Why I support the resurgence of classical education

Classical Education

From my point of view, the key direction and goal of primary education should be to create virtuous citizens of high moral character and ethics combined with a unique power to think creatively for themselves, formulate arguments based upon reason and logic, and be able to articulate their points in a respectful and eloquent manner. In short – education should create people of noble character and great wisdom. As ancient as the philosopher Plato, the concept of an education was to create a model citizen that enriched and cultivated both the mind such that reason ruled over emotion and appetite as well as the body through physical education.  I ask the reader whether they feel that the public education model succeeds in fostering the development of this duly described individual of great character. I know my own personal journey through public education was one spent more as a number rather than an individual that was powerfully challenged and crafted along the way. Mediocrity begets mediocrity, and within the typical education methods of modern day America, it is extremely easy to slip through the cracks but still get passed along from grade to grade.

My own children attend a Classical Christian school, and I must admit that I am envious of the education that they are receiving at such an early age relative to my own experiences. While I personally appreciate the Christian focus and foundational elements that supplement the classical education at my own children’s school, I should point out at the outset that the classical model could stand alone on its own merits in a secular setting as well. Briefly described, classical education follows a trivium model of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Classical schools have a varied approach to other subject matters, but they will typically add in essential elements of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, as well as Greek and Latin. Before scoffing at the concept of learning these rarely used languages, recognize that more so than any others, these languages undergird the structure of many other languages (including English) and allow the future adult to analyze ancient texts full of wisdom in their original constructs and unimpeded by the limitations of translation.

Child development begins with a grammar school that teaches critical concepts and facts across multiple disciplines during a life period in which the child is most receptive to memorization. It is during this stage that the aforementioned foreign languages are most stressed since it is easier for a child to absorb them. Students at this level concentrate on poetry, phonics, spelling, basic math facts and rules, plant and animal kingdoms, and the history of ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the Christian models, they are learning about the beauty of creation and what it means to love each other and our world along the way. The transition is made to a dialectical model, commonly called the School of Logic in classical education parlance, during what is traditionally known as middle school years. In this period, the young adolescent transitions from rote memorization and facts based learning to argumentation and thinking and articulating the basis for their thoughts. Students move on to more advanced maths such as algebra and geometry. Most importantly, students at this level are expected to be able to write and defend a thesis and engage in discussions and debates with their peers and teachers in a Socratic method. The final stages of the model are commonly called the School of Rhetoric. At this stage, students are expected to be able to write and speak with the power of one with convictions that can be backed up with well structured research and reason.

When one can see in the classical education syllabus of the upper school years that the students are exploring and debating the concepts outlined in classical texts from Homer, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Plato, and Aristotle, to more relatively modern day luminaries such as John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, coupled with deep study and debate on the key terms and concepts in texts such as the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers, The Declaration of Independence, and many other such texts, then one can understand the full measure of the type of learning that occurs in classical schools.

How is this different than public schools? Public schools’ fundamental nature is primarily categorized as utilitarianism – which can be described as attempting to achieve the highest aggregate outcome through uniformity and standardization against backdrop challenges of limited resources and diverse student capabilities . The cynical description would be that public schools invariably teach to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve this end, although it is more appropriate to indicate that it is the middle of the bell curve (the average student) that is catered to while the highly gifted, students that need additional focus, and children that learn differently or have other primary interests (arts, music, sciences) that receive the short end of the stick.  My other observation on public schools is that they are extremely susceptible to chasing of the latest teaching fads that have no robust statistical evidence supporting their efficacy (i.e. using iPads, Common Core) due to a highly centralized and bureaucratic model that is inevitable with government run programs. It was this utilitarianism that prompted an essay from Dorothy Sayers in the 1940s titled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in which Sayers takes aim at the public education model that has dominated America and Britain since the early 1900s, lamenting that within public schools children “learn everything, except the art of learning.” Indeed, the classical education resurgence owes much to the spark that was lit by the Sayers essay.  As an antidote to the less than stellar public school models, Sayers promoted the return to Greco-Roman and early American and British styles of education, including a curriculum focused on the aforementioned trivium.  Her prescriptions were eventually enacted by a husband and wife who opened a Classical Christian school in Idaho in the 1980s based on their reading and understanding of the Sayers’ essay. Their own school grew rapidly at the same time that many others, both private and publicly funded charter schools, began opening along the same classical lines.  Today, there are an estimated 500 classical schools in America with somewhere around 50,000 students. More can be read on the origin and the growth of classical education at Eric Metaxas’ blog,  National Review, American Spectator, and lest I be accused of cherry-picking conservative publications, even CNN published their own encomium to classical education. The principles of classical education are apolitical and should transcend political creeds. The CNN article is informative in that it pulls together some relative performance statistics that indicate that classical Christian schools are outperforming their public school peers:

Each year, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools compares the SAT scores of classically educated students with national statistics. The class of 2012 averaged 621 in reading, 606 in writing and 597 in math, scores much higher than the national average. A 2011 survey of its member schools’ alumni showed that 98.3% attended college

Aside from the quantitative impacts I will add some qualitative observations from my own numerous personal interactions. I can say that the difference in classically trained adolescents  compared to their publicly educated peers is unequivocally obvious when one meets and talks with students that hail from such schools. Between moves from Kansas to Texas, I have been exposed to two classical schools. The representative students I have met and observed are polite, respectful, can look you in the eyes and speak coherently about high-minded topics, are not ashamed or afraid to participate in theatrical and musical performances, and can sit through such events and group gatherings without being glued to their phones. In a word, there is a great amount of relative maturity possessed by these students. The broader point is that students of this age are capable of remarkable character and maturity, and more,  if we only set the expectations and equip them to do so. With no focus on the development of individual character in public schools, those expectations must somehow come from the inherent and atypical nature within or from the guidance of parents, who have the difficult challenge of increasingly less time with their child to mold such traits as students spend most of their waking hours in schools and with their student peers. I will briefly indicate that the classical education differs from private Christian schools as well in that the typical private Christian school tends to emulate the public school methods and then adds in a Bible class.  In contrast, the focus of the Classical Christian school is to promote a broader narrative in the value of searching for truth through rational thought and exploration, developing virtues, and seeing the beauty of the creation and the Creator through every school discipline that the student encounters.

In order to ward off a criticism that such models are currently only an option for the upper middle class and above, I will close by making it clear of my political and philosophical support for school choice reforms at the local, state, and federal levels that free up money spent on education such that the dollars are attached to the student rather than the school  assigned to the area that the student happens to reside in. My points articulated on this matter are found in other blog posts – more fully in this post where I quote economist Donald Boudreaux and discuss the inherent illogic of being forced to send our kids to school by the zip code we live in, but also briefly here, where I use a Hayek quote to talk about the strangulating effects of letting a government mandate the methods of instruction,  and here, where I point out the erosion of support for Common Core, which is just one of many fads that government bureaucrats have and will latch onto and unilaterally shove down our throats in the absence of more market-based feedback loops. If we were to free parents and students from the shackles of paying high property taxes for the “privilege” of being forced to send their child to a certain school based purely on address, then we would see the ability of children from all socioeconomic backgrounds be able to attend this type (and many other innovative education models) of school, thus transforming our American society for the better.



One thought on “Why I support the resurgence of classical education

  1. Pingback: The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis – Modern Education and the Creation of “Men Without Chests” – The Gymnasium

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