I wrote my book Not Trivial to explain that children need direct instruction in phonics, grammar, logic, and other academic disciplines. To my delight, conservatives are embracing this message. True conservatives respect tradition, and they understand that some important skills can be developed only through direct instruction and practice. What surprises me is the push-back I get from some people on the left.
Several people have told me that by urging people to teach children some lessons that come from the “Western canon,” I must be secretly promoting “Western” ideology, to the exclusion of everything else, and thus promoting imperialism and white supremacy. This accusation is ridiculous on many levels. For starters, if you had told a citizen of ancient Athens or Ephesus or Alexandria that he should be put in the same category as the barbarians of what is now Britain, France, or Germany, he would have been highly offended. “The West,” and “the white race” and even “Europe” are modern concepts. Studying ancient history helps you see how artificial those concepts are.
Modern Greece is a tiny country in southern Europe. Yet the ancient Greeks were sea-faring people who established independent city-states along the shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, from Spain in the West to Georgia in the East. Greeks were even allowed to establish a major port city in Egypt. Under Alexander the Great, Greeks established an empire stretching as far east as the Indus Valley. Thus, it makes no sense to pigeonhole the ancient Greeks as “Western.”
Some people on the left evidently need to look down on anything that they classify as “Western.” I think that they are succumbing to an error in thinking that Edward Saïd called Orientalism. For example, several people have told me that logic, in particular, is “Western” and that people in the East have “different ways of knowing.” I wonder if they imagine Westerners to be nerdy scientists who fly around in airplanes while Easterners are magicians with flying carpets.
A few people have told me that “Western” ideas promote imperialism, as if “Eastern” ideas do not. In reality, some of the writings that are central to the Western canon, such as the book of Exodus and accounts of the battle of Marathon, were about the struggle for freedom and self-determination. In contrast, the works of the Chinese philosopher Confucius actually strengthened Western imperialism by teaching the British and the French how to develop an effective civil service to run their own empires. Empires have existed in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It’s silly to claim that imperialism is something that only Europeans do.
Ancient Greek literature remains important to the present day for some simple, practical reasons. There is a lot of it, much of it is interesting and useful, and the ability to read it was never completely lost. Thus, Greek literature preserved a lot of stories and ideas from places like Egypt and Mesopotamia, long after the last person who knew how to read hieroglyphics or cuneiform had died.
Although literacy had played an important role in Egyptian culture, only priests and royalty could afford the time it took to learn the complicated Egyptian writing system. In fact, the art of reading Egyptian hieroglyphics was lost for centuries. In contrast, the Greeks used a simple phonetic alphabet. To learn to read and write, a Greek speaker just had to learn phonics: the relationship between letters and sounds. As a result, lots of ordinary Greek people, not just priests and royalty, learned to read and write.
Some ancient Greeks wrote important works on political science because Greek society was practically unique in the ancient world. Most civilizations that were sophisticated enough to have written records were ruled by a king or emperor who had semidivine status, which meant that the citizens had little political or intellectual freedom. In contrast, the societies with a much more egalitarian political structure, thus allowing considerable political and intellectual freedom, generally left little or nothing in the way of literature. The Greeks were able to learn about writing and other technologies from neighboring civilizations. However, the Greek city-states were small and dispersed. None of their leaders could afford a permanent standing army. Thus, anyone who aspired to power in a Greek city-state needed the political support of the men of military age. This political reality meant that ordinary Greek men often had a great deal of political and intellectual freedom.
When I point out that the ancient Greeks coined the term democracy, some people point out that Athenian democracy was imperfect, by modern standards. The Athenians permitted slavery, and they allowed only the male citizens to have a voice in government. Of course, I am fully aware of all that. I am not looking to ancient Athens, or any society in history, as some sort of utopia or golden age. Practically all ancient civilizations oppressed women and condoned slavery, and even the societies that were generally egalitarian had shockingly high homicide rates, by modern standards.
What I am saying is that some traditional disciplines that were developed in ancient Greece remain valuable. They provide the basic skills that you need for any serious intellectual activity and for participating productively in democratic politics. Besides using phonics for teaching reading, we should give children direct instruction in the seven classical liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. These seven classical disciplines help children learn to think rationally and express themselves effectively. The ancient Athenians valued these studies because they helped to strengthen democracy. They are no less important today.
Photo by Images George Rex