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The classical education of the American Founders was “Inspired by Liberty and Virtue.” Winston Elliott suggested the title for this essay and it is a good one. The curriculum that educated so many of the Founding generation was not primarily training for a profession. It aimed at preparing future citizens for a life of ordered liberty through the practice of virtue. Certainly his suggestion is a more inspiring title than my first thought: “Dead Languages and Corporal Punishment.” Both titles are equally accurate as descriptions of the colonial curriculum. One describes its goals; the second describes its means. I want to talk about those means this morning, but the reason why it is worthwhile discussing them is their success in achieving the curriculum’s goals.

Today American education swings wildly back and forth between crises in reading and writing and crises in STEM subjects. (STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) These crises appeared in the twentieth century in tandem with the slow but steady marginalization of traditional classical education and achieved critical mass after World War II. In 1955 Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read voiced a concern with language arts that continues to this day.[i] It was sidetracked, however, by the hue and cry that went up after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. A few days later Elmer Hutchinson, director of the American Institute of Physics told the New York Times (October 8, 1957) that unless the US revamped its educational system to emphasize science, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.”

Naturally, threatened with rapid extinction, the national government poured money into science programs at the expense of humanities and foreign languages, the budgetary aspect of the educational environment in which enrollments in high school Latin went from 728,637 in 1962 to barely 150,000 by the late 1970’s.[ii] This significant change in the nation’s priorities in curriculum and funding was accomplished with remarkably little public debate. Earlier generations had rejected calls to repudiate traditional classical Christian education, and America had enjoyed 200 years of prosperity, creativity, and freedom.[iii] The success of the American space program in the 1960’s could not have been due to the money directed at what are now called STEM subjects in schools. The scientific and military leaders associated with the space program were all educated in the previous generation, a number of them in Europe.

The cycle of crises has continued into the twenty-first century. A few years ago educators warmed against a crisis in writing. As a result writing programs and even departments were founded at universities that had long refused academic credit for such a basic skill. This crisis has now taken second place to concerns with what they call “the drying up of the STEM pipeline,” which can be solved only by federal intervention. Meanwhile educators discovered another crisis—it is always a crisis—in critical thinking. Teachers in writing programs are asked to address it, but, as they often admit privately, they spend so much time correcting grammatical errors they have little time for in-depth instruction in critical thinking and persuasive discourse. In Real Education (2008), Charles Murray explained convincingly that “The tools of verbal expression…are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.”[iv] Writing and speaking ungrammatically is an insuperable obstacle to thinking clearly and logically.

“The world is like the drunken peasant trying to ride a horse,” Martin Luther noted. “If you prop him up on one side, he falls off the other.”[v] Luther could have been describing the educational establishment in the United States. Instead of careening from one crisis to another, our nation needs a curriculum that is balanced between language and math. It should not be a recent fad, but have been practiced for a long time, preferably for centuries. Its success should be demonstrated by wide acceptance in many countries. Its best graduates should be distinguished in a wide variety of areas, like literature, art, philosophy and political thought, politics and science, people like Shakespeare and Michelangelo, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Jefferson and Adams, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Galileo and Newton, Linnaeus and Darwin. Where can we find such a curriculum?

The Seven Liberal Arts that formed the infrastructure of the classical curriculum were divided into the arts of language (the trivium) and the arts of mathematics (the quadrivium). The trivium taught language by emersion in grammar, specifically Latin grammar, before students went on to study dialectic (or logic) and rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing persuasively. The quadrivium taught arithmetic and geometry with astronomy and music as mathematical subjects. The balance between language and mathematics was as important as the command of the basic subjects.

The Seven Liberal Arts are first mentioned explicitly by St Augustine (AD 354-430) in the late ancient Roman Empire.[vi] In the same period schools taught a true Great Books reading list, what German classicist Manfred Fuhrmann called the “Two Canons”: the Bible and the pagan “classics”, e.g., Cicero and Livy in prose, Virgil, Horace and Ovid in poetry.[vii]

In the seventh and eighth centuries, however, the continuity of Classical and Christian culture was shaken in Western Europe by a troubled economy and growing violence. Classical Greek texts were still studied in the Eastern Roman Empire, what we call the Byzantine Empire, and in lands conquered by militant Islam, with important results for medicine and science. In Europe, however, classical education survived in peripheral areas such as Ireland and England.

