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.


The Gender Revolution We Often Forget About


I found a recent podcast of EconTalk to be highly fascinating. As a father of three girls, I do spend a great amount of time worried about the career opportunities and lifestyle choices that my daughters will face. I do wonder whether there is in fact a glass ceiling that my daughters will face should they choose to devote their lives to careers with equal commitment and skill relative to their male counterparts. I do worry about the challenging forks in the road that they will face between careers and child-rearing, which for better or worse tends to fall more heavily on their shoulders. All of these reflections drew me to this episode in which Professor Alison Wolf, Baroness of Dulwich, put focus into the tremendous growth in education and economic prospects that have occurred amongst the top 15-20% of the global women elite. The offshoot is that these elite women have closed the gap amongst their men social class peers and consequently have created a tremendous gap between their less educated and less well-off women gender peers. In essence, the Gender Revolution of the last 50 years is as much about professional women catching up to men in their class as it is about those same women diverging quite starkly from their less educated gender peers. One might add that these same professional women have also quite distanced themselves from blue-collar men, but that issue was not heavily explored in the podcast.

The host, Economist Russ Roberts of Stanford’s Hoover Institute, opens with a quote from Professor Wolf’s recent book, The XX Factor: 

Until now, all women’s lives, whether rich or poor, have been dominated by the same experiences and pressures. Today, elite and highly educated women have become a class apart. However, these professionals, businesswomen and holders of advanced degrees, the top 15 or 20 percent of developed countries’ female workforce–have not moved further apart from men. On the contrary, they are now more like the men of the family than ever before in history. It is from other women that they have drawn away.

Wolf’s response puts it into perspective that I have never really thought about before:

Think back to, for example, a world of–America. And what you would find is that whether or not you are a girl in a well-off Boston household or a girl on a hardscrabble Appalachian farm, what decided your life was whether or not you made a good marriage. Essentially, you had to make a good marriage. Everything else was secondary. You had to make a good marriage because that’s what you were born into the world to be. You were born into the world to be a wife and a mother. Which would mean you would have status and security and hopefully children to look after you in old age. And you would be the one who reared them. Or, you were going to be a spinster, on the shelf, with essentially no capacity of making a career. So, whereas a boy from a tough background could, occasionally, with difficulty make it on his own, as a woman you just couldn’t. You simply couldn’t. So, whatever you were, that was what being a woman was. I don’t mean that it was all utter misery for everybody but it didn’t make any real difference. What the wealth of your family was, that was what defined you. And that meant that all women had a completely common set of concerns and experiences. And in that sense, they were a sisterhood. I don’t mean they all liked each other, and there were definitely rivals. But they were a genuine sisterhood in the sense that they had all this in common. And today, if you are a clever or privileged young person, whether you are at Oxford, Harvard, Brown, Kings–where I teach–you have far more in common as a female student with the male students who were alongside you than you will with a vast majority of other young women in your country. And it’s the class that really matters. The class has always mattered. But as a woman you just kind of hung on to whichever class you were born or married into. It wasn’t really ¬your class in the sense that you’d created your class position. You just kind of hung in there. Today, you as a woman can also be upwardly mobile or downwardly mobile. And it’s your self-made class–it’s you as an educated or less educated, fortunate or less fortunate, careerist, non-careerist woman who makes your fate. And you are very likely to marry somebody like you, if you marry at all. But what really decides your life is that you are or aren’t a member of that top 15%

In the back and forth dialogue between Roberts and Wolf, they both discuss the contrast between women of “high society” today compared to those in the Jane Austen novel era. The key difference is that in those days, women’s “success” was largely defined by who they married. Pulling in another historical narrative on the topic, my recent reading of Mary Beard’s book on Roman History, SPQR, painted a picture of women’s lives in the late B.C. and early A.D. era that were dreadfully oriented chiefly around their ability to produce children. Whether from the class of aristocracy or bondaged slaves – the chief aim of women’s lives who were often subjected to arranged marriages was, to put it crudely, economically beneficial maternal production. The high rates of death during childbirth in Roman antiquity certainly did not add to the allure of being a woman during this time, so I am easily grateful for the prospects and choices that my daughters will have. That being said, it does present a fair degree of pressure on the parent to focus on and promote their daughters’ education, which is another focal point of the podcast dialogue.

Much of the rest of the discussion focuses on some of the key differences that have driven separation in woman’s class – namely achievement in education levels, marrying much later in life, marrying exclusively within their professional class, divorcing infrequently, and working throughout child rearing (although sometimes taking what Wolf calls “sideway” positions that are no longer taking them rapidly up the corporate ladder) Contrast these factors with less educated women lifestyles where one sees much higher rates of children born out of wedlock, children born at much earlier ages, higher divorce rates, and an often complete removal from the workforce once child rearing begins.

