A Response to Martin Cothran

Image of William C. Michael, Headmaster of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy
Mr. William C. Michael

In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we take the work of restoring real classical education very seriously. I work constantly to help parents understand the history of classical Catholic education and to make it available to their children today. Recently, I began a series of videos in which I offered to lead parents through some YouTube videos which present a false understanding of classical education. Here’s the timeline:

  • On August 9th, I posted a video in which I critiqued a video titled, “What is Classical Christian Education?“. In this video, I explained to Academy parents what the “fake classical education” movement is and what some of the “red flags” were that can help them to identify it.
  • On August 19th, I posted a second video, in which I pointed out these “red flags” in a video titled “What is Classical Education?” by Martin Cothran of Memoria Press.
  • On August 23rd, I posted a third video, in which I pointed out these “red flags” in a video titled “What is Classical Education?” by Dr. Christopher Perrin of Classical Academic Press.
  • On August 24th, I posted a fourth video, in which I pointed out these “red flags” in a video titled “Cultivating Students of Virtue and Wisdom” by Hillsdale Academy.
  • On August 26th, Mr. Cothran responded to this video, in a blog post, which you can read here.

Now, I wasn’t picking on Mr. Cothran and I explained at the beginning of each video that I was not judging anyone personally and that the schools represented may be better options than modern schools. His was one of several videos I discussed. However, Mr. Cothran wrote up a response to my critique that requires a response. He has only made 7 posts on this blog in the last 3 years, so he obviously considered this important enough to write about. Unfortunately, Mr. Cothran ignored most of the content of my video and ended up writing a rather bizarre response. In this post, I will respond to Mr. Cothran with clips from my video that make things clear.

1. Downplaying His Most-Watched Video?

Mr. Cothran begins by dismissing his video saying,

“Several years ago, I taped a very short little promotional (around 5 minutes) for Memoria Press addressing the question of what classical education is. It has garnered some 33,000 views. It was a quick one-off, done to give people wanting to know what classical education is a brief, general overview. It was not intended to be complete, only accurate.”

This video, however, is the most watched video Memoria Press has ever published, and probably the most watched video he has ever produced. It is an influential video that many people have watched. I would argue that it’s influence is more important than its length and it is, therefore, significant. Obviously, I did not suggest that a 5 minute video would contain a “complete” detailed treatment of true classical education, but I don’t agree that it is an accurate description.

2. Criticizing my Criticism

Mr. Cothran spends much of the post criticizing how I criticized him. He accuses me of “prejudging” him, interrupting him, creating a “straw man”, etc., which is all distraction from the actual criticisms I made, which were objective and clear. He says:

“His method for doing this seems to be to take a presentation by someone else which he has not reviewed beforehand, set forth his conclusions about the video before he even starts, and interrupt to inject his opinion about what the person is saying before the person can even get it out of his mouth.”

Now, this was not a live discussion, in which I interrupted the speaker and didn’t let him speak. Mr. Cothran’s video is available without interruption on YouTube and can be watched in full. I did not pull clips from his video, but showed the entire thing, simply pointing out the “red flags” that I had described in my previous video. That was the whole point of my video.

He then says,

“This is the worst kind of critic: the one who doesn’t listen, who prejudges you…and who attributes to the person he criticizes the worst motives possible.”

Obviously, I did listen. I did not “prejudge” him in any way, but simply showed that the “red flags” I described in my first video were present in his video, and I made it clear that I was not judging him as a person, but the claims he made in this video, which I did.

The last third of the article he posted talks about how there can be a number of different definitions of “classical education”, but I never denied that there could be multiple definitions. I denied that historical claims that this or that was done in the past were true. When we make a definition and then say, “this was done in the past”, the definitions aren’t all necessarily right. Those of Dorothy Sayers, Susan Wise-Bauer and Martin Cothran certainly aren’t.

If we’re not restoring an actual educational program that was studied and taught by wise men and saints in the past, then what are we doing? As a homeschooling parents, when you seek a “classical education” are you interested in an education that wasn’t actually studied in the past? I don’t think so–and I don’t that these folks make it clear that they’re not talking about an actual, historical educational program.

3. Ignoring My Objective Criticisms: False Historical Claims

The most important flaw in Mr. Cothran’s video is that he makes explicit, historical claims about what educators did in the past, which are simply not true. I pointed these out in my criticism, and he did not address this in his response. Obviously, there is no way to justify these false historical claims.

For example, in my video I point out that speaking of his answer to the question, he says,

“If you go back and look at the old classical education…as it actually happened.”

It was this attempt to claim that what he describes in this video is what “all schools did” that I objected to, because it is false. You can see him do this below, and my criticism:

Mr. Cothran makes another historical claim later in the video, which I point out below:

In his response, Mr. Cothran ignores the most important criticisms I made of his message, namely, that he makes false historical claims about “classical education”.

4. Ignoring My Objective Criticisms: Homer Was Not Taught in Schools

Oddly, Mr. Cothran chose to title his response and focus his response on my mention of Homer near the end of the video. He says,

“After mentioning Homer, he asserts (without going into detail on his sources) that “Homer’s writing was despised by ancient philosophers.”…If Michael wants to say Homer has nothing to do with classical education (which he doesn’t say, but seems to imply), he’s going to have to assume that Greek education was not classical, which is going to be hard to do because one of the legitimate definitions of “classical” is “having to do with ancient Greece.” Classical is Greek by definition.”

