Comparing Quality Of Minds

November 27, 2012


Classical Education

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

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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23 Comments on “Comparing Quality Of Minds”

  1. Othmar Says:

    Dear Malcolm,

    I find that you raise some very relevant points in your latest blog entry. Education ought never to be about learning how to do specific things; instead, education is about learning how to think about the world – the past, the present, and the yet-to-be. That process will enable human beings, including presidents, to make sound decisions and to be true leaders.
    I definitely view my classical education as one of my greatest assets in life, despite the fact that I have not translated many Greek or Latin texts since graduation more than 30 years ago!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and let us hope that there are sufficient experienced minds in this world to imagine a peaceful (=less messy) future!



  2. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Othmar, thank you for this comment. It always feels good to have a meeting of minds and on this subject we are definitely part of a very small remnant.


  3. Robert-preneur Says:

    Your point is well taken Malcolm. The late Allen Bloom argued as much in “The Closing of the American Mind.” He was derided as an elitist but made a solid case for the danger to our democratic republic due to the loss of classical education. Great post.
    Warmth and Peace


  4. Dapper Dan Says:

    The Library of Congress (or was it the Smithsonian?) happened to have the Jefferson library when I was there. One of the big things that struck me was, as you commented on, the wide range of books he read. Math, science, philosophy, biology, history, etc. The Founders like Jefferson were very widely read and educated…one of the reasons I respect them so much.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. It’s interesting to note that in 1770 Jefferson’s family home was burned with the loss of most of his books. After Jefferson rebuilt his library and finally sold it to Congress, a second fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two thirds of the collection that Congress had purchased. So you probably only saw a fraction of his original collection!


  5. campfirememories Says:

    George Washington had an extensive library as well at Mt. Vernon. His classical education and long view of history gave him the foresight to step away from power after leading a successful revolution, and to step away again after serving as President. His ability to hand his office back to the people was pivotal to our budding democracy.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nancy, thank you. That is exactly right, and as most of the elite shared a common background of classical learning, the story of Cincinnatus was well known, making Washington’s action, in walking away from supreme power, resonate even more strongly.


  6. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, good post. I think what Allan Bloom had in mind (and he was heavily influenced by Leo Strauss) was to partially use this classical approach to pierce the bubbles of Continental European influence in humanities departments in the US. Anything ending with ‘-studies.’

    The humanities are indeed vital, but almost always in need of a good defense.

    Just to be a little contrarian, the humanities students do go out into many practical fields with a greater breadth and depth, but if we just had humanities majors, our society would come to a standstill.

    There’s a tension between such learning and many parts of daily life in any society, and in a constitutional republic, a democracy, and what I consider our unique egalitarianism,there are particular challenges. It’s always a work in progress.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you for these interesting comments. You are correct that if we just had humanities majors our society would come to a standstill. Furthermore, specialization makes it more difficult for scientists to finish their scientific training and then go back to school to study the humanities and get an ‘education’. But I think it would just help if more people were aware of the distinction between education and training. I imagine that most scientists today with a Ph.D. already consider themselves educated.


  7. Gregory Zaretsky Says:

    Malcolm, they all know what to do. It’s just that they do not know how to get re-elected after they’d do it.



    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Gregory, that’s excellent and so true! But whatever happened to statesmanship? Isn’t the definition of a statesman someone who insists on ‘doing the right thing’ even if it’s unpopular?


  8. Gregory Zaretsky Says:

    Malcolm, I am not sure about statesmanship but having leaders with the vision and the perseverance in achieving it (just like our founding fathers)… well, our age is acutely hampered in this department. Such qualities however are not a product of classical education but are a Gift of God (like courage, or entrepreneurship, or the ability to write poetry). Moreover, how realistic it is to hope to have such a leader if the society itself does not deserve it? Yes, I say that about a society that reelects a politician who is already known to be mediocre. A society where those who work (and therefore generate the wealth) are outvoted by those who do not, such a society does not deserve any better.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Gregory, thank you. You raise some very good points. Are leaders/statesmen born or created? The answer is probably a bit of both. As to your point that society gets the politicians it deserves I am inclined to agree with you. This implies that nothing will change unless we can change people’s ideas. Edmund Burke said as much when he said:

      “If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it, the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself than the designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”

      However, you also draw attention to a more intractable problem. To the extent that it is always easier to take wealth from somebody else rather than create it oneself, democracy has a built-in flaw, since the producers can always be outvoted by the redistributionists. It is difficult to see how this structural problem can be fixed with our present system of government.


  9. Mish Says:

    Maybe experienced mind leads to ripe spirit. Sometimes it seems that chaos or order are interchangeable. One can have a very dependable and solid infrastructure and feel chaos or there may be mess outside and one feels composed. Just because one wears glasses does not mean one can read.



    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Mish, thank you for this.


      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        Abraham Lincoln mastered the Bible, William Shakespeare’s works, English history and American history. Yet he was one of the worst of the US presidents. It’s not clear an educated man makes an enlightened leader. Educated individuals don’t necessarily share the political values you and I hold dear. Even when they do, power corrupts.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, thank you for these comments. I don’t think anyone would say that Abraham Lincoln was well educated in the sense that I have used the word in this post. Also, most people would argue that Lincoln was one of the best, not one of the worst U.S. Presidents. I agree with you however that there is no guarantee that education makes for an enlightened leader although I hope it would improve the odds. I also agree with you that power is corrupting.

  10. Argus Says:

    I regard the function of education as being to provide the young with good tools they can use later in life in pursuit of their own prosperity/happiness.

    It might be broken down into (a) need to know, and (b) nice to know.

    The ‘need to know’ could be the core, whereas the other can be chosen by the end-user to suit his/her own personal aims and preferences (and wouldn’t necessarily count towards a degree).

    I like the notion that there’s an ‘education’ and there’s ‘culture’. In British society (once upon a time) ‘culture’ was what showed other cultured people whether you were in the club (socially acceptable and so forth) or not. A good education might score you a good position but culture got you in the running to marry the boss’s daughter …


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for these comments. I think what your call ‘need to know’ education is what I would call instrumental knowledge and ‘nice to know’ would include the more foundational cultural knowledge, whether it be history, art, music, literature etc.


      • Argus Says:

        “Well rounded” is the expression that springs to mind. A good education can equip someone for earning a living, but ‘well rounded’ makes him a gentleman rather than a qualified oaf. We need more gentlemen in high places and fewer oafs (why did George Dubs Bush just spring to mind?).

        Bugger, I know what I mean but lack the nous to get it across …



  1. Experiments in living – to govern or not to govern | OFRADIX - November 28, 2012

    […] Thanks to Malcolm and the other contributors for some stimulating thoughts from a wide spectrum of world views. Malcolm also shared some interesting thoughts on education, particularly making a case for the disappearing classical education and the concept of experienced minds and their effects on today’s society (and on the quality of political leaders). Read his blog post here: Comparing Quality of Minds. […]

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