Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin by Tracy Lee Simmons, Forward by William F. Buckley (ISI Books, $24.95 (US) 290 pgs)
Amongst the growing numbers of parents seeking alternatives to mainstream public education, especially those of religious persuasions or simply concerned with instilling a heavy dose of humane learning, there would appear to be an increasing interest in a return to “classical” models of education. Very rarely, however, is the term classical associated with the firm grounding in the Greek and Latin tongues, preferably from as early an age as possible, as is argued for by Tracy Lee Simmons in his recent book, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.
Not so much a blueprint for mass educational reforms as an argument for the value of classical education as it was understood and practised from its origins up until the early decades of the last century, Simmons’ book is a most enlightening read for anyone concerned with its history, formative nature on the soul of the student, impact on great minds up to recent times and the consequences of its abandonment to the well-being of individuals and our society as a whole. Whether the book inspires its readers to a serious study of these tongues or simply into a humble recognition of the increasingly shallow nature of what most moderns enthusiastically tout as education today, the book will have served a valuable purpose.
Contrary to the predominantly utilitarian and egalitarian tendencies that shape our modern, state-approved curricula, replete with its shallow exposure to a vast array of “life skills,” or, in the case of the elective systems at most universities, a near-total lack of focus, lies the older, time-honoured model of education championed by Simmons. His focus is primarily upon the formational value of a strong grounding in Latin, Greek and mathematics, whereby the initially difficult years of study eventually lead their students to a level of cultivation or habit of mind that pays off the effort required to get there. The mental faculties exercised by such study, especially in the case of prose composition, develops the mind of the student to think and write critically in a manner rarely achieved by those pursuing more contemporary forms of education. The grammatical precision demanded of the student by these two subtle and expressive languages rivals or surpasses the attention to detail required by the student of the natural sciences, while the high literary achievement of the authors studied sets a veritable standard of both technical and artistic merit. This sets a sharp contrast with the near-contempt of form that animates the humanities today, where numerous ideologies wage a war against standards (especially those emanating from the past) or any hierarchical distinction between high and low, to the effect that fewer and fewer people can take the liberal disciplines seriously.
Rather than simply justifying the classics by measuring them to those scientific or technical disciplines presently held in higher esteem, Simmons emphasizes the value of esthetic and cultural sensibilities instilled by the study of good classical poetry or prose, citing Emerson’s observation “that the adoption of the test ‘what is it good for’ would abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage.” Though somewhat more difficult to grasp for the modern reader, Simmons places this cultivation on a higher plane than the functional ability to accurately read and translate philosophical, scriptural or literary texts, however vital that may be to a small set of specialized scholars.
Rather, he is more interested in the beneficial effects upon one’s character that come from being immersed in such a literary culture, especially if it corresponds to one’s more formative years. As he puts it, a good classical education will instill both a prudential realization of the limits of man while bringing out that which is best within us, directing us towards those things which transcend our very selves. Even if the reader finds himself unwilling or unable to take up Simmons’ call to the classics, it would do good to consider his argument for education as rooted in the tender, hard-earned cultivation of literary, philosophical and artistic sensibilities that both develop our minds and teach us to appreciate the finer things that exist in the world around us.