We took on Milton’s “On Education” today, and although it took some prodding, eventually both classes were impressed with the sheer audacity of Milton’s claims (even before he gets to the 41 or so practices, languages, and bodies of knowledge one should master before turning 22). “The end then of learning,” Milton begins, “is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes of the highest perfection.” Yes, folks, that means that a proper education (according to John Milton) should aim at reversing Original Sin.
Even beyond that bold aim, Milton’s actual course of education is so ambitious that students who hadn’t read carefully the night before were, when I had them working in groups to list all the knowledge that one should acquire, were saying out loud, “This man is crazy!” Milton’s radically democratic course of study would give all the power of all kinds of knowledge to all the people, making sure that nobody would be caught without knowledge of agriculture or shepherding or fishing, much less sword fighting and building military fortifications. Because everyone would have a broad base in philosophy and law and medicine and economics, anybody could fulfill any duty at any time. With a firm knowledge of trigonometry and geometry and astronomy and architecture, anybody could manage situations that require building. A nation full of sword-fighters and wrestlers is better than any NRA ad, and because everyone could read Latin and Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic and Syriac and Italian, nobody would have a sacerdotal stranglehold on humane and theological learning; everyone could come to every text and let the ideas themselves fight for supremacy.
My students, dubious as they tend to be, didn’t think that one could acquire all of that between the ages of twelve and twenty-one.