Classical Education

, Charles G. Mills, Leave a comment

GLEN COVE, NY — The content of the standard education changes from generation to generation, but seldom, if ever, has it deteriorated as it did in the twentieth century.

One of my grandfathers earned an engineering degree from Auburn in 1900. When he arrived at Auburn University in 1896, he was tested in both Latin and Greek to see if he needed remedial courses in either language. Fortunately, he had attended a single-teacher school (a “one-room schoolhouse”), and his Latin and Greek were fine.

My grandfather received a “classical education,” similar in content to that any schoolboy received in New York, California, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, South America, or Australia. Students throughout the Western World could read Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Livy, and probably Horace in Latin, as well as Homer, Xenophon, Plato, Aesop, Aristophanes, and some of the Attic orators in Greek by the age of 17. They were fully familiar with the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, and the major classics of their own language. They could demonstrate geometric proofs, resolve equations, describe in detail the geography of the world, and do both a grammatical parsing and a logical analysis of a sentence. They knew world history, only slightly distorted by a good dose of patriotism.

Educated people throughout the world not only had a common basis from which to communicate with each other; they also had a basis for understanding the sources of earlier writings.

The United States was the first major country in which classical education began to unravel. In the 1920s, high schools throughout the country began to drop Greek from their curriculum, or at a minimum to make it an elective until it died out. They also cut the required years of Latin back, first to four and then to two years. By the middle of the twentieth century, students could graduate from high school not knowing a word of Latin or Greek. By the end of the century, they could graduate not knowing a word of any foreign language.

Novel and progressive theories of education flourished, and future teachers learned more and more education theory and less and less content knowledge of any subject they might teach. Despite the abundant new theories of teaching history, for example, today’s high school graduates often are unable to put five significant events in world history in the correct centuries. Logical analysis of both the written sentence and of arguments has vanished.

Progressives were not the only enemies of good education. Hitler hated classical education, and by World War II, Germany, once arguably the most educated nation in the world, produced a generation that could not read Latin. By the 1970s, Italy decided to move first-year Latin from the sixth grade to the ninth grade, laying the foundations for the destruction of its classical education and the deterioration of written Italian. By the end of the century, classical education was in retreat, or more often complete rout, throughout the world.

Perhaps the most tragic case was that of Great Britain. At mid-century, Great Britain had an examination, known as the Eleven Plus, which was given to eleven year olds. For those whose parents could not afford an elite school, passing this examination opened the door to an outstanding classical education at government expense in a “grammar school.” This system was created in World War II to replace an earlier system in which the students who would receive a free classical education were chosen at a younger age. Throughout most of the last two generations, Britain has been phasing out grammar schools and the Eleven Plus in favor of an imitation of the American high school model.


Prior to World War I, educated men throughout the civilized world had a common body of knowledge they could discuss and a common language, Latin, in which they could do so. In addition, this common body of knowledge helped them understand the literature and politics of the past. Tragically, this is all gone. It has been replaced by ignorance, xenophobia, and irrational passions and prejudices. If there is a a road to its recovery, it is a long one.


This column is copyright © 2011 by

Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, All rights reserved. This column may be posted or published if credit is given to Charles Mills and

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