The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being is a collection of the writings about education from Plato to the modern era, the writings that have informed the development of western civilization and classical education.
I’m spending rather a long time with Isocrates, but he has so many nuggets! Next week we’ll be on to Socrates, though, I promise.
I couldn’t pass up today’s selection, though, because I thought it directly applied to a question we get often from resistant students, skeptical friends, or even our own inner critic: Why study x when I’ll never use it in real life.
Turns out, even people in Isocrates’ day were asking that question.
Impractical studies can be imminently useful.
What’s even more surprising, I think, is that Isocrates believes this to be a valid and important question. He does not go on a tirade against practicality. He takes the question seriously. He agrees that most studies do and should have practical implications in our every day life, and that is right and good.
Then he says that while most of our studies will be that sort of practical learning, it is also helpful if a portion of our work is rather more “academic” in nature, even if we do not plan on becoming academics.
Some studies, he writes, “can be of no benefit to us after we have mastered them unless we have elected to make our living from this source”; however, they still “help us while we are in the process of learning.”
Classical education is about learning how to learn. I found it in an original source document!
For while we are occupied with the subtlety and exactness of astronomy and geometry and are forced to apply our minds to difficult problems, and are, in addition, being habituated to speak and apply ourselves to what is said and shown to us, and not to let our wits go wool-gathering, we gain the power, after being exercised and sharpened on these disciplines, of grasping and learning more easily and more quickly those subjects which are of more importance and of greater value.
Such impractical, abstract studies he calls “gymnastic of the mind” which will “increase their aptitude for mastering greater and more serious studies.”
What does this mean for us?
Learning how to learn is a valid pursuit.
I know the “right” answer to “Why study Latin” is “so we can read Latin.” I get it, but full buy in on that is really hard. Because, honestly? I doubt we’ll get much beyond reading our little Fabulae Mirables. Maybe my older ones will (eventually), but what about students I might have who are not language-oriented? Should they even start if the goal is not realistic for them? If they don’t reach that goal, will our time in Latin be wasted?
What of C.S. Lewis’ comment that Latin was the best thing he ever forgot? He seems to have found the value in the process rather than a continuing result.
Even though we’ve taken a 2-year Latin program and stretched it out over 4, 4-and-a-half, years, I still see that it has been beneficial, even if we stop there. It is math with language. It is logic with grammar. It is brain exercise.
Of course Isocrates wasn’t speaking about learning Latin as an impractical subject – it wasn’t even a language yet (that we know of).
But he states the principle that applies beyond “astronomy and geometry” to any subject attacked for being impractical.
Mind gymnastics are practical moving forward into anything that requires strong thinking – and all of life really should.
Sometimes the practical effect is not a direct line.
If we take a subject like arithmetic, we can draw a straight line and tell our kids or our critics that without this knowledge, they cannot balance their checkbook or be a smart shopper. We can think of direct practical applications readily.
But not all practical benefits (for thinking well is practical) arrive in such a straight line. Some studies benefit us indirectly. Perhaps they give us material for connections, metaphors for life, comparisons by which to make decisions. Perhaps they help us exercise our mind so its stronger to tackle other things – or simply exercise it so it doesn’t get dull.
So don’t worry if you can’t defend a subject with immediate and direct practical use. We study what we study to grow in virtue and wisdom, and those often come by very indirect means, though never without diligence.
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