Somebody Doesn’t Know Squat About a Classical Education: An Elitist Jerk Fisk (Part One)

Some days, it’s a really bad idea for me to read the internet.

Like when I’m sleep-deprived, working, and running after two little kids, neither of whom have had a nap all day.

On the days I need a drink, it’s a really, seriously BAD idea to poke the English Major with a big stick.

Like this person had the misfortune to do with “The Myth of the Classically Educated Elite.”

And yes, I archived it. Don’t feed the trolls, it just makes them get a big head and then they won’t shut up.

This absolute idiot with a higher education has the unmitigated gall to pass judgement on the ENTIRE realm of “classical education,” and in the process, proves without a doubt that he has no idea what he’s talking about.

His college should take his degree back; anybody this idiotic doesn’t deserve a sheepskin.

As usual, the original is in italics and my commentary is in bold.

In addition, this thing is so very long, it’s going to be divided into at least two, maybe three different fisks, just to prolong the agony for everyone.

I’M AN IMMENSE FAN of books that bewail the state of the humanities and plead for a return to the educational system of yesteryear, when the average undergrad could, we are told, quote Homer in the original Greek, and when the US Senate was filled with philosopher kings who slept with Marcus Aurelius under their pillows.

Uh . . . what have you been reading? I am fairly well-read in the classics (you can’t get out of that if you went to my college), and I must have missed such an assertion. Granted, people a century ago were better educated than most current high-school grads, but that doesn’t mean they could all quote Homer in the original, and I doubt anybody outside of your own delusions ever slept with Marcus Aurelius under their pillows. “Yesteryear” wasn’t some unrealistic, romanticized time in some ivory-tower intellectual’s fantasy. Those old exams really did exist, and people obviously passed them, so it is an objective fact that older education had more information in it. So, why are you bewailing it?

Mostly I like these books because they flatter me.

Confirmation bias, much?

I’ve spent the last 12 years giving myself an ad-hoc version of a “Classical education.”

Ad hoc (adj): 1. for the particular end or case at hand without consideration of wider application. 2. concerned with a particular end or purpose. 3. formed or used for specific or immediate problems or needs. 4. fashioned from whatever is immediately available.

Merriam Webster

So . . . your education was for a particular end without consideration of wider application? Or was it concerned with a particular end or purpose? Or was it formed or used for specific or immediate problems? Or, worse, was it fashioned from whatever was immediately available?

Know your terms, blockhead. For the sake of the fisk, I will use the first definition, because judging from the rest of this farce, that’s what you meant. That your “classical education” was without a wider application.

I undertook this education because I thought it was what you did: I thought all writers read Tolstoy and Euripides and Chaucer — that a writer would be laughed out of town if they weren’t familiar with the “the canon.” But after I came into contact with the literary world, I realized that I’d been operating from a very mistaken — and hopelessly bourgeois — set of beliefs.

You did not just use the word “bourgeois.”

Bourgeois (adj): 1. relating to or belonging to the middle class of society. 2. disapproving: having qualities or values associated with the middle class: too concerned about wealth, possessions, and respectable behavior.

Merriam Webster

It wasn’t that long ago in America that “middle class” was a compliment. You, however, apparently are such an elitist that “middle class” is an insult. No, those of us in the middle class are not all “too concerned about wealth, possessions, and respectable behavior.” Wanting to work and pay bills is not an insult. Wanting to provide for one’s family is not a bad thing. And most of all, wanting to have “respectable behavior” and to deal with other people with “respectable behavior” is not a bad thing.

Used to, even jackasses had manners.

I’ve only rarely met other writers who care about the Classics.

Then you need new friends.

When one National Book Award–winning author asked me my favorite authors, I responded, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Henry James, and he chided me, saying I should read more contemporary books (I read plenty of contemporary books, but I’d think it strange if someone’s favorite author of all time was still alive).

So, you carefully chose your answer based on what you think some other elitist jackass wanted you to say. That makes you an elitist AND a coward. Good to know. Your author friend here is a jackass, too; just because it’s an old book doesn’t make it worthless. Frankly, those old books are more and more valuable all the time, considering what society is up to these days.

I’ve accepted that my course of education was unusual and maybe a bit misguided, but I’m proud of it, and proud of the benefits it’s given me: the wisdom, knowledge, and insight. None of that is up for debate.

Okay, so now you’re such an elitist that you can have a valuable, Classical education, and be proud of it, but then waste several thousand words telling us why everyone else with a similar education should be ashamed of how “unusual” and “misguided” it is?

You’re either proud of it, or ashamed of it, not both.

But what interests me the most is the fact that I was so fully in the grip of this illusion.

You’re the only one who thinks it’s an illusion.

In my mind, long before I started reading the Classics, I was certain, dead certain, that this is what everybody in the elite was doing. Where did this idea come from? How could I have been so incorrect?

