What would you say is the purpose of mankind?
I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with a friend of mine about classical education, 18th and 19th century American history, the great pendulum upon which humanity seems to swing and finally, what we both do for a living and why.
My friend, a classically trained equestrian and trainer, lives a life different from my own. His daily responsibilities, privileges and challenges bear no resemblance to mine, yet we discovered today that we share a fundamental and twofold concern to bring: (1) order out of chaos and (2) balance where there is imbalance.
The tools we use to achieve those goals are also unique, yet we both recognize the value of establishing a foundational understanding in both principle and application of the fundamentals. The challenge with foundation-building is that most people underestimate the importance of the phase and it is quite often difficult to perceive holes in the foundation when it is being laid.
Most holes show up later, when the pressure increases. In riding, for instance, slight imperfections in the rider’s seat are not likely to appear as problematic when walking around the ring, but raise the stakes and canter and the imperfections are likely to be magnified, revealing the need to go back a few steps to repair the faulty foundation.
Academic education is no exception to this rule. Classical educators understood the need for a mastery of the basics, the building blocks for all learning. Hence the rigorous focus on Latin and Greek grammar in the early years of schooling. Grammar was followed by logic and logic by rhetoric. The ability to reason was assembled meticulously, piece by piece, and the goal was to create students capable of tackling any question, any issue, any challenge.
Specialization coupled with a narrow focus on the scientific perspective (as opposed to the humanities) completely changed the way we are taught and the way we approach life, which in turn affected how we view life itself. Based on your education up until now, what would you say is your purpose in life? If you’re not sure, do you feels you were given the tools to discover the answer or do you still have a lot to learn?
If your education was anything like mine, that question was probably left unanswered if it was ever even raised. Classical education, on the other hand, had as its central aim the cultivation of a sense of meaning and purpose, coupled with the critical thinking skills necessary to put theory squarely into practice.
Americans in the 18th and 19th century were educated within the framework of classical education. As such, the thread of continuity placed in their hands led back through antiquity, with a particular emphasis on the great leaders and thinkers of both recent and distant history. That thread of continuity, woven into the fabric of their lives, provided a gateway through which resolve, original thinking and the impressive ability to “git’r done” manifested with grace and aplomb in ways that are marvelous to us even now, in our supposedly evolved and advanced state.
Consider the men in the First Continental Congress, for example. They represented the rabble of civilized humanity at the time and yet the delegates found a way to galvanize those for whom they were responsible in an almost unthinkable fashion through the establishment of a new nation. They forged this new nation on the anvil of time, using principles, systems and foundational underpinnings that were utterly foreign to the dominant governing systems of their era (most were monarchies), yet commonly understood and frequently employed by Romans and Greeks who lived thousands of years earlier.
Classical horseback riding follows this pattern. Despite the many fads and popular trends that sweep through the art and science of the equestrian art, the fundamentals remain eerily consistent with those articulated and perfected not just decades or centuries, but ages ago! You cannot gloss over the basics and expect to succeed in the advanced stages of any undertaking.
A strong grasp of the fundamentals greatly decreases the likelihood of veering off course. Humanity, at times, seems to lose sight of the basics and the result is catastrophic. Fanatical regimes rise to power, crazy ideas gain prominence and bickering and feuding take the place of harmonious, complementary and collaborative function.
The challenge throughout history has been to inspire men and women to recognize, dwell in and contribute to the advancement of the sweet spot, the balanced life that sits betwixt the extremes. No matter what you job or role may be at any given time, you as a member of the body of humanity, can help bring order out of chaos, and restore balance where there is imbalance.
Your value, your meaning and the fulfillment of your purpose hang in the balance!