Erik Ellis. Notre Dame | Courtesy
Erik Ellis. Notre Dame | Courtesy

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.