The truly scary part is that you’re assuming that a good, Classical education is automatically the mark of “the elite.” The fact that you can do that openly, completely without shame, while talking to other people who are NOT of “the elite,” is utterly shameless. You have this education that gives you this elite status, and yet somehow, it’s “incorrect”? You’re so very elite that even elitism has to change to conform to YOUR standard?

Wow, that’s shameless.

Of course, most books about the humanities take it as a given that we exist in a fallen time, that the golden age of the Classical education is in the past, but lately I’ve started to wonder if that time ever existed.

You keep mentioning these “books about the humanities” and never name them. Why not? Maybe because you’re just talking out of your ass? Typical tactic of someone trying to destroy the goodness that came before them. No, we can’t live up to those standards, there’s no point in trying, because actually, those standards never existed at all.

Yes, that time DID exist. See the above link to an eighth-grade exam given in 1895.

In recollecting my own education, I’ve started to wonder if the contemporary notion of a “Classical education” is largely the product of a series of popular books that began with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and continued through Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve (1989), Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy (2009), William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep (2014), and others.

Ah, so those books do exist. I’ve never heard of them, and I doubt if anyone outside of your elitist circle has, either. But for the sake of continuing to rake your idiocy over the coals, I’ll look them up. One moment, please.

The Closing of the American Mind (1987): sounds great, based on the reviews. Might have to order a copy.

The Culture We Deserve: A Critique of Disenlightenment (1989): another one that sounds great, based on the reviews. Don’t see what your problem is.

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever (2009): This one is a little different. It’s calling out the points-based education system, where you win instead of get educated, even at a place like Princeton. Different problem, and has less to do with the current state of your “Classical education” problem than the other two.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014): This might be the best one of all, with a Yale professor calling out higher education for producing “conformists without a compass” and looking at the “high pressure conveyor belt” that is the American college system.

And your point is that these books only talk about a “Classical education” the way other people talk about that old-school education from a century ago that, according to you, never existed at all?

These books aren’t calling out the “Classical education;” they’re calling out the corruption of the Classical education that America is still CALLING a Classical education. And the fact that you (supposedly) read all those and missed that absolutely vital point is a bit terrifying. As in, I’m worried about your so-called “ad-hoc Classical education” skipping over basic reading comprehension.

Like me, these writers were usually outsiders, many of them Jewish (which is to say, they were not themselves part of any notional WASP aristocracy),

What!? What does Judaism have to do with anything? Oh, right. Nothing. The Jews are just a convenient scapegoat for people like you to blame everything they don’t like on. I remember now.

In addition, this is America. We don’t have an official aristocracy. That was the point of the American Revolution, genius. So your “notional WASP aristocracy” is just that–a notion. It might have been a cultural thing for a long time (“No Irish Need Apply” and all that), but it was not an official part of the American culture.

and they had in their youths at some point bought into the idea of a Classical education. They had pursued this ideal and now found the reality — the position of the Classics in our culture and our educational system — to be somewhat lacking.

Yes, they had an ideal BASED IN REALITY, and then found out that reality had at some point changed, not that the reality had never existed.

But what they’re mourning is not the education that kids used to get at Harvard or Oxford — schools where famously dense elites learned and forgot rudimentary Latin.

Um, I think that’s what they spent three whole books mourning the loss of, you ignorant hack. Just because some “famously dense elites” forgot what they’d learned doesn’t mean that the education itself is flawed; only the human being that didn’t appreciate it.

What they yearn for is the brief, exciting spirit of middle-class autodidacticism — a short period of time, at the end of the 19th and into the beginning of the 20th centuries, when a certain number of intellectuals came of age.

Autodidacticism (n): self-education without the guidance of masters or institutions.


Hold on, I thought we were talking about you attempting to dismantle the Classical education system. Now, you’re talking about the self-educated? Stop changing the subject. Or did you just throw that word in there to sound all smartified?

This was a time when the barriers between the higher bourgeois and the lesser aristocracy were particularly permeable, and when the middle class in part sought to ascend by excelling in scholarship.


Old money, arrogant rich people on the East Coast? Sure. But a true aristocracy? Nope. Why should I continue to listen to you when you can’t even get the basics right?

It is true that a good education would enable a person to “ascend,” but it wasn’t from the “bourgeois” to the “lesser aristocracy.” It was from the poor to the middle class. It’s such a part of the American dream, it’s practically cliched. The old story about the New York plumber who scrimped and saved so that his kid could go to a fancy private school and then onto Harvard is in almost every television show at some point (“Wannabes” episode of Law and Order, for example). It’s cliched because it was true. A good education meant that the poor plumber could have an engineer or a professor or a doctor or a lawyer for a kid.


This was only possible, however, because the aristocratic elite has traditionally only paid lip service to learning and culture 

Okay, now you’re really starting to irritate me. THERE IS NO AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY. And the American “elite” does exist, and has for a long time, but it’s not enshrined in our society, the way it was in Britain three hundred years ago. And sure, some of those old-money “elites” may only pay lip service to the Classics, but that’s an individual problem, not a problem with the Classics. You’re essentially victim-blaming the education system here.