This is a really odd argument, especially after he’s ignored all of the other criticisms I made in the video. In fact, he admits that he’s not even responding to anything I said!

First, Homer wrote in 750 BC, that’s 300-400 years before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. No one refers to the Homeric age as “classical” Greece, which begins after the Persian wars (480 BC). The fathers of classical education were the great classical philosophers: Socrates, Plato and, but most importantly, Aristotle. Homer was known, obviously, but was never a part of any classical school curriculum. Memoria Press is a curriculum publisher, not a library. We’re talking about formal education here.

Moreover, in the Christian era (i.e., the last 2,000 years), the Church fathers struggled to distance themselves from the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato because they led to a number of heresies and controversies in the early Church. The Aristotelian philosophy was ultimately embraced by the Catholic Church, through the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, and became known as “Scholastic” philosophy. Christian students given a classical education formally studied the seven classical liberal arts from the master texts of Aristotle, Cicero, Euclid, etc.). There is no evidence of anyone ever studying Homer as part of any school curriculum in classical or Christian history.

Second, he admits that what he says here about Homer being “classical” actually has nothing to do with anything I said. He says,

“If Michael wants to say Homer has nothing to do with classical education (which he doesn’t say, but seems to imply), he’s going to have to assume…”

This is what a “straw man” argument is, but usually people don’t admit that they’re setting up a straw man.

My actual objection to Homer, in the video, was that Greek and Roman moral philosophers as well as Christian moral teachers, have never used Homer to teach morality. You can see this clearly in the clip below. We know that Plato didn’t teach Homer because Homer wasn’t taught in Plato’s Academy. We know that Aristotle didn’t teach Homer, because he wrote his own works on Ethics. We know that Christians never taught Homer because they studied Scripture and the catechisms of the Church.

When, in Greek, Roman or Christian history, did anyone ever teach Homer in schools? Never. Mr. Cothran seems to confuse the obvious fact that men have read Homer throughout history with Homer being a part of a school curriculum somewhere.

If so, Mr. Cothran, where? when?

I have no idea what he’s talking about here. He’s really grasping for anything to say at this point, while completely ignoring my actual criticisms.

5. Ignoring My Objective Criticisms: Contradicting Definitions of “Classical Education”

In my criticism, I point out that Mr. Cothran grants that “he has no problem with other definitions of classical education”. I objected to this and said that if a group makes a claim about an educational tradition that is false, it makes no sense to smile at it. Isn’t this the relativism, we claim to be opposed to in modern society? Watch the clip below until the 33:00 minute mark to see what I said about defining classical education:

Now, having said that in the video, in his written response, Mr. Cothran says this, contradicting himself:

It is erroneous to say that classical education consists of stages of learning, it is not necessarily erroneous to say that there are stages of learning.”

The topic here, however, “What is classical education?”, not whether there are stages of learning. If it is erroneous for someone to say that classical education consists of three stages of learning, then how can Mr. Cothran claim to have no problem with someone saying that classical education consists of three stages of learning? If Mr. Cothran thinks this is erroneous, why doesn’t he say so in his video? That’s what I criticized in my video, which I believe is fair.

6. Ignoring My Objective Criticisms: No Mention of Christian Tradition

Lastly, I criticized Mr. Cothran’s secular view of virtue education in history. While talking about moral formation throughout “the West”, he makes no mention of religion, God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the Church, the Sacraments, the Saints, prayer, etc. He speaks of teaching “virtue and wisdom” with Homer and Robin Hood, yet never mentions anything of 2,000 years of Christian education? Anyone who watches my criticism to the end will know that this was central to my criticism of Mr. Cothran’s message.

Mr. Cothran says nothing of this in his response to my criticism.

7. Ignoring My Objective Criticisms: Ignoring the Seven Liberal Arts

In my criticism, I criticize Mr. Cothran for mentioning the seven classical liberal arts in passing before launching into a discussion of “reading”. I criticized Memoria Press for speaking about the seven classical liberal arts, and then ignoring them. Remember, as Mr. Cothran explains, there are SEVEN liberal arts: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

Despite naming these, he quickly hurries on to his desired subject, which is literature. When we look at the Memoria Press curriculum, we do not find the seven classical liberal arts. This is not “prejudging”. This is simple fact. Despite this talk of classical education and seven liberal arts, we can look at the Memoria Press “Math” resources and find no such thing. We find modern Math books. In another video, Mr. Cothran says that “if it makes you feel better, you can” replace two of the liberal arts (Music and Astronomy) “with Algebra and Calculus”.

If that’s true, why talk about the SEVEN classical liberal arts?

This is objective–and true–criticism.

CONCLUSION

I believe that my criticism made Mr. Cothran’s errors quite clear, and his response is an irresponsible one at best. He attempts to dismiss the significance of what is actually the most-watched video he has ever produced. He ignores my serious accusations that he makes false historical claims about his ideas. He creates a straw man argument and suggests that I (a classicist) might believe that Homer was not studied in ancient Greece. He ignores classical education throughout Christian history. He names yet ignores the seven classical liberal arts–not only in his “short little video”, but in the actual curriculum he’s selling at Memoria Press.

While his answer to the question “What is Classical Education?” was bad, I have to say that the response to my criticism was far more disappointing. I do not believe that anything I have said in the video or written here has been uncharitable or prejudicial. I don’t believe, however, that Mr. Cothran is willing to admit that my criticism is accurate as he should.

God bless,
Mr. William C. Michael
Classical LIberal Arts Academy

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