Classical Education for All

The vision of American public education is compelling: Access to the basic skills and knowledge needed for citizenship within a modern democracy for all children, with the cost borne by property owners in each county. In less than two centuries, that vision has resulted in hundreds of thousands of schools spread across the United States. The buildings are there, but the core promise of American education is eroding. Stories like this one from City Journal’s Christopher Rufo illustrate the ways in which public educators support critical race theory and social justice mentality. The result of such movements, including attempts in Seattle and Oregon to merge math with Ethnic Studies, and California’s adoption of Ethnic Studies for grades 9-12, is a rejection of the possibility of universal education.

In order to teach students the knowledge necessary for lifelong flourishing, schools must affirm a universal human nature. Every classroom is itself an application of a philosophy of education, whether implicit or explicit. A profound change occurs when educators buy into the particularizing worldview of critical theory and intersectionality—that our essence as persons is defined by our membership in specific groups (race, gender, sexual orientation) and the ways those groups have been oppressed—and see their disciplines as tasked with social activism demanding justice for the oppressed. The philosophical framework for universal human nature shifts; such an educator loses the ability to assume that certain principles operate for all students, and that all students need certain knowledge for a life of flourishing. The movements of critical theory, intersectionality, and social justice within K-12 education form an internal contradiction: Public education should be the most universal form of education, creating a baseline of skills and knowledge for all American citizens. Instead, its focus on particular group identities prevents it from accomplishing its vision.

Over the past fifty years, the classical renewal movement has risen to meet the market demand for better education. It does so by threading the needle of working with particular families and meeting their educational needs yet espousing a vision of universal human nature and necessary knowledge. Classical educators believe that all students, regardless of membership in specific racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation groups, require the study of certain subjects (math, science, literature, history, grammar, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, fine arts, foreign language) to live well. In doing so, classical education contains the ability to provide the universal education our republic requires.

Classical education begins in the traditions of Greece and Rome, and from these ancient sources it acquires a trajectory towards that which is universally human. Whether scholars call it “the Golden Age,” the “Classical Era,” or the “Greek Miracle,” a certain mode of thought was born in ancient Athens. A focus on human rationality as the basis for a universal human nature became the foundation upon which the artes liberales grew. A classical education teaches subjects through this lens of universality: our interest in literature is not just representation but, more importantly, the human condition. In history, we study the causes by which a society permits human freedom to the greatest extent possible. The verbal arts (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) focus on human communication in both written and oral forms, grounded upon a common rationality. The mathematic and scientific arts (our contemporary Quadrivium studies) enable students to understand reality and to think about it rigorously. We attempt (always imperfectly) to teach students what is certain and what is known, so that they are then able to stand upon “the shoulders of giants” as they explore the questions of the future in light of the wisdom of the past.

Such an approach allows classical education to participate in a common tradition that great minds have described in different ways: Edmund Burke called it the “contract” between the “dead, the living, and the unborn,” and Richard Gamble refers to it as the “Great Tradition.” Early 20th century historians named this tradition “western civilization.” Classical education sees itself in continuity with the diverse strands of pagan antiquity, medieval Christendom, and pluralistic modernity, because each of these moments stands in the larger tradition of attempting to express universal human nature in particular civilizations. By drawing on these traditions, we prepare students to step into their generation hearing Socrates’ questions, accompanying Dante to Paradise, and feeling Elie Wiesel’s sorrow at evil. Such an education, the classical renewal movement claims, is the best education to prepare students for a lifetime of human flourishing.

The classical renewal movement is what public education should be: universal education philosophically accessible to all and centered upon the knowledge necessary for human flourishing.

Ten years ago, the above description would have struck a reader as idealistic, perhaps, but not countercultural. In only a decade, it has become controversial to teach a traditional canon of literature; a sequence of history that contextualizes evil choices is spun as racist. We have reached a point where a thematically and factually wrong understanding of American history has become mainstream and teaching a primary-source driven, nuanced understanding of America’s founding runs the risk of being accused of white supremacy. Today, teaching a classical education that, to quote Homer, “sings the song again in our time,” requires a rigorous defense. In marshalling such a defense, classical educators clarify the nature of their educational mode. Like a miner panning for gold, conflict washes away confusion to reveal the sought for essence. In the same vein, our moment calls for naming and defending the good, the true, and the beautiful in classical education so that students’ lives might be formed toward those ends. For classical education, the core remains teaching students the knowledge that helps them develop their potential to the highest degree of actuality. 