So when in the ninth century Charlemagne (742-814) strove to restore civilization, he turned to England for scholars and teachers like Alcuin of York (735-814). The old schools had long disappeared, so monasteries and cathedrals were encouraged to found new schools, modeled on the one Alcuin ran at Charlemagne’s court. Their curriculum was based on the Seven Liberal Arts, known from Augustine and other late ancient authors. The art and literature of the Latin Middle Ages were created by people who read classical texts selected by ancient teachers and philosophers, but taught at monasteries and cathedrals, typical medieval institutions. The liberal arts also flourished in universities, which were mostly medieval foundations. After Protestants closed down monasteries and cathedral schools in the sixteenth century, they founded local schools, new institutions that taught the traditional curriculum. When Englishmen crossed the Atlantic to plant colonies in North America, they brought with them the traditional curriculum that balanced the arts of language and mathematics and taught the two canons, the Bible and the pagan classics. The entrance exams for colonial colleges required aspiring freshmen to translate passages from Cicero and Virgil.

The highly traditional character of this society has been denied since the age of the Founding. French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1783) asked the question, “What then is the American, this new man?” He answered, “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.”[viii] In 2002 Dinesh D’Souza echoed these words: “As the American Founders knew, America is a new kind of society that produces a new kind of human being. That human being—confident, self-reliant, tolerant, generous, future oriented—is a vast improvement over the wretched, servile, fatalistic, and intolerant human being that traditional societies have always produced, and that Islamic societies produce now.”[ix]

The truth is quite different. Seventeenth and eighteenth century Americans, far from “leaving behind all [their] ancient prejudices and manners,” brought over the cultural baggage of the ancient Mediterranean lock, stock and barrel. The goal of classical education and its two-fold canon of Great Books was the cultivation of religion, morality and knowledge, words joined in the Third Article of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” If we were to re-write the Northwest Ordinance today, we would begin the Third Article differently. “Science, technology and engineering, being necessary to human happiness, public schools taught by unionized education school graduates shall forever be mandated.” That’s more like it! Before approving this emendation, however, it may be worthwhile to listen to historian Clinton Rossiter writing about colonial schools.[x]

It is easy to smile at the dull, rigid, crabbed methods that prevailed in colonial colleges, but if we judge the vineyards by the fruit they brought forth, we must acknowledge them a fertile ground of learning, science, reason, and liberty. They may not have taught young men enough useful knowledge, but they did teach them—in their own tradition-ridden way—to think, communicate, and lead…. The roll call of Harvard and William and Mary men in the Revolution should be evidence enough that Latin, logic, and metaphysics were a rich[xi] fertilizer in the cultivation of reason, virtue, honor, and love of liberty.

Rossiter is careful to remind his readers that the methods of colonial schools were “dull, rigid, crabbed” and, worst of all, “tradition-ridden.” He cannot bring himself, however, to ignore the Savior’s sage dictum: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” (Mt 7:20) The classical curriculum and its canon taught its students “to think, communicate, and lead.” It cultivated “reason, virtue, honor, and love of liberty.” As George Gershwin was to query, “Who could ask for anything more?”

The American Founders knew from history that a curriculum successful at teaching its graduates “to think, communicate, and lead” could produce anarchy or tyranny instead of ordered liberty unless those skills were practiced by leaders committed to “virtue and the love of liberty.” Colonel George Mason in his Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 is as clear on this point as on political issues: “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

This time-tested curriculum preserved methods, content and goals from classical antiquity. Why, however, teach grammar by learning dead languages to read authors thousands of years in their graves like Cicero and Virgil? In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries great fiction like Thomas More’s Utopia, significant theology like Calvin’s Institutes, a federalist classic like Althaus’s Politica or scientific masterpieces like Newton’s Principia, even Locke’s essay on toleration, had all been composed in Latin. Why not read more recent works like these?

Why, for instance, did colonial colleges insist that young people demonstrate that they could read the orations and dialogues of Cicero to gain admission? I suggest the reason was Cicero’s character as much as his writings. Cicero was a popular politician, who rose to the highest office in republican Rome, the consulship. He was a successful defense attorney, who also prosecuted a few significant cases. He composed dialogues on rhetoric, politics and ethics and wrote letters that are models of the genre. Cicero’s range of accomplishments inspired the ideal of the Renaissance man, the man for all seasons. He represented what it meant to be educated. In our own time we appeal to the specialist, the expert. During the great creative age of the modern period, from the Renaissance through the American Founding, the opposite was true. Men as different as David Hume, Edmund Burke and John Adams took Cicero as their model in their careers and writings. Bright amateurs knew Cicero in a way that only specialists do today, or rather, in ways that no specialist does today because today’s specialists do not model their lives on Cicero. His influence encouraged many educated folk to strive for lives that balanced philosophical thought and political action, while it inspired the superior to achieve greatly. Locke’s theory of property, the care Jefferson devoted to his letters, the years Burke spent prosecuting Warren Hastings, Hume’s Dialogue on Natural Religion are only some aspects of the eighteenth century decisively influenced by Cicero’s life and example. Their ideal was not an expert or a technocrat, but someone who balanced a thoughtful ethical life with active participation in politics. Can we hope to regain their wide-ranging creativity and deep commitment to consensual institutions without a similar admiration for the kind of excellence they found in Cicero’s life and works?

