In Defense of Classical Education (and Pop Culture)

Modified on by Max Wilbert



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Over the last 100 years, we’ve seen a huge decline in the average student’s knowledge of classical history, philosophy, and other matters that typically comprise part of a classical education. For the most part, it’s believed that this is due to shifting cultural times. The historian Daniel Howe has written that civic humanism, which is the philosophical basis of American government, had “lost its hold on the American political imagination” by the end of the 19th century. In 1963, scores on the verbal portion of the SAT reached their apex. For the next seventeen years, the upward trend took a downward turn and nosedived — and has remained poor since 1980.

Too many students aren’t getting the education in reading, writing, and linguistic comprehension that used to be standard. In this post, we’re going to share why we think it’s critical for people today to get at last a bit of a classical education. We will then switch things up and explain why we also think it’s just as important for a modern education to cover the Kardashians, Twitter, and the whole scope of pop culture. All of these are great reasons to check out Brainscape’s (entirely free) Knowledge Rehab app, which will teach you the basics of everything from Superman to Shakespeare.

Let’s break it down:

Pop Culture and Classical Education: Both Important

Classical Education

In Defense of Classical Education (and Pop Culture)The great classically educated figures of the past used their knowledge to good effect. Many early American notables could quote at length from Shakespeare, Plato, or Cicero. Likewise, many of the 20th century’s greatest scientists — including Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, and others — were classically educated.

It’s no wonder that some of these figures left important legacies — after all, vocabulary and verbal intelligence are critical for precise thinking. Training in classical history, languages, and philosophy can sharpen the mind and prepare it for just about any task.

The Case for Pop Culture

If gaining some small measure of knowledge about Lincoln and other historical greats isn’t a good enough reason to study up, here’s another one: a modern person needs to include pop culture education in their repertoire, too.

No matter what age you are, you’ve probably suffered through the embarrassing experience of completely missing a cultural reference you should probably have understood. Whether it was a joke from a popular TV show or the latest blockbuster, or a reference to Tinder or Snapchat, these sorts of things can make you feel lost and out of touch, no matter how old you are.

Classical education alone isn’t good enough anymore. To know what’s going on in the world, it’s just as important to understand the reality TV phenomenon and be able to identify prominent celebrities as it is to know the great poets of old. That’s cultural literacy.

A Solution to Cultural Ignorance

Abraham_Lincoln_O-116_by_Gardner,_1865-cropOne critical element of classical education through the ages has been repetition. Abraham Lincoln, for example, became fascinated by the classical geometrist Euclid, and would study it late into the night. He could quote extensively from Euclid’s works, and often referenced the inductive reasoning behind Euclid’s works in his political career. Lincoln once wrote:

I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what demonstrate means, and went back to my law studies.

Repetitio mater studiorum est (repetition is the mother of all learning).

That’s why the new Knowledge Rehab app from Brainscape uses flashcards based on the latest confidence-based repetition system to cover a huge variety of subjects that everyone should know — stuff that we think is a baseline for cultural literacy. Knowledge Rehab is available to anyone who sets up a free account at brainscape.com. The subject is also available for mobile study in the company’s flagship Brainscape app in the iTunes App Store (Android’s Google Play Store, too) and as a standalone app called Knowledge Rehab, powered by Brainscape.

Knowledge Rehab will be a living, ever-growing and improving set of facts, people, and concepts. We expect that our users from all over the world — many of them true experts in some of the subjects covered in Knowledge Rehab — will even help add to and improve the subject as they study it!

Dozens of different people have already contributed to Knowledge Rehab in research, authoring, design, or editing. Our team generally began by working to prioritize the most important facts and concepts for each field using innumerable different publications. It was a massive challenge, for which there is no one perfect answer. After all, everyone really should know that 2+2 = 4, but we chose not to include that in the subject.

We also had to try to draw lines on the other side of the spectrum, at points where the issue we were considering was deemed not essential or foundational to basic literacy in the given subject. We then worked to craft each prioritized fact or concept into its most basic building blocks for a simple Question-and-Answer that fit the Brainscape platform and our confidence-based repetition method.

Check out Knowledge Rehab today and let us know what you think!



Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .

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