Classical education no longer exists, according to Erik Ellis, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame.
In his Monday night lecture titled “Vir Bonus, Dicendi Peritus: Statesmanship and Public Speaking as the Final Cause of Classical Education,” Ellis described both the essence and purpose of a true classical education.
According to Ellis, people disagree about what classical education really is. The one thing most agree on, however, is that it no longer exists.
“One of the things I’ve noticed about classical schools is that they’re all different,” he said. “What they seem to have in common is the idea that classical education is something that existed in the past, and that we have now lost.”
Although Hillsdale students might be under the impression that they are receiving a classical education, Ellis says that what many people consider to be classical is actually a “great books” education.
“Classical education doesn’t want you to read great books, it wants you to read the best books,” Ellis said. “It’s not concerned with giving you a narrative of the history of the development of ideas, or even in bringing you into something that we might call a great conversation. It’s interested in giving you the right ideas.”
Although classical education is often touted as worth studying for its own sake, Ellis said it was designed to be extremely practical.
“The orthodoxy of classical education is stoicism, because stoicism is about action. It’s a practical philosophy,” he said. “The point was to produce masters of language.”
Mastering language and learning to speak well were considered to be so important that classical education, according to Ellis, was comprised almost exclusively of Greek and Latin.
In fact, students at the famous Harrow School in England protested the addition of arithmetic to their syllabus in the 1830s for this very reason.
“The Harrow School exists to train boys so that they can read the Latin and Greek authors, period,” Ellis said, explaining the protestors’ mindset. “So no modern foreign language, no experimental science, no mathematics — just Greek and Latin.”
Focusing on reading and speaking well was designed to equip students to become good citizens. Reading the very best Latin and Greek authors also gave students direct examples of how to live well. Such an education was meant to cultivate wisdom, not necessarily a broad knowledge of subjects.
This idea might be especially foreign to modern students.
“Classical education was certainly not comprehensive,” Ellis said. “It did not consist of subjects. It didn’t aim at producing someone with a comprehensive knowledge of anything other than the arts of language.”
Benjamin Beier, assistant professor of education, said the link between speaking well and being a good citizen was clear in the more oral societies of the past.
“I think that a classical education today would do well to continue to cultivate students’ speaking abilities, while also admitting that there’s a need for students to become strong in writing and in all sorts of media that aren’t just the spoken word,” he said.
This is not to say, however, that skillful speaking is no longer relevant.
“Classical schools today, defending the choice to teach the trivium [grammar, logic, and rhetoric], usually make appeals to the uselessness or the liberalness of it — that it’s good for its own sake. They don’t frequently point out that these are incredibly practical skills,” Beier said.
Hillsdale sophomore Mattie Schmidt said she found this concept unusual.
“It was very surprising to hear that he thought we didn’t need to study any sort of math or science, but only to gain a full understanding of Latin and Greek in order to be properly educated,” she said.