Climbing Parnassus

I just finished Tracy Lee Simmons’ Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (ISI Books, 2002). My feelings are mixed. Others have raved about it, but I can’t quite rave, since Simmons is openly a humanist (in the best sense of the word). His work needs to be balanced out by a heavy dose of Augustinianism and classical Protestant thought. Any education, no matter how humanistic its ideals or how rigorous and classical, will run aground on the basic fact of human existence: sin. Classical education needs redemption just as much as modern secularist education. That said, Simmons proves that Dorothy Sayers is not the last word (or the first word!) on classical education. Those involved in the classical Christian movement need to read Simmons, just to regain a little historical consciousness. It’s ironic that those of us touting classics and history are sometimes quite provincial. We need to get back to the education that produced Calvin, Melanchthon, Lewis, Tolkien, and Dabney (not to mention most of the founders of America). If you think your local classical Christian school is doing this, you might want to check out Simmons (though I think the local classical school/homeschool is the best place for our children).

Some samples: “the more ‘useful’ a curriculum, the less valuable it may be for the long-term interests of the learner. That which we get on our own initiative is just as important as that which is taught us in the classroom,” (230).

“Generations of educated men and women, for example, have read and enjoyed Shakespeare without getting him in school. The classroom saw them reading Homer and Horace, counting hexameter feet and agonizing over the force of a Greek particle. They weren’t ‘appreciating’; they were working,” (230).

“Modern literature can be counted on to convey to the student neither discipline nor culture, being but ‘the ephemeral productivity of the hour.’ Anyone not reading on his own the good novels of his day, or those of the day before yesterday, has no business pretending to a humanistic education anyway,” (235).

“Of course we must also declare, directly and without hedging, that a course of study in classics is not vocational. It hasn’t been for two or three hundred years,” (241).

“Humility remains a decent aim for the well-educated mind. Let us not try to do too much … Dissipation of effort can lead to despair; the world outside will catch up with the young soon enough. School ought to be a training ground for the intellect, not a clearinghouse for ‘skill’: and if it’s to be the latter, we should admit it … why should we teach anything other than languages, mathematics, and geography before the age of thirteen?” (242).

This will probably make no sense to most readers of these excerpts, just as they flummoxed me at first. However, reading Simmons will help us transcend our modern cul-de-sac, and help us see why such ideas were taken for granted for centuries.

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