As my mother would say: put the monkey on the right back.

— which means that in many ways the notion of a Classical education is more mirage than reality.

Only in your own, stupid little world. It did exist. Stop trying to deny it. That “Classical education” you’re so quick to debunk is what created this country–the hospitals that were the envy of the world, those Ivy League universities you’re so quick to insult and tear down, the authors, the doctors, the lawyers, and everybody else that built this country from the ground up. Harvard is so old, John Adams went there. Thomas Jefferson went to William & Mary. Those educated men that gave us this country were exactly the product of the Classical education system.

Of course, it’s undeniable that there have been periods of time when the elite placed a high value on being cultured, but there have also been periods when the opposite was true: when paying too much attention to books was considered ungentlemanly.

Name one. Go ahead.

And there’s substantial evidence that the latter periods have tended to predominate, especially in the last 300 years of British and American history.

Let’s see, what’s 2022-1776?

That would be 246. America isn’t even 300 years old.

If it is true that “paying too much attention to books” is “ungentlemanly” in modern America (and I’m not at all prepared to grant that), once again, that’s a problem with the culture not appreciating the Classical education, not a problem with that education. You’re basically advocating changing the laws because too many people are law breakers. That never solves anything, and only makes the problem worse.

Take today’s high school education, for example. Japanese companies have to hire college graduates in America do to the same jobs that their high school graduates can do. That alone means our education system is beyond pathetic, and that’s new for us, comparatively speaking.

My own education was thoroughly middle class. I went to a modestly priced Catholic school in DC, took seven years of Latin, and was influenced by mandatory Art Appreciation and optional Art History courses that inculcated me with the idea that Classical knowledge wasn’t just desirable but necessary. You could not be considered educated if you didn’t understand the grand sweep of Western thought (with a few dabs of the Eastern, for color).

Oh, here we go, with you insisting that anything “Western” or “traditional” or “classical” has to be bad and evil and racist, right?

Guess what? That “Western thought” you’re so quick to denigrate made this place what it is, whether you like it or not. It dominates the world because it works. Period. If you had any sense, you wouldn’t deride that part of your education.

I went to Stanford and quickly discovered I had much more in the way of education than almost all of my classmates, who seemed more or less unmoored from the Western tradition and certainly hadn’t read any more of the Great Books than I had.

So, that Catholic school education was superior to the public school equivalent, huh?

I commenced a life of active alcoholism and didn’t attend class for four years. For me, college involved absolutely no learning, so I cannot speak to what is taught there.


And, for the record: how did you graduate if you were a drunk who never went to class?

Why would you admit that, anyway? It’s not a badge of honor.

In some ways, this ignorance served me well.

Ignorance serves no one well, as your poor command of the English language in this article proves beyond a shadow of a doubt.

When I sobered up, the year after college, I had acquired the idea that all the people who had done college the right way — gone to class, completed the reading, engaged in the discussion — had filled in the outlines of the broad Classical education I’d received.

Yep, they did. If you’d gone to class, you’d know that.

I knew the names of the books an educated person ought to read — my Catholic education had been good for that — but I hadn’t read the books themselves.

And that’s a personal problem for you, no one else.

When I decided to commit myself to writing fiction as a career,

I thought, It’s absurd to do this thing without reading the best that literature has to offer.

Okay, that’s actually right. I have a bad feeling you’re going to spend several thousand more words telling us all why it was actually wrong.

I purchased a book that Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda had recommended during a panel at a sci-fi convention I’d attended: The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature by Clifton Fadiman, originally published in 1960 — a book explicitly intended for middle-class strivers. And over roughly 12 years, I read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch, the Bhagavad Gita, Defoe, Gibbon, Fielding, Richardson, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Voltaire, Cervantes, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Gogol, Chekhov, Pushkin, Cather, Faulkner, Woolf, Waugh, Nabokov, and others.

Seriously, how is this a bad plan?

(As a note, all non-English language authors were read in translation. Recently, I’ve been making my way through Chaucer in Middle English, and I’ve been learning a little Old English and trying to relearn Latin. But my language skills aren’t great. So, I fall far short of the ideal of the educated person who speaks Latin and Greek in addition to their vernacular language.)

Uh . . . I’m a pretty well-educated person, and I don’t speak Latin or Greek. I went to a seriously difficult liberal arts college (rated “academically challenging;” the only rating higher than that is “academically rigorous,” and there’s only about three of those left), and even the Classics majors didn’t speak Latin and Greek (and we thought they were all nuts, anyway).

So, what “ideal” are you talking about?

Okay, this is getting silly. I have to stop the bus, or I’m going to go crazy. Tune in next time for more of this delightful nonsense.

One comment

  1. :sees fisk title, pounces: New Fisk! This will be fun!

    :finishes post: Wow, that – *yeowch*. That’s really, really bad. Good fisk, bad article. Yuck. Thanks for tearing it apart! Looking forward to part 2!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s