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The Debates Over—and Within—‘Classical Education’

As the educational movement is embraced by the religious right and seen by others as a Trojan horse for Christian nationalism, its leaders seek to transcend political associations

by
Maggie Phillips
January 25, 2024
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Classical education has been growing in popularity since the 1980s, and more recently, has become something of a buzzword in school choice circles: Home-school curricula and private schools calling themselves “classical” have been cropping up all over the country, often among religious conservatives. Despite its popularity, there is no uniformly accepted definition of “classical,” although curricula using the moniker are typically characterized by courses in ancient languages like Greek and Latin, European and Near Eastern history, and the classic Western literary canon of books.

The question of what precisely classical education is forms the basis of a debate within the American post-COVID discourse surrounding education. Is it simply an exercise in virtue signaling for the religious right—a retreat from the perceived threats posed by critical race theory and gender ideology in schools? Is its Western orientation a chauvinistic dog whistle? Or is there something deeper going on? Christians within the classical education world contend that there is, and that their movement—some call it a “renewal”—is for everyone.

The field of classics itself came under the microscope as part of the national reckoning over race that took place after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. As the study of dead white men, and historically, the method of instruction of (now) dead white men, the study of Greek, Latin, and the accompanying history and culture seemed to leave little room for inclusion of people of color and other world cultures. Enthusiastic adoption of classical education among parts of the Christian right in particular has cultivated suspicion on the left, as some Republican state governments back publicly funded classical learning initiatives, and self-described Christian nationalists align themselves with the growing movement. As classical education initiatives proliferate around the nation (and controversy manifests around them), leaders within the Christian classical education world are thinking deeply about the aims and goals of their project.

Florida is illustrative of the contours of the classical learning policy discourse. Last year, a principal resigned in the wake of a parental outcry when sixth graders at a classical charter school were shown a picture of a nude statue: Michelangelo’s David. A few months later, in May 2023, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring state schools to accept the Classical Learning Test (CLT), an alternative college entrance exam. Recipients of the state’s Bright Futures Scholarship, a state lottery-funded form of post-secondary education financial aid for Florida residents who attend in-state colleges or universities, can now qualify by meeting the minimum score requirements for the CLT, instead of the SAT or ACT. Inside Higher Ed described the move as “controversial,” and The Washington Post cast doubt on the test’s ability to adequately inform admissions decisions.

“Many critics of CLT,” Inside Higher Ed reported, “argue it places too heavy an emphasis on biblical passages and traditional Western thought, and that the authors represented are largely white men with questionable positions on race, LGBTQ+ rights, and multiculturalism.”

Jeremy Tate is the founder of the CLT. A glancing familiarity with his X (formerly Twitter) account reveals an unapologetically conservative flavor of both Catholicism and politics. But Tate makes a distinction between political conservatives and what he calls “educational conservatives.”

A former public school teacher and school guidance counselor, Tate began working at a Catholic school in Maryland in 2015. Although he was in the process of launching his own SAT/ACT prep company at the time, he recalls being “shocked” at the influence of the College Board there, where “everything we did as a school for marketing, competing with other Catholic schools in the archdiocese,” he said, was influenced by the College Board. He calls the College Board “aggressively secular,” and the ACT and SAT tests “increasingly Common Core-aligned achievement tests,” rather than the aptitude assessments that they were originally developed as.

A sort of “nudging” hypothesis underpinned the CLT’s development: If there were tests that encouraged kids to take the classes that asked the big questions, instead of the ones that solely prepared them for worldly success, would they do it? When few students at the school enrolled in two new intro courses on philosophy and Christian apologetics, Tate said he had an epiphany about the nature of testing: “You just change the test, you could change everything, and there’d be all these downstream impacts.

Tate looked at the schools that exemplified the kind of learning he wanted to proliferate (he frequently mentions St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, a school based on a liberal arts “great books” curriculum), and asked some colleges if they would adjust their admissions standards to accept something like what would become the CLT. He submitted a beta version to a few colleges, and in 2016, the first of what is now over 200 partner universities and colleges adopted the CLT.

This was the test that Florida would adopt for its Bright Futures-eligible higher ed institutions in 2023. “This is all very new, classical aligning on a political spectrum,” Tate said. Historically, he said, it was often the political left that went to bat for the so-called “useless arts” that the classical tradition purports to preserve: theater, poetry, even classical literature. And just two presidential election cycles ago, another Republican Florida politician and presidential hopeful, Marco Rubio, made fun of the discipline of philosophy in a primary debate, saying that “we need more welders than philosophers.”

