Why Knowledge Matters: How an Over-Emphasis on Skills is Corrupting the Classroom and What Can Be Done About It

Modern education theory emphasizes skills and downplays content. But is there really such a thing as “reading skills,” “critical thinking skills,” or “problem- solving skills” apart from speci c content knowledge? What does research say about whether skills can be learned outside of content domains? Can abstract skills be tested and what do these tests really measure? Can technology replace memory and content knowledge? How does classical education better do the things that skills training and technology purport to do?

Martin Cothran

Martin Cothran is Director of the Classical Latin School Association and Editor of the Classical Teacher magazine, a quarterly periodical for parents and professional educators published by Memoria Press. He is the author of several educational textbooks, including Traditional Logic I, Traditional Logic II, Material Logic: A Course on How to Think, Classical Rhetoric: A Study of Aristotle’s Principles of Persuasion and Lingua Biblica: Old Testament Stories in Latin. His articles on education and other issues have appeared in numerous publications around the country, and he has also appeared on ABC Radio News, American Family Radio, Family News in Focus, NBC Nightly News and the PBS News Hour. He previously taught Latin, logic and rhetoric at Highlands Latin School in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a master’s degree in Christian apologetics from the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, now Trinity International University.

Humanism is NOT the Problem

I have read that in the process of freezing to death, it is when you begin to feel warm that you know you are dying. So it is with the decline of the culture: The further we descend into cultural chaos and incoherence, the better we feel, and the better we feel, the less we realize that we have a problem.

Up until fairly recently it was common to hear about the “crisis of the West.” This was when we were still feeling the cold. Numerous books were written on the subject, the most famous of which was probably Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. But there have been others: Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and James Burnham’s Suicide of the West ―all, in one way or another, prophesied the coming doom of Western civilization. Spengler, in fact, uses the term “wintertime” to describe the phase our culture
is now experiencing: a time of mental exhaustion, irreligiousness, and meaninglessness in art.

But now, as we fall into the last stages of our decline, we don’t hear so much about the crisis of the West anymore and we get–instead of cold prophecies of doom– the warmer comfort of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, in which we will all become economic and social liberals and live happily ever after in a secular version of the Millennial Kingdom.

Will Fukuyama’s “Last Man” please turn out the lights?

Those of us who still feel the frigid cultural air can be excused for trying to do something to avoid getting to the point where the cold is so severe that it feels warm. What is it that we should do to save Western civilization? There are several things that anyone on such a Quixotic quest should think about, the first of which is the question of what Western civilization is.

Spengler famously believed that even using the term “Western civilization” betrayed a sense of hopelessness, since, he said, civilization is what a culture becomes once it atrophies. So maybe “Western culture” is the better expression. With an understanding nod to Spengler we will use the terms interchangeably.

What precisely is Western culture? In a nutshell, it is the civilization that derives from the cultures of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, which was conquered and transformed by Christianity and which has been handed down through the centuries by an education system that has historically been referred to as “classical education.”

The Greeks represented philosophical and literary man. They produced the greatest philosophers and playwrights. With the possible exception of St. Thomas or Hegel, there is no philosopher who compares in insight and comprehensiveness with Plato or Aristotle. And there are no playwrights comparable to Aeschylus and Sophocles, although a few people would make the argument that Shakespeare is their rival.

The Greeks were humanists, a term we Christians often view with undue severity. I was recently in a panel discussion on classical education and one of the other panelists, when asked what was wrong with modern education, said, “humanism.” Humanism is exactly what is not wrong, either with the modern world or with modern education. We would be a lot better off if it were.

In his book The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton speaks of the sophistry that drives much of modern secular thought, a sophistry that works “first to soften the sharp transition from animals to men, and then to soften the sharp transition from heathens to Christians.” In other words, there are two distinctions essential to the Christian view of the world: that between man and nature and that between God and man. It is these distinctions that modern thought obfuscates.

What we need to understand about the Greeks is that they at least, unlike their pagan predecessors, got the first part of this right. While the pagans who surrounded them were worshiping man-beasts fashioned out of stone ―an idol with the body of a man and head of a bird, or with the head of a man and the body of a lion―the Greeks alone among the pagans idealized the human form. “Wonderful are the world’s wonders,” said Sophocles, “but none more wonderful than man.” Try to find in Greek statuary any such mongrel deities as those of the Egyptians or Babylonians and you will look in vain.

The only exception to this was the Centaur, a mythical creature (but not a god) with the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man. But the Greek’s fascination with this creature is probably due to the high regard in which the Greeks viewed the horse, an animal whose nobility has always attracted the admiration of men and which, even today, is the common companion of aristocrats (horse racing, we are still told, is the “sport of kings”). “The ancients,” said Thomas Bulfinch, “were too fond of a horse to consider the union of his nature with man’s as forming a very degraded compound, and accordingly the Centaur is the only one of the fancied monsters of antiquity to which good traits are assigned.” The Centaur also served the symbolic purpose of representing the nature of man at his wildest and most bestial.