Colonial educators tried to immerse their students in the past. Today we think the future will belong to those who innovate and so our education must be innovative. A progressive educator wants to liberate students from the Dead Hand of the Past. Since Edward Thorndike and Robert S. Woodworth in the 1920’s educational research has been used to oppose the classical curriculum. An interesting exception may be provided by the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State on what he calls “experts,” acknowledged masters in many different occupations. Ericsson is the “expert on experts.” His research studies the most successful practitioners of a wide range of different skills and professions, for example, from policemen to the relatively neutral area of chess. Chess is a challenging intellectual activity. Winning involves making moves that your opponent does not anticipate. The communis opinio is that grand masters win by thinking ahead more moves than their opponents. Ericsson’s research, however, shows little correlation with innovation, but significant correlation with hours spent playing over the games of earlier grand masters. “Using magnetoencephalography, a technique that measures the weak magnetic fields given off by a thinking brain, researchers have found that higher-rated chess players are more likely to engage the frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board, which suggests that they are recalling information from long-term memory. Lower-ranked players are more likely to engage the medial temporal lobes, which suggest they are encoding new information.”[xii] Let me summarize. Amateur chess players innovate; grand masters remember. Outstanding achievement involves knowing the past. By immersion in the past the classical canon aimed at creating grand masters of citizenship. As O’Brian says in Orwell’s 1984, “The past is more important.”

Cicero means little to us today, although he was a integral part of the classical canon that was the foundations of early modern Europe from the Renaissance to the American Founding. What about Virgil, the other author set for the entrance examinations for colonial colleges? Does he mean any more today than Cicero does?

This spring Yale University Press published the surviving fragments of a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid from the hand of C S Lewis.[xiii] For ordinary Americans Lewis is one of the most influential figures of the past century. He was an important literary scholar whose Christian apologetics continue to sell and encourage believers. His fiction remains in print and recently his children’s stories have been turned into successful movies. His critique of relativism and emotivism in his short book The Abolition of Man strikes at the heart of modernity. In a lecture delivered in 1939 Lewis said, “I have read the Aeneid through more often than I have read any long poem.”[xiv] He continued to read it for the rest of his life. His discussion of the Aeneid stands out among the most memorable parts of his lectures, A Preface to Paradise Lost. As illness sapped his strength near the end of his life, he returned to his unfinished translation as a final act of piety to the work he loved.

Another example. With last Saturday’s victory over Illinois the title of having coached the most victories in in the history of Division A Football went to Penn State’s Joe Paterno (609). In his 1989 autobiography, Paterno: By the Book coach Paterno revealed that the shaping intellectual experience of his life was reading the Aeneid in high school.[xv] He returns to the theme again and again to insist on the Aeneid’s importance for his success as a coach. In an America often defined by its commitment to atomistic individualism Paterno found in Aeneas a hero shaped by a commitment to his divinely given mission for family and people, even when it meant losing the love of his life. For Paterno Aeneas is the ultimate team player. The centrality of mission also struck C. S. Lewis in A Preface to Paradise Lost:[xvi]

It is the nature of a vocation to appear to men in the double character of a duty and a desire, and Virgil does justice to both…. On the one had we have Aeneas, who suffers but obeys…. On the other hand, we have the women, who have heard the call, and live long in painful obedience, and yet desert at last. Virgil sees their tragedy very clearly. To follow the vocation does not mean happiness: but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow.

I shall mention one more anecdote about the Aeneid’s influence from the September 20, 2010 New Yorker.[xvii] Following up the success of the film, “The Social Network,” Antonio Vargas wrote an article on Facebook billionaire Marc Zuckerberg. He also consulted with the film’s author, Aaron Sorkin, creator of the TV series, “The West Wing.” Sorkin had portrayed Zuckerberg as intelligent, but uncultured and ruthless. He was disappointed to hear that Zuckerberg was a fan of “The West Wing,” responding after a long pause, “I wish you hadn’t told me that.” Sorkin then surmised that Zuckerberg’s favorite episode was “Lemon-Lyman,” where Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitfield) unwisely interacts with fans on an online message board. Zuckerberg told Vargas his favorite episode was “Two Cathedrals,” where, after the funeral of the his longtime secretary in the National Cathedral, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) waits for the crowds to depart so he can vent his outrage and grief at God in Latin. Vargas asked Zuckerberg about Ender’s Game, a sci-fi book he had praised on Facebook. “Oh, it’s not a favorite book,” Zuckerberg answered. “I just added it because I liked it…. There are definitely books—like the Aeneid—that I enjoy reading a lot more.” Like coach Paterno, Zuckerberg had first read the Aeneid in high school Latin class. He mentioned a few lines and colleagues confirmed that he quotes the Aeneid at meetings.