“Look, we love that Ron DeSantis likes classical [education],” said Tate. “We know that him and his wife, Casey, send their kids to classical school. That’s fantastic. That’s great. We also want to be really clear that it’s not just for, you know, conservatives.”

Tate estimates about one-third of CLT’s full-time team are politically aligned with the left. And CLT’s president, Angel Adams Parham, is an associate sociology professor at the University of Virginia who, as a Black woman herself, publicly resists the stereotype of classical education as a bastion of white supremacy. She is the co-founder and executive director of Nyansa Classical Community, a classical Christian curriculum developer, which began in 2015 as an after-school program in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, where the population is majority Black and around one-third of residents live below the poverty level.

“As African American educators, we recognize the vapidity of this debate, which recalls the sometime description of Black people who are Christians as dupes of the ‘White man’s religion,’” Adams Parham wrote in a 2023 Washington Post op-ed, together with Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy Director Anika Prather, her co-author on The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature. “Has Christianity been identified with Western European colonizers generally described as ‘White’? Absolutely. Is Christianity itself an inherently White European religion? Not unless the Middle East and northern and eastern Africa—seedbeds of the faith—have suddenly been re-categorized as part of Europe without our notice.”

In the piece, Prather and Adams Parham are at pains to illustrate the cosmopolitan nature of both early Christianity and the Classical tradition, both of which were made possible by the cultural cross-pollination of the various Mediterranean religions, peoples, and cultures during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, from Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. The American Black intellectual tradition, they write, has been an important custodian of the classical tradition in the U.S., including Frederick Douglass, who memorized Cicero’s speeches as part of his work to sway policymakers in favor of abolition, as well as the enslaved Revolutionary War poet Phillis Wheatley, who was “nourished on the classics,” and Black Panthers founder Huey Newton, on whom Plato’s Republic was an important influence.

The cynical take on classical education is that it’s a marketing ploy to attract parents who have grown disgruntled with American public education. Tate contends that there is some truth to this. As the classical “brand” gains nationwide recognition, he said, “a lot of schools are leaning into it that have never leaned into it before, even if they’re not even that classical.”

So, what is meant by “classical education” exactly? And why has the movement become so closely aligned with the Christian right?

The CiRCE Institute, a prominent classical learning textbook company, has its own definition to “live and die by,” according to President and CEO Andrew Kern: Classical education, according to the company’s website, is “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences.” (They define seven liberal arts as rhetoric, grammar, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, and the four sciences as the natural, philosophical, theological, and human.)

People know there’s something deeply wrong in what’s happening in our public schools and they haven’t seen a positive solution or an alternative.

Kern believes the distinction between an authentically classical school and a branding exercise is simple. The underlying assumptions of a classical school or curriculum are that the world is intelligible, a cohesive whole to which the various integrated academic disciplines attest, and that within this system, human beings are unique. The accompanying characteristics of these assumptions in a classical school will be a reverent appreciation for existence itself: those who came before, those who will come after, one’s community, and the entire surrounding world.

“They’re talking about the telos,” Tate said of not only Christian but other faith-based classical schools (there are American Jewish and Muslim schools in the classical tradition, as well). “They’re talking about the goal and the point, and they’re talking about the process of education as the cultivation of virtue.” This approach is different from a “great books” curriculum (also a buzzword in more right-leaning educational circles), with which Tate sees a lot of overlap, but which he contends is focused more on purveying content than moral formation.

While the inherently conservative appeal of an education that draws on centuries of tradition may be intuitive, Tate believes that a modern interest in the classics represents something of a historical through line for Christianity. A Catholic convert, he said it was the Catholic Church that preserved much of the classical tradition in the Middle Ages, and which established the university tradition in Europe, “passing down not only the early church Fathers,” but “those who had come before them as well,” thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, the latter of whose works, Adams Parham and Prather note in their op-ed, were actually translated in medieval Baghdad and would go on to “reinvigorate Western learning” as Christian and Jewish scholars exported this learning.

At many classical schools and curricula, their pedagogical approach includes something called the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) or the quadrivium (astronomy, music, arithmetic, and geometry). But these concepts are not universally accepted across the classical education world.

“Traditionally,” popular classical home-schooling company Classical Conversations explains in its explanation of the trivium, “the classical model consists of two modes of study—the Trivium and the Quadrivium.”

Not so, says Jonathan Roberts, president and co-founder of the classical learning company The Ancient Languages Institute. In an essay called “Classical Education Is Not Really Classical,” he writes: “While claiming to represent a return to true classical schooling, these institutions rely on ahistorical and confused notions of the Medieval liberal arts.” In his essay, Roberts commends classical schools for preserving the West’s cultural and linguistic heritage. He does not, however, buy that they represent an authentic continuation of the way people were educated in the past.

