Controversy has raged almost without respite ever since the Government of Alberta released its proposed K-6 school curriculum in late March. The draft curriculum’s foundational premise – that there is a common body of knowledge that every child should learn – and its four key themes of literacy, numeracy, citizenship and practical skills sparked instant opposition from the full progressive phalanx: teachers’ unions, the NDP, educational “experts” and sympathetic news media. Not only the province’s UCP government but some of the consultants who helped shape the draft curriculum have come under fierce and at times personal attack. Numerous school boards have balked, refusing to pilot-test the draft curriculum.
The critics were at it again last month, slamming the UCP government for sticking with its curriculum consultants and declining to hire new ones approved of by the left. The curriculum is even coming under fire from within the government, with one UCP MLA last week penning an open letter asking the province’s education minister to “slow down” the curriculum process and “re-engage with stakeholders” (the curriculum’s comment period, in fact, remains open until next spring).
Nowhere has the opposition been more vociferous than over the subject of social studies. Placing stronger emphasis on the history of the peoples who created Canada, the new K-6 social studies curriculum seeks to impart greater knowledge of their cultures, belief systems and political institutions. To improve understanding of the chronology and development of our current Westminster-style parliamentary system, it adds content starting in Grade 2 on the history of democracy with its beginnings in classical Greece and Rome. This proposed change has come under particular fire for being Eurocentric or elitist, unnecessary and above the comprehension level of second-grade students. These accusations stem from the lack of classical knowledge among education experts and critics – the very lack that the curriculum aims to remedy among tomorrow’s schoolchildren – resulting in a blinkered and, I dare say, provincial ignorance of the classics’ content, lasting significance and sheer beauty.
In his book Never Give in: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill, author Stephen Mansfield quotes Churchill writing, “One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next…When one generation no longer esteems its own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid.”
This could not be more true today. One could almost say we are active practitioners of Churchill’s warning. Postmodern nihilism has been accepted at face value by large segments of society, while one and arguably two generations of schoolchildren and post-secondary students have been indoctrinated tosee mainly the flaws in our society. We have been taught to disregard the impressive strides Western democracies have made due to a fanatical fixation on their historical shortcomings.
So then, why expose students to the classics? Fundamentally, because they are simply too important to ignore, for in key respects classical Greece and Rome are Western society. Most of our current institutions and much of our culture have been derived, inherited or adapted from ancient Greece and Rome and then, after an almost 900-year-long cultural regression, refined and expanded upon over the centuries of European Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Greece has given us democracy, philosophy, theatre, natural science, mathematics and arguably the most enduring literature ever written, the Iliad and Odyssey. From this foundation Rome gave us the beginnings of written constitutions, republican systems of government, the first attempt at a globalized world, the framework for our modern legal system and the alphabet we still use today. (Not to mention the glorious architecture, sculpture and other artistic works that are the most visible elements of each civilization’s stupendous cultural bequest.) This needs to be acknowledged to inform students on the tumultuous 2,500-year journey our legal and political systems have taken to give us an astounding civilizational legacy: the relative freedom, equality, justice and prosperity we enjoy in Canada today.
Ignorance of this fundamental truth can lead students to adopt a kind of unearned arrogance about the “greatness” of modern countries, assuming that our sacred ideas of democracy were only created in the last few decades and can be changed or redrawn on a whim. Of course Western democracy has its flaws, but it must be acknowledged that the reason it has stood the test of time is because it is the most just system in existence, worked on over time by some of the greatest minds ever to live.
Omitting or denying this message becomes much more dangerous in our age of technology, when children have grown up with social media that have not only devastated attention spans but put users in an echo-chamber containing only their own views. This has taught children to accept any information they see in their favoured online sources with little skepticism or objectivity, while rejecting everything else as useless, irrelevant or dangerous “misinformation.” This is the opposite of the “critical thinking” that educators claim they want to impart in our kids. In fact, it is impossible to think critically without a foundation of factual knowledge against which one can evaluate new claims and ideas.
In my opinion a classical education is the greatest remedy to this generational issue. Classical authors were obsessed with the pursuit of truth, believing that a human’s rational capacity was alone sufficient to achieve an enlightened mind capable of finding objective truth. This was because people like Socrates, Seneca and Aristotle understood the value of self-reflection. These thinkers realized how ignorant humans are and how willing we can be to accept comfortable dogmas.
In The Apology, Plato gives voice to the trial of Socrates from 399 BCE, in which Socrates outlined human potential in one of the most profound quotes from the Ancient world: “Let no day pass without discussing good…examining both oneself and others is really the very best thing a man can do, and that life without this examination is not worth living.” The Ancients’ emphasis on self-reflection can be a great modern-day tool to help today’s children learn to reflect on their own lives and emotions at an age when learning empathy and cooperation are paramount.
