It seems that after flying thirty or so years beneath the pedagogical radar, classical education is finally garnering the attention of those who prefer the public variety and her teachers’ unions. This scrutiny has been heightened by: 1) the sharp decline of enrollment in public schools during and after the COVID closings when parents were forced to do things themselves; 2) the discovery by parents of what was being taught in some public schools, specifically related to CRT and sexuality—topics upon which there is NO consensus among the public whose tax dollars support those schools; and, 3) the brazen declaration of some of those schools that they have intentionally concealed information from parents regarding their children’s chosen “identities” when at school and will continue to do so. These acts suggest to many that public schools are indifferent, if not hostile, to some parents’ concerns—indeed, see those parents as “right wing extremists”—and so must arrogate to themselves the responsibility of saving said charges from such pernicious guardians. The result has been a “school choice” movement which is currently enjoying success in several states.
And so we speak now of classical education. This way of doing education was the proven method upon which countless students cut their teeth for centuries in Europe and then America, that is, until the Industrial Revolution when those nations thought it better that schools produce workers instead of thinkers. But classical education has experienced a renaissance in this country with hundreds of such schools dotting the American landscape over the last few years (including homeschools). Suffice it to say that these schools emphasize discipline and learning through language study (English and Latin), Formal Logic, Composition, Literature, Poetry, Art, Music, Math, and Science. We train students to seek and embrace Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the world around them (please note the capital letters), who become virtuous ladies and gentlemen full of wisdom, who express themselves in cultured and refined ways, and who will go about doing good in their communities. This, in a nutshell, is classical education.
But you will hear that it is “elitist” (i.e., not inclusive), “white” (i.e., racist), and “Christian” (oh my!). I would like to respond to these charges. We shall start with “elitist.” Beginning in seventh grade, our students will read through over one-hundred literary classics ranging from Biblical works to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Plato, Aristotle, and the Greek playwrights to Livy, Tacitus, Cicero, and Virgil to Eusebius, Ambrose, Augustine, and the Koran to Bede, Beowulf, Dante, and Chaucer to Luther and Calvin, Shakespeare, Milton, Pascal, Locke, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, de Tocqueville, Rousseau, Stowe, Lincoln, Austin, Dostoevsky, MLK, and many more. And we ask not what these works say about race and sex but what they tell us about what it means to be human, to be free, to live in a society with others, and a host of other questions, thus entering the “Great Conversation” of Western Civilization. These works cover more than three-thousand years, four continents, several ethnicities, and a plethora of diverse political and social views. I doubt that other schools can boast a more INCLUSIVE reading list. Furthermore, the school where I teach has never turned a student down for lack of financial resources. We are as ethnically diverse as our community. Of course, classical education demands a heavy workload, especially with the required credits of Latin. Therefore, students and teachers must work hard, but we make no apology for that.
As to classical education being “white,” it is now a commonplace that “white” is not an ethnic group but a social construct. For example, neither Jews nor Italians were regarded as “white” by Americans in 1900, mostly from religious bigotry. Similarly, as Hispanics are assimilated into American culture, they may be regarded as “white” in a couple of generations. The point is that the very contemporary designation of “white” cannot be applied cross-culturally to different times and places. It would therefore be anachronistic to apply the word to various peoples of ancient times living around the Mediterranean basin or in medieval Europe for whom the word, “white,” would be met with blank stares.
On the other hand, if by “white,” our adversaries simply mean, “Western (and American) Civilization,” very well then, we own that we teach from the works of that civilization as well as the Latin language through which those ideas were expressed. But this is because we believe that children should be taught their own heritage that they may later enter meaningfully and appreciatively into dialogue with those from others. But we do believe that, though Western history reveals many faults, it has much to offer, and we intend to mine its wisdom.
As to the designation, “Christian,” I suppose most classical schools are, but that need not be the case. Almost all the ancient works are pagan and the modern works were written by many whose Christianity was nominal at best or who shunned the term altogether. The medieval works are explicitly Christian (excepting the Koran, of course), but even an atheist may read them and enter into a philosophical discussion concerning Realism vis-a-vis Nominalism, for instance. The term “Christian” has to do with the stance of the particular school, not classical education per se.
Anyway, as classical education becomes more popular and catches the eyes of those who have vested interests elsewhere, you are going to hear these calumnies. Please dismiss them, or better yet, ask a classical school if you may visit. You’ll find we’re not as elitist as all that!