For one thing, he points out, the trivium as a teaching model is a concept developed in a speech by the murder-mystery writer Dorothy Sayers in the 1930s. The other, he said, is that some classical education advocates encourage instruction in Latin simply as a means to other ends, such as increasing students’ facility with their own and other languages, or improved mental acuity (a tough case to make, in the opinion of Roberts, who quotes former Vatican Latinist Reginald Foster: “Every bum and prostitute in ancient Rome spoke Latin, and they didn’t learn it by memorization.”) This was not how Latin was taught in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where “mastery of Latin and Greek [were] the centerpiece of a good education,” and “deep familiarity with the works of Virgil, Aristotle, Ovid, Cicero, Catullus, Livy, Julius Caesar, Augustine, Seneca, Tertullian, and other great classical authors was considered a prime goal of classical schooling.”

Andrew Kern at CiRCE comes under fire from Roberts as well, both for admitting to having only a smattering of Latin himself, and for upholding learning Latin more as an ideal than something worthwhile for the sake of deeply reading classical authors in their original languages.

“The term ‘classical’ is a Renaissance term,” Kern told me. “And it was referring precisely to Greek and Latin culture and immersion—well, you know, the whole childhood immersed in Greek and Latin culture. And that’s certainly not what people are trying to do today.”

For Tate, the modifier “classical” primarily signifies the difference between what education has become in the modern context, and an effort to revive a disappearing intellectual tradition. Ideally, he said, the modifier will no longer be necessary when “this is just what we call education again.”

In the 20th century, he said, although cultural Christianity prevailed even in public school, the religious schools largely abandoned the grand project of teleologically oriented education. Protestant private schools began to crop up that simply put “a Jesus stamp on the public school model,” he said. (He noted that many of these schools developed as a reaction against desegregation.) Meanwhile, private Catholic schools lost much of their distinctively Catholic identity as more lay staff had to be hired when clergy and members of religious orders left their communities after Vatican II, and tuition became more costly.

Tate has also said on X that classical education appeals to today’s political conservatives since, as an alternative to traditional public school, it aligns nicely with the school choice movement, traditionally an area of focus for conservatives. People know there’s something deeply wrong in what’s happening in our public schools and they haven’t seen a positive solution or an alternative,” he said, “And I think it allows them to say, here’s one that we can kind of embrace and kind of call our own.”

Roberts is not averse to the aims of most classical schools, but he objects to the terminology. “Classical education is wonderful and enriching,” he writes, “but let us reserve the label for institutions that are serious about the tongues of antiquity.”

We’re doing this imperfectly. There should be a lot of humility.

Tate is aware of such criticism. Speaking of the CLT he said, “Some of our good friends in the classical world will say we’re ‘classical lite’ a little bit. There’s no Latin.” But this was a practical choice for the CLT. “In order for the scores to mean anything at all to colleges,” he said, “we had to be able to develop a concordance chart that would make a CLT translatable to an SAT or ACT score. And if you’re measuring something entirely different, you can’t have a concordance.”

While classical education consortiums and accrediting organizations exist (the CLT has board members from several that appear to be faith-based), there is no single recognized standardizing or certifying body. To some extent, Tate said, the CLT is standardizing classical education by default, through impacting the culture and pedagogy of the schools that encourage and accept the CLT. “We want to reward a fluency, a comfort with the great tradition, the great books,” he said, “while at the same time not being as classical I think as some folks within the movement would like perhaps.”

Critiques like Roberts’ indicate why painting classical education with a broad brush is problematic. It is a movement in dialogue with itself. Indeed, some of the people aligning themselves with classical education who are not familiar with it themselves, like the classical charter school parents in Florida, may ultimately find themselves surprised.

As a nation wrings its hands about Christian nationalism and whether or not classical education constitutes an incubator for it, the antidote to their fear may be more, not less, classical education. In a Mere Orthodoxy article titled “The Christian Nationalists (Still) Can’t Read and Why That Matters,” Editor-in-Chief Jake Meador writes: “The track record these men have with their handling of historic texts is clear: They’re bad at it.” From misidentifying (and therefore misunderstanding) Cicero, to quoting Augustine out of context, the very people who are most chauvinistic about the Western tradition sometimes understand it least.

“There isn’t an inherent politics in the classical world,” prominent classicist Mary Beard said in a 2021 episode of the popular history podcast, The Rest Is History: “The classics has got a pretty kind of poor record when it comes to underpinning European dictatorship.” On the other hand, she said, classics have “got a pretty fine record in asking people to critique imperial power, critique corruption.” She cites the historian Tacitus’ famous description of the Roman Empire: “Where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

Terrence Sweeney, a humanities professor at Villanova University with a background in Latin and ancient philosophy, said: “The intellectual pursuit is always a risky one. I hope these [classical] schools will really kind of embrace that, yeah, we can hold deep convictions and yet allow questions to arise that will call our convictions into question, which is one of the best ways of deepening your convictions actually, because then you have to think about them.”