Take the proposed addition to Alberta’s K-6 curriculum of Homer’s The Iliad. While no one is expecting second-grade students to fully comprehend, let alone rigorously critique Homer’s themes, they can understand the wrath of Achilles, grasp the human tendency for revenge and possibly become more aware of anger in their own lives. Beyond the barbaric instinct towards vengeance that Homer vividly showed still lurks in the hearts of ostensibly civilized men, The Iliad profoundly reflects on other fundamental questions of what it means to be human, such as fear of death.
In his great epic Homer challenges us to consider why we fear death, and whether there are other things that could be even worse. Through Achilles’ decision to accept the fate of an early death in exchange for his achievement of glory in the Trojan War, students can themselves reflect on what they value in life, and what kind of legacy they want to leave behind. In one of Antiquity’s most beautiful passages, Homer shows us that the fleeting nature of human life is what gives beauty to the world and how the inevitability of death is what makes moments precious:
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
These virtues of self-reflection, pursuit of truth and recognition of one’s history are all vital to a healthy democracy. Citizens must be able to reflect on information and agree on an objective reality to create a productive dialogue aimed at societal flourishing. Though we may not want to admit it, democracy has been tested globally by both ends of the political spectrum. We have seen growing attitudes of far-right nationalism in Europe and the United States. On the left, we see the gross authoritarianism of Russia and China. And in the West we see an alarming faction of left-wing ideologues who are determined to erase Canadian history and to level our institutions.
Unfortunately, it appears that – to our great peril – we can no longer take democracy for granted and need to do more as a society to ensure its protection at home and abroad. It is my belief that an early exposure to the classical cultures can contribute to this by teaching both the brilliance and faults of democracy, helping to generate an interest and desire within students so that they grow up concerned about maintaining a robust democracy. As Pericles, the celebrated “First Citizen of Athens” during its Golden Age in the 5th century BCE, said about the importance of civic involvement (as cited in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War), “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
The debate over the classics in school touches upon a larger conversation about knowledge-based curriculums. Why not just make social studies a mainly ideological program aimed at teaching the pros and cons of different political systems? Why bother attempting to teach the history of the West in an objective way when we could simply take the best aspects of different societies and teach them as an ideal?
This is ineffective because the world cannot be described merely in terms of different ideologies or socio-economic forces. Events and phenomena ranging from financial markets to political elections are subject to human error, random chance or natural disasters, making sweeping ideologies poor ways to view the world. That is why history is so important, offering a lens to view the world in terms of human causation. This allows students of all ages to view past events as means of learning from human dilemmas, opportunities, successes and errors.
As Churchill is alleged to have described it: “The farther back you look, the further ahead you can see.” This is because a fact-based understanding of history allows one to place themselves in the shoes of previous generations, vicariously grapple with the same problems and then reflect upon the same outcomes. This not only offers a wealth of knowledge and experience but teaches students that the social problems they face and the emotions they feel are not unique. People have been wrestling with these same human issues and recording them for over 3,000 years, providing vast truths to be learned from those who have gone before us.
The Enlightenment-era English historian Edward Gibbon described this in his monumental work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The man of learning, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience and lives in distant ages and remote countries. Whilst the uneducated are rooted to a single spot and confined to a few years of existence.”
It must also be addressed how myopic the claim of Eurocentrism is when describing the study of Antiquity. How can we retroactively apply modern theories of race to civilizations that could barely comprehend them? The ancient Greeks had no care for “whiteness” (as they were not “white” in our sense of the word) but instead focused on shared spoken dialect and citizenship, referring to themselves as “Hellenes,” which merely meant Greek-speakers and included people living not only throughout Greece but around Italy, North Africa, Turkey, southern France and much of the Black Sea region. Furthermore, if we truly want children to be able to grow up in and understand our increasingly globalized world, they ought to understand how the process began.
Many scholars think it first began with Alexander the Great’s quest against the Persian Empire starting in 334 BCE, which brought the Hellenes into Egypt, throughout the Near East, Iran, and as far as Afghanistan and India (modern-day Pakistan). But unlike many historical wars of conquest, domination and enslavement, Alexander’s great campaign resulted in widespread intermarriage, mixing of cultures and the first real attempt to bring the East and West together. For all its flaws and its ultimate failure, it truly was something new to the world.
Three-hundred years later, the fabled Pax Romana imposed law and order throughout the Mediterranean and places beyond, and today’s students can learn about the Ancient world’s first real attempt at globalization – what one modern-day commentator called “civilization for export.” Under the Romans commerce, peoples, knowledge, religion and a common legal system all were spread as far as present-day England and Scotland, Tunisia, Egypt, Judea, Syria and Turkey along state-built roads under universal protection.
