The Renaissance of the classical school | James Hankins


Oe have heard a lot in recent months about a staffing crisis in district public schools, teacher burnout, and large numbers of teachers considering leaving the profession as soon as possible. The National Education Association, a union representing nearly 3 million public school teachers, released a document in February with staggering statistics: 90% of members say burnout is a serious problem (67 % say very serious), and more. more than half, regardless of age, say they plan to leave the profession sooner than expected due to the pandemic. Of course, this being the NEA, the document ignored the teachers’ union’s own responsibility for public schools’ costly mistakes in the age of the pandemic. This immediately chained to the usual tone-deaf demands for more taxpayer funding, higher wages, fewer hours, more COVID protections, and more. Other recent reports describe the rapidly accelerating flight of students and teachers from public schools in the district. The cat is finally out of the bag on what is taught in public schools: politicized history, radical gender ideology and everything else racialized and decolonized. Meanwhile, math and reading scores continue their decades-long slide.

If you’re as depressed as I am by the state of K-12 public education in America, one way to cheer yourself up is to take a look at what’s going on in the movement of classical education. Here you will find teachers and parents who love to teach, great enthusiasm for learning among students, and institutions unashamedly dedicated to fostering a love of personal virtue, family, and country. As far as I know, almost every K-12 mainstream school in the country is growing, some rapidly. The rubric “classical,” mind you, can apply to any school following a classical curriculum, whether public charters, private schools, parochial and religious schools, flexible microschools, or home schooling communities. Classical schools of all categories now have long waiting lists, and new ones are created almost every month. If the sound from the district’s public schools is like dirty water lapping around the drain, the sound from the classic schools is like cool springs bubbling up in the mountains. As the early Christian humanists of the Renaissance advocated, advertising fonts! Back to the classics! Back to the roots of civilization!

A few weeks ago, I was in Arizona for the Fourth National Classical Schools Symposium, hosted by the Institute for Classical Education (ICE). The institute, headed by Robert L. Jackson, was established to serve the teachers and principals of the nation’s largest and most successful classical charter school network, Great Hearts Academies. The network has around 40 schools (compared to 33 in 2021), located mainly in Arizona and Texas. Not bad for a company that started twenty years ago in church basements and shopping malls. The institute has gradually broadened its remit and now exists “to promote civic and personal virtue through the strengthening and expansion of classical education” – not only for the Great Hearts but for the classical education movement throughout the country. Its function is to raise the standards of pedagogy and develop a philosophy of education for the movement that stems from an understanding of the inestimable value of Western heritage.

At the symposium, I saw that the process of building alternatives to public schools suffering from awake capture was well underway. We are now far into what might be called the glossy brochure stage of the movement. First come the various associations of classical schools: the Institute of Liberal Catholic Education for the movement’s Roman Catholic schools; the CIRCE Institute, which is not affiliated with any church; and Classical Conversations, which works with Christian homeschoolers. There are new magazines and newspapers: those of ICE Virtue and a scientific journal which has just been launched, Main. The latter is a joint venture between ICE and colleges like Templeton Honors College, Hillsdale College, and the University of Dallas, which offer graduate programs to train classical K-12 teachers. Classical Academic Press has long been the movement’s leading textbook publisher and also offers online courses and teacher training. Lately, it has branched out, through its Scholé groups, to sponsor summer programs and year-round reading groups for home-schooling communities. Some new companies like ESI specialize in recruiting teachers and offering administrative services. Others, like the Paideia Institute and the Institute for Excellence in Writing, offer online programs in subjects such as composition in Latin, Greek, and English for students at home or new schools who may lack expertise in certain subjects. Classical schools and homeschoolers have their own testing service, the Classical Learning Test, to provide an alternative to the increasingly moribund SAT and ACT admissions tests.

As I saw in Phoenix, people in the classical education movement don’t spend much time lamenting the state of schools controlled by progressive teachers’ unions. Too depressing. They find joy in the rediscovery and revitalization of the great educational traditions of the past, in the possibility of teaching moral and intellectual virtues, eloquence, love of country, traditional arts and sciences. Classical educators know they are participating in a revolution, in shameless acts of civilizational renewal, and they clearly experience the euphoria of all those who enlist in successful movements. There’s a certain childlike attitude to a toy store, a sense of wonder that centuries-old learning techniques that have been discarded are lying around, ready to be picked up and reused. Memorizing poetry, what a great idea! Logic and rhetoric? You mean there are ways to teach people how to think clearly, how to speak persuasively? Costs!

This year’s ICE symposium, held at the Phoenix Convention Center, was the largest ever. It brought together around 500 teachers (with more than 100 more online) as well as guest speakers and other supporters of the movement. This year’s theme was “For the Love of Poetry,” and the focus was on how best to integrate literature and the arts into mainstream schools. There were lectures and workshops on painting, drawing, sculpture, music and theater, as well as teaching fiction and poetry. The focus was on encouraging students to produce their own art and music, their own theatrical productions, and their own stories and poetry in traditional meters. In the halls of the convention center, teachers had set up display boards to show off the best work of the students, and groups of student musicians were on hand to perform. Students learn classical drawing techniques and play classical music, and the level of achievement in many cases is remarkably high.

To my ears, the most beautiful refrain came from the hymns to beauty heard everywhere among the symposiasts: the need to perceive it, to seek it as a condition of good art and a happy life. It was almost as if the 20th century flight from beauty and the culture of transgression in art had never happened.

The first keynote of the symposium set the tone. Frederick Turner, the eminent neo-formalist poet and an authority on the science of aesthetics, presented evidence from physics, neuroscience and anthropology that beauty, far from being “culturally constructed” or a fiction of bourgeois culture or a sublimation of sexual desire, was rooted in the structure of nature itself, the evolution of the human body and the cultural evolution of all human societies. The human person has a “neural lyre”, a “spiritual sense of gravity”, which is attuned and oriented to the actual structures of beauty that underlie the creative processes in nature. Nature has a “feedback loop” that gives us pleasure when we perceive beauty. We may perceive beauty naturally, but through culture – through the classic artistic genres created by our civilization – these perceptions are amplified and deepened and directed towards personal and social goods. Without teachers to impart the arts of civilization, human life becomes profoundly disoriented and we lose our sensitivity to the finer and more valuable pleasures.

Thanks to the classical education movement, some children, at least, will not have to live their lives without perceiving the beauty of the sonnets of Shakespeare, Michelangelo Pietaor Handel Messiah. It’s a shame that so many people, trapped in politicized schools, will have to endure a diminished humanity. But the door to the classical school is open.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

first things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to donate.

Click here to subscribe to first things.


Comments are closed.