Sweeney said his wife once taught at a school in the Trinity network of classical Christian schools, and he related an observation she once made to him: “There was sometimes a disjunction between the parents who thought that, like, if I send my kids here, they’ll be kind of safe from bad ideology—and then the teachers and the texts.” Parents seeking a sanctuary from Marxist thought, in the form of CRT and gender ideology in public schools, will find their sons and daughters reading Karl Marx himself at Trinity classical schools.

“The classical tradition has always been self-critical,” said Christopher Perrin, CEO of Classical Academic Press, whom Tate describes as “the senior statesman” of classical education. “That’s how it moved, it’s really progressed, is an ongoing series of arguments and discussions and conversations.” When we spoke, Perrin was less interested in highlighting historical continuities through the centuries—he rejects the “stuffy and calcified” 19th-century mode of school instruction, which beloved Christian conservative icon and classicist C.S. Lewis bitterly recalls in his memoirs—than in recognizing that the classical tradition has had peaks and valleys over the centuries. Famed English diarist Samuel Pepys, for example, was educated at St. Paul’s School in London, which was founded in the 16th century with the express intention of teaching students “both Laten and Greke,” but was 29 years old when he recorded in his diary his “first attempt” at learning multiplication.

“It’s not a simple black-and-white story,” Perrin said, “but the essential ideas of a liberal education—studying the liberal arts and the great books, learning language, learning mathematics, having some piety for those who have gone before—these ideas stay with us and they can be reincarnated in new ways in the 21st century. Classical education is a set of ideas and pedagogies that can shape-shift in new cultures, new languages, new centuries.”

At this point, classical education couldn’t remake the country in Christianity’s image even if it wanted to, Perrin believes. “The [classical education] renewal is still young,” he said. “We’re doing this imperfectly. There should be a lot of humility. That’s one of the problems I have with the Christian nationalist expression is that it’s kind of cocky—cocky and overly confident. And I don’t think we’ve earned the right yet to even be confident, let alone cocky. We have to serve. We still have a lot to learn and we’re not doing this really well. You compare to what has happened in previous centuries. What was lost in, say, three generations? [It will] take at least three generations to recover.”

“A good faith Christian attempt to be classical,” said Kern, “begins with the premise that, as Christianity teachers, we’re all tainted by evil.” Accordingly, in the diverse classical education ecosystem, he is content to let the good grow up with the bad, acknowledging that “mixed motives” exist as people get involved in the classical education movement out of fear, or for personal gain. It is simply human nature in a fallen world, in Kern’s view: “You don’t say, oh, unless you are a perfect Christian classical educator, I won’t let you come to my party.”

For his part, Perrin, although he has attended, and his company sponsors, conferences for the Association of Classical Christian Schools, founded by Christian nationalist Douglas Wilson, he disagrees with the prominent Christian nationalists arguing for the “recovery of a Christian nation.” Some leaders in the classical Christian world, he said, are “moving kind of to the right in the cultural wars,” and perceiving a need for engagement with them.

An Orthodox Christian himself, he admits he would “love for our nation to be a Christian nation, but the way that happens is by lots of people coming to the faith.” Such a dramatic shift would be the organic result of “a lot of changed lives,” he said, “not by political fiat.”

Indeed, Perrin is willing to expand the aperture of viewpoint diversity within the American classical education movement beyond Christianity. “Back in the 1200s and 1100s,” he said, “there was a time when Muslims, Jews, and Christians were working together. So there’s some who think if we do that again, can we see another kind of 12th-century renaissance where, despite whatever differences that do exist, we can agree on something really common, and that is a classical humanistic education?”

The existence of the Islamic Oakwood Classical School in California, and the Tikvah Fund’s recent announcement that it is establishing a Jewish classical school—the Emet Classical Academy (Emet is Hebrew for “truth”)—may be reason for hope in such a renaissance.

Sweeney sees value in a classical education movement that maintains and preserves traditions. He acknowledges it can take some work to get his students, college freshmen and sophomores between the ages of 18 and 21, to see the value in older texts, as the reading in many public schools, he said, is of fairly recent vintage (a study of assigned reading in New Hampshire high school English classes found the average age of the texts assigned to be around 90 years old). “They’re surprised,” he said, “that something from 2,000 years ago still speaks to them.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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