The Roman Empire also saw the first attempt at universal citizenship – a genuinely radical concept – with the edict of Emperor Caracalla in 212 CE granting full Roman citizenship to all freedmen living in the empire. Furthermore, the Roman Empire had four different emperors of African ethnicity, from modern-day Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. Even the Roman poet Virgil devotes Book IV of his epic The Aeneid to the hero Aeneas’ romance with the Carthaginian queen Dido (Carthage lay in modern-day Tunisia). One horrific failing of ancient Rome was its refusal to do away with slavery – but there is much to learn for modern-day students in the enduring workings of this evil institution throughout the Ancient world.
Classical studies have often been dubbed elitist, with opponents arguing it amounts to glorifying a small group of historically wealthy and powerful men. And while these societies were riven by inequality and many politicians and philosophers argued in favour of maintaining social hierarchies, this particular failing is hardly limited to the West; nor is it a fair generalization of the entire discipline. Aristotle, for example, famously advanced the concept of the “golden mean” – virtue in a life of moderation in everything, including wealth. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful for the sake of something else.”
The classics also offer the wisdom of authors from historically disenfranchised people. The stoic philosopher Epictetus was born a slave in Turkey and either by birth or accident spent most of his life with a physical disability to his leg. Despite this, Epictetus was able to receive an education and went on to found his own philosophic school in Greece – Stoicism. His ideas heavily influenced many later thinkers, including the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last of the so-called “five good emperors” (famously portrayed by Richard Harris in Gladiator). From Greece we have the poet Sappho, native to the island of Lesbos. Not only was Sappho one of the most influential and beloved poets of ancient Greece, she is considered by many scholars to have been homosexual, with the English term “lesbian” derived from her home island and “Sapphic” coined to describe the lifestyle.
The final charge levelled against the introduction of the classics in the draft curriculum is that the material is too dense or complex for Grade 2 students. Carla Peck, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Alberta, has been widely quoted criticizing the curriculum, including that the social studies curriculum is “far too much and far too complex.” While I am unqualified to speak academically on the comprehension capacity of seven-year-olds, I can offer my anecdotal experience as a current Classics major and a lifelong lover of ancient history.
As a young child who had not even reached Grade 2, I was taken on a family trip to Italy where my parents brought us to Rome to see the ruins of the once-great civilization. More so than the Colosseum or the Pantheon, I most vividly remember walking through the remains of the Roman Forum with my parents. It was there that I heard the story of Julius Caesar for the first time from my father. More so than anything else, I was extremely taken by the fact that I had been standing very near the place where Caesar had orated, debated, formed alliances, risen to the pinnacle of Roman power – and was ultimately stabbed to death just over 2,000 years earlier.
Owing to my young age I could not believe that someone could be killed for achieving too much or rising too high, and I was instantly captivated and determined to understand who this man was and why people so desperately wanted him dead. This began a childhood obsession with Antiquity that led me to devour all the myths, epics and stories of heroism the period had to offer. This blossomed not only into a lifelong pursuit but a great shaping force in my life, leading me to desire an active role in the shaping of my society.
So while I can appreciate that I am biased, and that each child is unique, with different interests and personalities, I do not see how we can all agree that second-grade children can surely comprehend and enjoy knights, pirates, wizards and kings – but not gladiators, hoplites, as well as poets and philosophers. Especially considering that in the Ancient world, the best often had a foot in both camps. Not only the poet-warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius, but the philosopher Socrates, who served as a Greek hoplite (foot soldier) and mastered his fear to help “hold the line” in battle, and many others.
I am even more confused as to how critics like Peck can look at Alberta’s new social studies curriculum and claim that she sees “nothing positive for students.” This embodies our current societal lapse in understanding of what the classics actually are. They are not merely some list of names and dates that students are forced to dully memorize; they are a generational conversation about human nature that deserves our stewardship.
As Cornel West, the celebrated African-American social critic, recently wrote in the Washington Post, “The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking ‘What kind of creatures are we?’ no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.”
It is hard to say it better or more succinctly – and this from someone who is anything but a mindless booster. But why take West’s word for it, or mine? Why not go straight to the source. I would strongly encourage anyone who doubts the value of the classics or the sincerity of Alberta’s new K-6 draft curriculum to read Plato’s Apology, Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic or any of the poetry of Homer. If they cannot see the positive value for students in these discussions of what is true, what is noble and what is beautiful, then they are the very last people who should be put in charge of deciding what our children should learn.
Lucas Robertson is a Classical Studies undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia with a passion for European history and contemporary Canadian Politics.