an elective until it died out. They also cut the required years
of Latin back, first to four and then to two years. By the middle of
the twentieth century, students could graduate from high school not
knowing a word of Latin or Greek. By the end of the century, they could
graduate not knowing a word of any foreign language.
Novel and progressive theories of education flourished, and future
teachers learned more and more education theory and less and less content
knowledge of any subject they might teach. Despite the abundant new
theories of teaching history, for example, today’s high school
graduates often are unable to put five significant events in world
history in the correct centuries. Logical analysis of both the written
sentence and of arguments has vanished.
Progressives were not the only enemies of good education. Hitler hated
classical education, and by World War II, Germany, once arguably the
most educated nation in the world, produced a generation that could
not read Latin. By the 1970s, Italy decided to move first-year Latin
from the sixth grade to the ninth grade, laying the foundations for
the destruction of its classical education and the deterioration of
written Italian. By the end of the century, classical education was
in retreat, or more often complete rout, throughout the world.
Perhaps the most tragic case was that of Great Britain. At mid-century,
Great Britain had an examination, known as the Eleven Plus, which was
given to eleven year olds. For those whose parents could not afford
an elite school, passing this examination opened the door to an outstanding
classical education at government expense in a “grammar school.” This
system was created in World War II to replace an earlier system in
which the students who would receive a free classical education were
chosen at a younger age. Throughout most of the last two generations,
Britain has been phasing out grammar schools and the Eleven Plus in
favor of an imitation of the American high school model.
Prior to World War I, educated men throughout the civilized world
had a common body of knowledge they could discuss and a common language,
Latin, in which they could do so. In addition, this common body of
knowledge helped them understand the literature and politics of the
past. Tragically, this is all gone. It has been replaced by ignorance,
xenophobia, and irrational passions and prejudices. If there is a a
road to its recovery, it is a long one.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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