The main problem with the paganism of the Greeks was not that it was wrong, but that it was incomplete. This is something that we forget at our peril. It is not wrong to say that man is the highest and noblest of material creatures. He is, in fact, made in the image and likeness of God, and, therefore, he is all this―and more. The entire creation story in Genesis is a scaffolding for the construction of man.

The Greeks understood the proper metaphysical location of man―above the beast and below the gods. He was, as religious historian Mircea Eliade pointed out, the one animal who walked erect, a sign of his higher possibilities. Their gods were ill-conceived: products of their imaginations and projections of themselves. They were deities made in their own image because they had no access to the revelation of the God in whose image they were made without their knowing it―no revelation, that is, other than the natural revelation, which could only take them so far. But it was a revelation.

This understanding of man was an essential aspect of the classical worldview that was shared by Christian thinkers from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to Richard Hooker, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It is why these thinkers are often called “Christian humanists.”

The Greeks believed in something they called arête. It has many shades of meaning, but it generally has the sense of some kind of human or moral excellence. To have arête was to live according to your human essence or nature: It was the art of being human. This assumed, of course, some kind of human ideal to which men were expected to approximate. The closer they approximated this ideal, the more they were said to have arête.

The Greeks were not wrong that there was such an arête or human ideal, they were only wrong about how this arête was defined. To the Greeks human perfection involved two things primarily: strength and stratagem. These two traits were on prominent display in the two books which articulated their ideals: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus―the stories of these figures in various ways expressed the ideals of the Greeks. They were exemplars of arête.

It isn’t humanism that is the problem today, but anti-humanism. “This teaching about the place and special dignity of man is today on the defensive,” says Leon Kass in his great commentary on the book of Genesis The Beginning of Wisdom:

It has been attacked as both false and dangerous. Some say it expresses merely an anthropocentric prejudice, vulgarly called ‘speciesism” by some advocates of animal rights. Others, appealing to evolutionary theory, allege that far from being godly, man does not even differ fundamentally from other animals: since all life is in the same business― survival and reproduction―man’s difference is merely superficial, a difference not of kind but only of degree.

The Greeks had it half right; the moderns have it all wrong.

The Romans, like the Greeks, were humanists. The Latin equivalent of the Greek arête was the Roman humanitas. They too believed in a human ideal, although it was slightly different from that of the Greeks. The old Romans were people of civil, filial, and sacred obligation. Unlike the Greeks, who speculated about the good, the Romans were people of practical virtue. They brought Greek philosophy down to earth. Theirs was an ethical culture, with Aeneas as their model. The “pious Aeneas,” he was called. There were other Romans too who exemplified their ideal of man. You can read about them in Plutarch’s Lives.

Although the Romans bowed to the superiority of the Greeks in philosophy and art, they excelled them in administration and efficiency. The study of the Romans is a study in political and ethical man. The Romans, said Russell Kirk, “were a people of strong classical endowments, grand engineers, tireless political administrators, organizers of military success; most of all they were men of law and strong social institutions, who gave the world the pax romana, the Roman peace.”

But to this recipe for Western civilization, we must add the ingredient of the Hebrews. If the Greeks were speculative man in miniature, and the Romans practical man, the Hebrews were the spiritual. The Greeks were literary and philosophical; the Romans political. But we look to the Hebrews for how God deals directly with individuals and with nations. The Greeks speculated on the nature of wisdom and virtue; the Romans attempted to practice them; the Hebrews alone among men knew their author. The Greeks and Romans were the stepchildren of truth; the Hebrews were its natural children.

Christianity came historically out of Judaism. But when the classical cultures of Greece and Rome were subsumed in Christianity, the fathers of the Church did not reject the concept of an ideal man. While they reviled the vices of the Romans, they did not reject their virtues. The cardinal virtues theorized about by the Greeks and practiced by the Romans―justice, temperance, courage, and prudence―were fully accepted by Christian thinkers. But at the same time they saw their insufficiency. Rather than rejecting the concept of an ideal man, the Christians informed the concept with new life. To the cardinal virtues of the ancients they added the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

To the Christians, the ideal man was Christ, the second Adam. While Homer’s Achilles was born of a mortal father and an immortal mother, Christ was born of a mortal mother and the immortal Father; while fictional Achilles was half god, half man, the historical Christ was fully God and fully man.