The classical canon has helped to shape and defend our ethical and political ideals, which is one reason the Continental Congress turned to Virgil to find suitable mottoes for the Great Seal of the United States. Two of the Great Seal’s three Latin mottoes—found on the back of the one-dollar bill—are from Virgil. Great leaders, like Jefferson and Adams, great writers like T. S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh studied the classical canon, but so have lesser lights. Looking back at age 75 children’s author Theodor Geisel urged the return of compulsory Latin, “which I hated, … because it allows you to adore words—take them apart and find out where they came from.”[xviii] Geisel is better known by his penname Dr. Seuss. It is a long way from The Cat in the Hat to The Four Quartets or The Declaration of Independence, yet the same education, the same canon underlies both. Thomas Jefferson wrote Joseph Priestly in 1800, “I enjoy Homer in his own language…. I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight.”[xix] Among the iconic pictures in American history is one showing George Washington on his knees in the snow praying at Valley Forge. Someday we may see one of Thomas Jefferson “thanking on his knees” his father for his classical education.

For centuries Americans understood that their free and creative way of life was founded on virtue, instructed by a curriculum that balanced the study of language and mathematics and fostered by reading ancient authors like the Bible, Virgil and Cicero, Livy and Tacitus. The old classical curriculum by balancing education in language and mathematics avoided the alternating crises that are endemic in contemporary education. Students were thoroughly grounded in grammar before studying critical thinking (dialectic) and persuasive writing (rhetoric). Classical education balanced instruction in mathematics and language and made sure students had mastered basic subjects before proceeding to more challenging ones. It was not expensive, but it was demanding. But then so is freedom.

John Adams wrote his old friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush on June 19, 1789, “I should as soon think of closing all my window shutters to enable me to see as of banishing the Classicks to improve Republican ideas.”[xx] Those shutters have been closed for too long for too many people. It is time to open them once again.

For books by Dr. Kopff, classical education and the founders, may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay was first presented as an address to the 35th Annual Founder’s Day Breakfast of the Free Enterprise Institute (Houston TX Nov 3 2011).


[i] Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t ReadAnd What You Can Do About It (New York: Harper, 1955), followed by Why Johnny Still Can’t ReadThe Scandal of Our Schools (New York: Harper & Row, 1981)
[ii] Samuel A. Goldberg, “High School Enrollments in Latin 1964-65,” Classical Bulletin 59 (1966) 299
[iii] Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the ClassicsGreece, Rome and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); The Golden Age of the Classics in AmericaGreece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)
[iv] Charles Murray, Real Education (New York: Crown Forum, 2008) 113
[v] D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912) 1:298; cf. Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967) 54:111
[vi] Ilsetraut Hadot, Arts Libéraux et Philosophie dans la Pensée Antique (Paris: Vrin, 1984)
[vii] Manfred Fuhrmann, BildungEuropas kulturelle Identität (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2002)
[viii] Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (London: Dent, 1913) 43
[ix] Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great about America (Washington: Regnery, 2002) 192-93
[x] Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the RepublicThe Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953) 122
[xi] In The First American RevolutionThe American Colonies on the Eve of Independence (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956) 196 Rossiter wrote “rich” instead of 1953’s “not completely poisonous.”
[xii] Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein (New York: Penguin Press, 2011) 66
[xiii] A. T. Reyes, ed., C. S. Lewis’s Lost AeneidArms and the Exile (New Haven: Yale UP, 2011)
[xiv] C. S. Lewis, “The Idea of an ‘English School,’” Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford UP, 1939) 64
[xv] Joe Paterno, PaternoBy The Book (New York: Random House, 1989)
[xvi] C. S. Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942) 38-39
[xvii] Jose Antonio Vargas, “The Face of Facebook,” New Yorker (September 20, 2010) 4, 7
[xviii] Quoted by Rob Wilder, “Catching Up with Dr. Seuss,” Parents 54 (June 1979) 64
[xix] Thomas Jefferson, Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984) 1072
[xx] L. H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951) 518, n.2
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3 replies to this post
  1. One of the things that just tickles me pink about this website is the sprightly writing: imagine Jesus and Gershwin in the same paragraph! Two-word sentences to pep things up. Dr. Suess and Mister Adams twistin' the night away. Gorblimey!

    Dr. Kopff writes with panache. And given his apt but wide-ranging examples, I don't know if I'd get tired hiking 360-degrees around him but I'd like to try. As Oliver Twist asked, "Please? More, Sir?"

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