Virtue vs. Vertu-Signaling | James hankins

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THELast weekend I attended the ‘Higher Education Summit’, an annual gathering sponsored by the Classical Learning Test (CLT) in (no mask!) Annapolis, Maryland. For two days, I rubbed shoulders with the movers and agitators of the spreading movement to classical education among US K-12 schools and colleges. I have heard speeches from Robert George, Cornel West, Anika Prather, Spencer Klavan, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Jennifer Frey and Elias Moo. It struck me how different this movement is from the classical education movement of the period I am studying, the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance, the study of the classics always had an elitist side. When Petrarch overhauled A classical education in the 14th century, his aim was to combat the wave of ignorance, violence, selfishness, political corruption and religious indifference that he saw rising all around him. The real problems of his time could not be solved by passing more laws or strengthening institutions. Laws were worthless if made by evil men; institutions could not achieve their goals if the men (and some women) who led them could not be trusted to do what was right. The character of the elites of Christendom should change if human and divine institutions were to be restored.

Petrarch’s solution was to found the humanities, a new course of study that would not just teach students pre-professional skills, but transform them morally and intellectually, restoring some of the greatness of character and of intellect that Petrarch found among the ancients. His movement was astonishingly successful in every way: by the middle of the 15th century, the Italian elites had accepted that classical education was a necessity. Modeling on the Greek and Roman nobles had become a cultural imperative. The Parallel lives de Plutarch had turned into a kind of humanist Bible.

Nevertheless, Petrarch’s idealism was not the only thing that prompted Italian princes, nobles and oligarchs to learn Latin and Greek and to study classical authors. Schoolmasters and humanist orators who spread the gospel of the humanities in the Quattrocento also became involved in the idea that the humanities were a way to ennoble you and justify your dominance over others. Acquiring moral legitimacy through education was a seductive idea: Jacob Burckhardt, the founder of Renaissance studies, already pointed out in 1860 that Renaissance elites in general had a problem of legitimacy. Humanists told Renaissance elites that they could acquire “true nobility” by studying the Greek and Latin classics. The idea gradually took root in Europe over the following centuries that classical education was the way upper class people were to be educated. Classical education has acquired a snobbish value. In the plastic arts, in architecture, in literature and even in manners, classical styles confer an aura of nobility.

The classic educators who gathered in Annapolis last weekend could be called elite in the humanistic sense. They take seriously the call to cultivate “true nobility”, that is, moral and intellectual excellence. But the type of education to which they devote themselves is no longer that of the social elite. It’s counter-cultural, even a little populist. It is education driven by a sense of urgency to preserve precious things in danger of being destroyed. In contrast, the values ​​adopted by (so-called) elite American prep schools and Ivy League universities are now totally different and incompatible with mainstream education. As those of us in education know only too well, “elite” schools are now determined to turn their students into political activists. Students must learn what to think, not how to think. To be an elite now means to have a particular set of ideas, not a set of virtues. Virtue is reported, not acquired.

The classic writers – Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and others – on this point of view are all tainted with sexism, racism and white supremacy. Reading them without catechism or censorship could undermine pure Wokery doctrine. Censorship is hard work, and explaining why an author is morally flawed makes students wonder, “So why do we have to read this horrible book?” Hence the growing tendency among wokerati to completely exclude these dangerous authors from the program. I guess for political types who don’t like literature for itself, one author is worth another. Forget Shakespeare; it is in the interest of children to read the works of Donna Gephart. A colleague of mine, recently arrived from Europe, decided not to send his daughter to the most elite (and expensive) private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he found out that her classes in English would not award any written work prior to the year 2000.

Above all, the desire of young people to distinguish themselves, to shine among their peers, to do themselves honor, is now strictly controlled. If someone starts to stand out and show real merit, and equal merit cannot be given to all the minority children in the class, well, that means the school must be lacking ” equity ”. It’s time to bring in more consultants.

Meritocratic envy is hard to suppress, however. Another friend told me how her six-year-old boy beat a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainer at his elementary school. The trainer asked each child to identify one thing they were good at. The questioning would then continue until the children recognized that their special ability was due to “white privilege”. My friend’s little boy, however, blurted out, “I’m good at DCI!” A response that left his trainer (temporarily) bewildered.

One of the results of all of this is that the new trend towards “classical education” – making great literary works the center of K-12 education – is gaining strength among Christian and more mainstream parents, especially among Christian parents. the rapidly expanding homeschooler population. According to Robert L. Jackson of the Great Hearts Foundation, between home schools and brick and mortar schools, between 750,000 and one million students in America are now involved in some form of formal education. What I saw in Annapolis last weekend was a group of people with a deep understanding of the value that great literature has in sharpening the intellect, shaping character, and strengthening the power of expression – what the ancient humanists called eloquence. The conference theme suited this understanding: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.

The question that remains for me now is how long can elites remain elites when their ‘elite’ education system turns the next generation into? ignorant people, people who have never been allowed to think for themselves, androids who can only repeat approved slogans and adopt approved attitudes. In a decade, children who have been brought up in great literature, encouraged to think for themselves, learned to argue and speak eloquently, driven to develop their full humanity, children who know history, poetry and philosophy … will they not become the new elite, the “true nobility”?

James Hankins is professor of history at Harvard University.

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