The health crisis of 2020 revealed problems in education in a way no one could have predicted. When students were required to learn from home, parents witnessed what was being taught—or not being taught—at government schools. My friends would lament that their children only spent ten minutes on the assigned work and had hours left available to them. Apparently, in the classroom, teachers spent more time managing than instructing. Even more concerning was the type and quality of the work. Worksheets, quizzes, textbooks, videos. One friend shared on Twitter a grammar worksheet that began, “We are all consumers.” It reminded me a talk I heard once by Jean Bethke Elshtain. One of her children or grandchildren had brought home a sheet where they were asked to assess statements as fact or opinion. One statement read, “Murder is wrong.” Is that a fact or an opinion? You can guess what the supposedly “correct” answer was. Because of the pandemic, parents across the country faced the truth that has been offered in headlines and statistics about the problems in education. And, they were horrified to discover how little their students were learning, the poor quality of the pedagogical methods, and the subtle immorality lurking in the curriculum.
As a professor of undergraduates, I knew firsthand how unprepared students were for college, and as a former teacher in a classical school, I saw the potential solution in that movement. With a group of friends, I co-founded a K-6 alternative school that focuses on a coherent and integrated curriculum, a global timeline for history, prioritizes repetition and process in mathematics, and teaches stories, grammar, literature, and Latin via discussion, relationships, and communal learning. During the quarantine, our students met as classes via Zoom. They read narratives, shared them with their parents, and discussed them with their siblings. Our kindergarteners dissected owl pellets at home with their families. Our first graders conducted shape searches and took photos of themselves finding cones and cylinders in the real world. We did not have any parents complain about the ways that school was conducted long distance, and we heard nothing but gratitude from parents who realized how much their children had learned and grown over the past several months at our school. We all learned together that this is a way for education to flourish in America.
In “Reforming Educational Authority,” Andy Smarick advocates subsidiarity and decentralization of national government involvement in education. Our school is one example of what this can look like. Starting at the end of his piece, Smarick encourages individuals to participate in the process of educational reform by starting a school, seeking a seat on the local school board, serving on the PTA, and so forth. Earlier in his argument, he promotes school choice, in which the government supports the creation and improvements of charter and private school options, including classical schools. These service suggestions and choices outside of the government schools “advance[s] parental empowerment,” as Smarick writes, and diversifies educational offerings.
According to Smarick’s argument, the federal government should only step in on matters of national importance, and he gives the examples of Brown vs. Board of Education, Title IX opportunities, the Disabilities in Education Act, etc. Instead of federal oversight, the state should retain the greatest amount of power to progress students’ skills in reading and math, expand programming for gifted students, create career-focused high school programs, and recommit to history and civics. While I agree in theory, the practice of this oversight is much more difficult to implement, for the question of how hinges on too many philosophical questions where the grand players disagree.
The very definition of education is debatable. I’ve spoken on panels where to my left someone would argue about helping students train for adulthood and secure a job. With admirable intent, the professor would focus on ensuring that students could make money and progress beyond their impoverished background. On my right, another professor would consider education to be about content knowledge that must be accrued and disseminated into students’ heads, as though he was pouring from a funnel into a bucket. Neither of them agreed on the definition of education, and I disagreed with them both. From my perspective, and thousands of years of Western culture, education drew its meaning from the Latin educare, to draw out the best and lead away from error. Or, as Plato puts it, to teach someone to what to love. Which of us is right?
Smarick recognizes the pluralism of responses and political polarization, but he does not highlight the philosophical pluralism. In an admirable argument about the means of education in this country and the authority to implement change, the purpose of education has been implied but not explicit. Smarick claims that the government desires citizens who can make money, so educating properly is in their best interest. However, what makes a good citizen? We need to take another look at The Federalist Papers—but the trouble is that the majority of school board leaders have never read them. And, if the government has a duty to make sure we have “adults capable of maintaining America’s international competitiveness,” as Smarick notes, they’ll need creativity and critical thinking more than the technical skills and vocational training we’re currently offering them. As Betsy De Vos has noted, the gaps between Americans and their international peers are embarrassing. She laments, “We’re not in the top ten—in anything.” Whatever government schools have been doing for the past several decades is failing.
By contrast, classical education has a two-millennium track record of success. In its new form in America, classical education may look different than when Roman citizens sat at the feet of their Greek tutors. Yet, even in this century and in this country, the results are undeniable. Smarick contests that, in our efforts for reform, we have focused too much in the past on student outcomes: standardized test scores, graduation rates, lifetime earnings. I want to argue that those are the wrong outcomes to consider. What about whether students felt prepared for work? Received BA or higher in college? What about lifetime happiness? The Association of Classical and Christian Schools conducted a study with these outcomes and more, drawing from 24-42 year old alumni from public, secular private, and classical schools. The results all favored classical education. Not to mention what classical educators have known for decades: that classically educated students surpass students of other types of education on any standardized test and career-readiness benchmark.
I appreciate Smarick’s approach to finding middle ground, for moving reformers away from revolutionary ideals at a national level, and for empowering parents to participate in the education of future generations. We do need to consider our goals, how to accomplish them, and who should carry the authority for their execution. My mother teaches in the public school system, and I have friends who continue to do so with great passion and care for their students. I’m eager to work with anyone who acknowledges the problems before us in education and desires to make changes. Yet, the solution is not vague and undefined, from my perspective. Classical education offers a way back from the cliff we’re dangling over. There’s a reason that, in the aftermath of World War II, Dorothy L. Sayers did not write about the atrocities caused by Nazis or the economic devastation of Europe, but she gave a talk on education, on what had been lost and what could be gained. We would do well to read “The Lost Tools of Learning” and return our attention to those goods which ought never to have been lost.