When G. K. Chesterton said that Christianity was the “fulfillment of paganism,” this is what he meant: not that Christianity was a further development of ancient paganism, but that ancient paganism (or at least the Greek and Roman form of it) was a stunted form of a truth that they, as men made in the image of God, knew was there but didn’t have direct access to.

This is what Lewis meant too when he contrasted paganism and modern secularism, saying that paganism was as a virgin and modern secularism like a divorceé in relation to Christianity. Modern secularism rejects the truth it knows; the paganism of the Greeks and Romans accepted a truth they had no way of knowing.

And one of the truths modern secularism rejects is the existence of any human ideal. It cannot accept the concept of an ideal man because it does not believe in man, but only in men. In fact, it rejects all transcendent truth. This is part of the reason that the classical education that was once taught in schools has been abandoned: because it was a scandal to the modern mind. This is why, in the course of about two decades around the turn of the 20th century, a new philosophy of education took control of schools. In several waves, beginning in the 1920’s, first progressivism, whose goal is to change the culture, and then pragmatism, whose goal is to fit children to the culture, took control of schools. The goal of passing on a culture passed away. Latin, the chief means of learning grammar, the first of the liberal arts, was made a specialty subject in high schools and then eliminated altogether. Classic literature and history―the primary means of teaching cultural values―still hangs on, but only by a thread. These subjects cannot meet the new (and mostly meaningless) criterion of “career readiness.”

Modern schools talk about “cooperation,” after having abandoned the literature that once taught students how human beings related to one another. They champion “creativity” in the very act of stifling the imagination. They rattle on about “critical thinking skills” after having abandoned the only program that has any right to the title: the liberal arts.

If you want to conduct an interesting experiment, there is a very simple question you can ask the next time your educator friend tells you how much he thinks we need to teach critical thinking skills. Let him finish his sermon, and then ask, “Could you define critical thinking skills for me?”

You will never see a blanker stare.

Modern educators have abandoned the very things that are required to accomplish the goals they profess to admire. They have, in Lewis’ words, removed the organ whose function they demand. “They castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Classical education is not only the best way to educate children classically, it is the only way to educate them at all. It is not just the best form of Christian education, it is the only kind of education that can accomplish the purpose of secular education.

“It is only Christian men,” said Chesterton, that “guard even heathen things.”

While we look down our noses at the Greeks and Romans because they worshiped man, we burn incense to the basest god of all: the Self.

Panel: Logical Categories and Rhetorical Topics of Invention

Help your students develop a different way of thinking! The way students think about learning has major implications on what and how they actually learn. We will discuss Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets to help improve our ability to more positively impact student learning and help students (and ourselves) think differently about challenges, mistakes, and even failures. Particular attention will be given to practical ways to give more effective and targeted student feedback

Phillip Donnelly

Phillip J. Donnelly serves as Director of the Great Texts Program in the Honors College at Baylor University. His research focuses on the historical interaction between philosophy, theology, and imaginative literature, with particular a ention to Renaissance literature and the reception of Classical educational traditions. He is the author of Milton’s Scriptural Reasoning (Cambridge University Press, 2009). His recent essays include: “Latin Pedagogy and Ethical Ends in the Royal Grammar (1542),” in Transformations in Biblical Literary Traditions, edited by D.H. Williams and Phillip J. Donnelly (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), and “Historical Appearance in Areopagitica,” in Milton and Questions of History, edited by Feisal Mohamed and Mary Nyquist (University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Andrew Selby

Martin Cothran

How to Win Friends and Influence People – The Right Way

Martin Cothran, an experienced debater in print and on radio and television, discusses the important art of persuasion and how to teach it to students. Early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine took the system of rhetoric originally developed by Aristotle, Quintilian, and Cicero and used it in the defense of the Christian world view. Cothran explains what these tools were and how they can be taught in your private school or homeschool.

Martin Cothran

Martin Cothran is a writer and teacher who lives in Danville, Kentucky. He holds a B.A. in philosophy and economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from the Simon Greenleaf School. He is a prominent voice in Kentucky on public policy issues and is a regular guest on radio and television. He is author of Traditional Logic: Books I and II and Classical Rhetoric.

How to Get the Education You Never Had

Those who are teaching students how to think, how to act, and the basic story of the civilization they live in are already doing classical education, whether they know it or not. But in order to do it well, parents and teachers need to know these things themselves. Classical educator Martin Cothran gives you practical advice on what you should know and what you should read in order to get the classical education you never got.

Martin Cothran

Martin Cothran is a writer and teacher who lives in Danville, Kentucky. He holds a B.A. in philosophy and economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from the Simon Greenleaf School. He is a prominent voice in Kentucky on public policy issues and is a regular guest on radio and television. He is author of Traditional Logic: Books I and II and Classical Rhetoric.