Schooling for Good

The Classical Education Movement is Gaining Momentum

Why is education on the decline in America? And are there creative solutions to reverse the trend?

Several factors have contributed to the decline of education in the U.S. Many teachers today are little more than conduits of progressive ideologies, channeling gender and critical race theories to impressionable kids. In addition, the digitalization of culture has left whole swaths of children and young adults at a cognitive disadvantage, and the Covid lockdowns only worsened the problem. Beyond that, what about family cohesion? Studies show that broken families strongly predict poorer academic performance. In short, if families aren’t strong, neither are schools.

But there has been a movement, led in large part by a cohort of parents, to rejuvenate American education and make sure kids are well-formed and equipped to think critically and imaginatively in today’s complicated, digitally mediated world. This is the classical education movement.

A Movement, Not Just a Moment

Micah Meadowcroft, an editor at The American Conservative, has written a helpful article mapping out what classical education is and why the current movement is a “movement” and not just a glimmer of nostalgia among certain conservative pockets of America. While classical education has been sought most among homeschooling families, universities and other organizations are pushing for the approach as well. Meadowcroft writes,

The classical model has become a significant part of home schooling and charter schools, too. Great Hearts Academies, whose blueprint school was established in 1996, has more than 30 campuses throughout Arizona and Texas. Since its founding in 2010, Hillsdale College's charter-school initiative has assisted communities across the country in establishing more than 20 member schools, with dozens more being approved to use its curriculum. And Classical Conversations, a home-schooling tutorial company launched in 1997, says it serves more than 125,000 students.

Meadowcroft goes on to describe what a classical approach to education actually entails and how it differs from today’s bureaucratic, standardized approach. In classical education, students begin by learning the trivium, which is comprised of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, also called the “Arts of the Word.” Beyond the trivium lies the quadrivium, the four mathematics-based “Arts of Number or Quantity” made up of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Mastering the trivium before anything else is intended to lay an essential foundation for lifelong learning and wonder. Only then can the student proceed and be equipped to think and learn.

The Classics Are for Everyone

Beyond the trivium, many classically minded schools are advocating a return to the “classics,” the canon of literature, poetry, and art that has had a hand in shaping Western culture and inspiring millions of men and women to experience inner liberation. However, therein lies much of the critique levelled against classical education. Critics say the classics are exclusive, outdated, and are overly dominated by white men of privilege.

Critics of classical literature and education have a truncated understanding of Western civilization, however, and their complaint is easily answered, as black scholars Angel Adams Parham and Anika Prather point out in their book, The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature. The morality and worldview of the West were shaped in large part by the Bible, a Middle Eastern document compiled over hundreds of years. Athens, the center of ancient philosophy, was a cosmopolitan city that would have seen visitors from all around the world. And St. Augustine, the giant of the Western tradition who wrote The Confessions, hailed from North Africa.

The Western tradition is thus remarkably diverse. In addition, great authors like Shakespeare should be for everyone, and every student can benefit from the wisdom and common human experience such authors framed in their writings. Parham and Prather write,

As students engage with the great thinkers of the past, their minds are exercised and developed beyond the limitations of the vocation. They begin to use logic to think beyond those walls in order to use their skills to serve humanity. No matter what careers students end up pursuing, with enlightened minds their work will be much greater than they could ever imagine.

While historically, only physically free people had the potential to pursue the liberal arts, studying in the classical tradition can lead to a kind of inner freedom that enables people to rise above their poverty or  pursue justice. Ultimately, the liberal arts help students reflect on what is good, beautiful, and true, and that alone is worth the investment.

Let’s keep building classical schools.

Further Reading

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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