The opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Classical Conversations and its leadership, staff, or communities. We are glad to provide a platform for discussion of ideas about classical Christian education in K-12 education and beyond, but publication is not an endorsement from Classical Conversations.
Biologists have theorized that the earth has witnessed several mass extinction events: apocalyptic events in which as many as 90% of the earth’s animal species suddenly died off due to some abrupt change in climate. Some alarmists warn that another such mass extinction is going on even now. Whether there is any truth to this I cannot say, but I will take a page from their book with an alarmist claim of my own: we are in the middle of a mass extinction event—not of species, but of words and their meanings. This should be unsettling to anyone, but for educators and parents who want a good education for their children, it is crucial not only to recognize this problem, but to take action.
The world around us changes so rapidly: decade by decade if not year by year. It is difficult to comprehend that humanity lived in basically the same way for at least four millennia: from the time of ancient Egypt all the way until the eighteenth or nineteenth century. For example, people traveled by walking, carriage, horse, or boat. People communicated by sending written messages by messenger. Food was produced by plowing, planting, harvesting, and preserving at set times of year, and was only available at those times. Clothing was produced by an arduous process of spinning fibrous plants or animal hair into thread, weaving it into cloth on a loom, dyeing it, and sewing it together with needle and thread. Wealth took the form of precious metals, precious stones, property, and livestock. The list goes on and on.
Beginning with the Industrial Revolution and intensifying with the Technological Revolution, the experience of human life has changed drastically. The new things may seem to be just bigger, faster, better versions of the old, but they are more than that. Sure, automated transportation existed in the past, but it always required close familiarity with either animals or the ocean. (It is remarkable that the daintiest lady of the nineteenth century had more knowledge and experience with horses than most farmers today.) Although food is grown by the same basic processes, today it happens out of sight, out of mind: our children could easily grow up believing that food grows in grocery stores. Clothing is usually manufactured on the other side of the planet in obscure factories; we are not even allowed to see what goes on there. Wealth has become increasingly abstract, even flaunted in different forms. Fine clothing, jewelry, and attendants have largely been displaced as indicators of class.
We know things have changed a lot and often for the better. So, what’s the point in bringing all this up? Although this remarkable transformation has brought us good things, like medical advances, it is also increasingly robbing us of the ability to relate to or even comprehend our own past. Literature, philosophy, history, and ideas are inextricably bound up in the world in which they were written. For several millennia, a person could pick up a translation of an ancient or medieval work and mostly understand what it was talking about. This could only happen because the world worked in basically the same way. This, however, has changed.
Increasingly, children of the twenty-first century do not understand the vocabulary of the past. At best they have hazy notions. What was a javelin, or a talent, or a bulwark, or a litter? These things are no longer in use, and even their names are quickly being forgotten. What does petulant, or insolent, or impetuous, or meek even mean? These adjectives have been replaced by the vocabulary of modern psychology. What is the difference between covetousness, envy, spite, and jealousy? Or between pride, arrogance, pretention, and haughtiness? We don’t know because we don’t think in these categories anymore.
This loss of old vocabulary and concepts places a barrier between us and all the literature of the past—most dangerously between us and the Bible itself. Just take Christ’s parables as an example. Unshrunken cloth? Wineskins? Lampstands? Fig trees? Tares? Lost sheep? Talents? Mustard seeds? Although we may understand what such words mean generally, we usually do not know them practically or intimately. But that was Christ’s point! The kingdom of God is like these things. The parables are hardly unique in this respect. How many times do the Proverbs or the Psalms refer to the everyday realities of an ancient Israelite’s life? And how well will a young man of the twenty-first century—who has never farmed, never hunted, never built a house, never walked ten miles at once—be able to relate to what he reads there? Not so well, I’m afraid.
So then, is this mass extinction inevitable? Are the things of our past doomed to fade out of this world and be replaced by emojis? I don’t think so. Not without resistance, not without a bitter fight to the end, at least. Many of us have joined a grand conservation effort to save all these endangered words and concepts, to make sure our kids can understand the Bible, to make sure they can read, love, and learn from old writings of Homer, and Virgil, and Augustine, and Shakespeare, and even Jane Austen. We call this conservation effort “classical Christian education.” We read old books, learn old languages, and study the world as it once existed. We do these things not because we are stuck in the past, but because we love our faith, our history, and our heritage. What better guides could we hope for in such a shifting present and uncertain future?
Tim Griffith is a Fellow of Classical Languages at New Saint Andrews College. He oversees the college’s Latin program, directs the national Phaedrus Latin Composition Contest, and has spent the last 15 years improving methods for teaching ancient languages in a modern context. Most recently he has developed Picta Dicta (www.pictadicta.com), an online learning platform specifically designed to assist parents and teachers with the kind of difficult subjects studied in a Classical and Christian Education.