Less focused on in the podcast is the divisive issue over whether men and women doing the same work are paid differently, so listeners looking for deep thoughts on this hot button issue won’t find answers or even that much speculation, although Wolf does make the observation that one reason for the disparity is likely the continued social acceptability of women taking a step back or taking the “sideways” path to provide more time to raise children compared to men. Wolf and Roberts also make the observation that women are beginning to dominate graduating classes of defined professions such as medical and legal, which Wolf observes one reason behind this is that these are fields where women can still contribute meaningfully to while balancing child rearing compared to less defined roles in business management where the lack of defined professional success factors and paths lead to hours worked as proxy for success. The implicit prediction here is that there remains much to be seen and revealed in where these career choices of women play out in the way our culture and society is structured, although Roberts, as a classically trained libertarian economist out of the Chicago/Austrian school would no doubt indicate that social forces that are not really controllable or predictable will determine the outcomes and that heavy-handed government will at best be counterproductive.

There is a lot in an hour podcast that I won’t fully discuss here, but I do highly recommend the listen.  I provided a link to the desktop file, but EconTalk can be found and subscribed to on many smartphone podcast apps. My personal favorite happens to be Podcast Addict.




Fatherhood is…

From time to time I will use this blog to divert away from the serious to the more personal aspects of life. I have been thinking a great deal lately about what it means to be a father. Recently, I embarked upon quite the life change, shifting my career path from one that relied heavily upon frequent, weekly travel to one of infrequent travel and far more nights spent at home. With some sense of regret for what I have missed the last 3 or so years, I am figuring out more clearly and with more thought of what it means to do daily life with four brilliant and wonderful children and their remarkable and indefatigable mother. Not that I was not a present father before, it was simply that I would regularly miss 2-3 nights per week of their lives, which inevitably means a lot of missed milestones. The job change has allowed me to be more fully engaged and to have the time to actually think about what fatherhood has meant to me. I am sure many fathers and mothers can relate to my little list here. The list will evolve as my children grow and get older, but with four children under the age of 10, my list reflects the “spirit of the current age.”

Fatherhood is…

Crying uncontrollably at each of their births and not being one bit ashamed about it in the presence of complete strangers

Being tremendously grateful, in an admittedly awful selfish way, that it the mother that bears the burden of birthing

Glancing over in complete exasperation at your spouse when it seems as if your own little version of Armageddon is happening around you and you both break down in despairing laughter

Having 1,000 tiny aggravations and paper cuts as a result of constant needs, fussing, fighting, arguing, talking, asking, and constant motion instantly heal the second a cute little red-headed girl sits in your lap and asks you to read a book to her before bed

Possessing secret admiration at your child’s reasoning and argumentation skills, even if you also want to yell from the rooftop, “Shut your sassy mouth already!”

Longing for the day that your children grow into more self-sufficiency

Dreading with every fiber of your being your children growing into self-sufficiency

Missing your sweet and little innocent baby-faced child while she says, “Daaaaad… seriously?” with hands on hips and head cocked to one side

Praying, hoping, and doing everything you possibly can to give your children a better childhood than you had

Realizing that the most dreadful thing in all of this world is saying or doing something that you immediately regret and that hurts your child

Dealing with the constant nagging pressure on how to give your children better opportunities, which to many a parent can mean putting more effort into work in the pursuit of more financial opportunities for your children

Realizing that what a child values most of all is your attention and affection, not your production

Having the somewhat scary realization that even if you succeed in giving your children every opportunity that you can possibly afford them within the confines of an abundantly loving home, they still have their own minds and they are their own people: they will make their own decisions and life choices, for better or worse

Scoping out at an early age who might make a great pre-arranged marriage for your children

Realizing that kissing all over your little boy is effortless and not as hard to do as you might have thought before having a son

Wishing that of above all, the traits and virtues that you hope your children obtain is grit, tenacity, perseverance, and gumption

Harboring secret pride when your little girl smokes the little boy in a race to the soccer ball

Coming to the physically painful realization that in a father/daughter wrestling match, that the old adage that, “girls don’t fight fair” is remarkably true

Having to sheepishly explain why you were staring at your daughter when she catches you staring while she tries to read a book silently to herself

Learning that fathers can make the world’s best pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches

Understanding that your children are most at peace when there is peace between the mother and father

Constantly trying to find the line between being an overly protective parent and letting them learn from their own or others’ bad choices

The above becomes particularly tough when you are dealing with the mistakes and brutishness of other people that impact your child –  do you turn on protective instincts or do you passively let your child learn how to adapt to and navigate in a world where awful people will always exist and whom they need to learn how to deal with?

Having the strange feeling that bedtime routines are analogous to being the CEO of a company negotiating with a tough Union threatening to strike with the subtle hints that they will resort to violence if needed

Having to remind yourself to give of your time and attention to your best friend, the woman that birthed your children, so as not to forget why you fell in love with her and how you are in this together

Alas, I could go on and on, but I would love to hear from my friends…what did I miss? What is parenthood to you?