Classical education, whether in homeschool, private, or charter school incarnations, offers an answer to families who want the same education that prepared the Founding Fathers to develop the framework for a “new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” By focusing education on what universally unites humans rather than the accidents of birth, tribe, or identity, a classical approach to education summons students to consider transformative truths that have the power to cultivate human beings capable of pursuing happiness. The winds of culture recall the storm in King Lear:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,   
Singe my white head!

Lear gave away his place and his authority, and eventually the changes in his life drove him mad; madness looms for a society that has lost sight of the goods of place and authority. It seems at times that our culture no longer perceives an order of goods, and with each passing year, one more cornerstone of stability erodes. And yet, all is not lost. The wider culture can surrender to the clamor of riot and revolution. Classical educators will go right on practicing the basic elements of school: excellent teachers equipped with a traditional curriculum preparing engaged students to make much of their lives “under the sun.”

Classical educators face the charge that theirs is an elitist education, that the traditional canon is both too white and too western. There has been truth to both charges, but that need not be the case. Practiced well, a classical education is not focused on the racial origins of an author or text, but instead asks what is universally human about each text. This guiding question provides classical education a semi-permanent core that grows as new texts arise that speak to the universally human. Anika Prather has done much work in recent years specifically examining the charge that classical education is an inherently white education; she found that receiving a classical education was formative for Frederick Douglass, and that he believed it was part of the patrimony that black Americans should claim. The question of inherent goodness answers the charge of elitism; the past three centuries have been a period of democratization spreading that which previously existed only at the upper echelons of society to as many levels as possible. Education should be no different. If classical education is the education received by elites, nothing is gained by attacking it as elitist; instead, the premise sets a problem of political economy. How can that which was available to those who could afford private boarding schools be made available to far more families? To solve that problem, the barriers of cost and personnel must be overcome.

Classical education remains, for the most part, in the realm of private education and is often cost-prohibitive. Two models are changing that prohibition. On the one hand, Thales Academy is pioneering a “high quality, affordable cost” model, delivering classical private education at $5,500-6,300 per year. On the other hand, many states are embracing classical charter schools. Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative is one such model; the Great Hearts Academies network of classical charter schools is another. Such projects, whether private or charter, illustrate that the question of education remains one of societal arrangement. We could do schooling differently than we currently do. We could have classical education as a mainstream option for education; we could provide vouchers for every student to let tax dollars follow the student; we could support politicians who want to grant more charters and then let the educational market driven by competition decide which schools rise and which fall. Classical education remains out of reach for many families through lack of financial or geographic access, but that situation need not be permanent. If classical education is the best possible education, then creating avenues for access becomes a logistical question of education policy.

One of the current difficulties with envisioning classical education on a larger scale lies in forming the teachers and school leaders who make this vision concrete. Following the example of Columbia University’s Teachers College, education programs exist in hundreds of colleges nationwide, preparing future mainstream educators to step into various roles. The beginnings of such infrastructure for the classical renewal movement exist in at least three places: Hillsdale College has both undergraduate and (soon) graduate training for classical educators, as does the University of Dallas. Thales College is launching an undergraduate degree in Classical Education and Leadership. As the classical renewal movement grows, so too must the infrastructure to support such an education. Heads of Schools, Administrators, Superintendents, classroom teachersto talk about classical education as a movement is also to note the need to cultivate the individuals who will cause that education. Organizations like the Society for Classical Learning, with their Arete retreats, Classical Academic Press’ ClassicalU online platform, and CiRCE’s apprenticeship program, are excellent beginnings. But for the movement to grow to a mainstream level, the question of broader higher education preparation becomes relevant.

Mainstream education once prepared students for full lives as human beings through rigorous study of knowledge and strong training in conversation, equipping students for a life of citizenship within their communities. By contrast, public schools rarely deliver these results today. Inasmuch as public education rejects a universal human nature and the real requirements of knowledge, it fails to deliver the justification for its existence. Poor public education creates a market need for excellent, affordable education. Here is both the challenge and opportunity for classical education: At a moment when the voices driving culture shout loudest against universality, classical schools can show the value of studying the good, the true, and the beautiful. In their students lies the proof that classical education remains an effective educational approach to cultivating the potential within all human beings to its highest degree of actuality, and, in so doing, classical education meets the needs of parents who want the best possible education for their children. The classical renewal movement is what public education should be: universal education philosophically accessible to all and centered upon the knowledge necessary for human flourishing.