The other day I read a powerful defense of a classical education (yes, I mean Greek and Roman history, language and literature), and although it was written almost a hundred years ago, it got me thinking:
“The literature of Rome and Greece comprised the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind had been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity over a period of twenty five hundred years. The mind that had read and absorbed this literature was not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views a contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit’s operations.”
Study accounting, engineering or architecture and you learn instrumental knowledge, i.e. how to do something practical. Study history and literature and you learn about every aspect of the human condition. Study 2,500 years of Greek and Roman history and literature and you’ve basically seen it all, the rise and fall of civilizations, the best and the worst of human nature and human culture, and everything in between. Isn’t this what the author meant when he talked about “an experienced mind”?
Surely this is the quality of mind we want in our leaders. It was certainly the type of mind we had in America’s golden age of leadership. Thomas Jefferson had a classical education both before and during his legal studies, and it showed not just in his statesmanship, but in the breadth of activities over which he let his mind range, including reading, archeology, architecture, botany, horticulture, violin, inventing, jurisprudence, surveying, agriculture, industrial design, book collecting, riding, walking and fishing. Compare this to our current leaders.
President Obama studied Politics and International Relations and went on earn a law degree. In his own words he enjoys reading (when he can find the time), listening to music on his ipod, watching professional sports, playing basketball, playing golf and reading Spider Man and Marvel comics. He is also the first President to participate in social media and have a personal Facebook page and Twitter account. Mitt Romney studied English before earning both his law degree and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. His stated interests include spending time with his family, being active in his church (Church of Latter Day Saints), running, reading, skiing, horseback riding and watching movies.
I don’t have a classical education myself and I don’t believe one necessarily has to have one to develop maturity of thought or an ‘experienced’ mind. At the same time I think that a comparison of the quality of minds of our leaders, such as the one above, is not a completely pointless exercise. An ‘experienced’ mind might not be any good at arranging leveraged buyouts, encouraging community activism or even building bridges and houses, but hopefully it would have the benefit of a long range perspective and so would eschew expediency in favor of long run success, and would be more likely to recognize order in the world where others just see chaos. Is there any doubt that if our politicians had such a mind, faced with the current calamitous levels of debt in the western world, they would refuse to kick the can down the road any longer? Is there any doubt that with such minds to guide us, we probably would not be in this mess to start with?
“The advantage of a classical education is that it enables you to despise the wealth which it prevents you from achieving.” Russell Green