The Endangered Renaissance Personality

The Bell House in Griffin, Georgia.

Remember all of those drawing-room scenes in 18th century novels, where the ladies play études on the piano, converse with foreign visitors in their native tongue, and even recite poems, while the men recount sporting feats, argue about politics and trade witty anecdotes? Everyone seems so … refined. Even in recent decades, the scholar-athlete-artist has racked up awards and social cachet for his or her breadth and depth. 

But in a time where geeks who tweak software lord it over well-read, well-traveled dilettantes, a broad cultural education seems less like something to admire and of which to aspire. 

In lamenting the decline of what he calls the cultivated person, Tracy Lee Simmons, a professor at Hillsdale College and author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, couldn’t resist summing up the situation with quotes from the Roman big guns: “Virgil said, ‘Fortunate the man who can understand the causes of things.’ ” (It’s difficult to decipher the causes of our sociopolitical environment when we’re busy monetizing video mash-ups and the like.) And, “Cicero said that ‘to not know history is to remain forever a child.’ By ‘child’ he meant intellectually unformed, and probably a little dangerous.” 

Whereas snagging a high-quality spouse was often the motivation for well-roundedness in Jane Austen’s time, today’s young suitors tend to flaunt one, maybe two attributes or areas of expertise. 

Professors still sense a thirst for knowledge among students, but there’s no longer a sense of shame at cultural illiteracy. “I asked a smart young woman which president held office before Reagan,” Simmons says. “She didn’t know. When I gently chastised her, she said, ’But I wasn’t born then!’ She felt that let her off the hook, whereas a student from a previous generation would have been mortified.” 

What’s at stake here?  A well-rounded, classical education, instilling a depth of love for seeking the good to such a degree that self-examination and self-correction become second nature and are combined with sound judgment … what a pity!

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