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Why A Classical Education Is Almost Impossible Today

iPad on books, why classical school isn't possible

The burgeoning classical school movement is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most classical schools and academies were founded within the last 20 years or so. But classical schools don’t sell themselves as a novelty; quite the opposite.

Just take a glance at the website for the Association of Christian Classical Schools, which boasts more than 300 member schools. In all caps, it proclaims: “RECOVERING EDUCATION.” Promotional materials for classical schools are replete with the language of “revival,” “restoration,” and “recovery” of an “old way” of educating.

The ACCS website even has a timeline graphic that depicts the history of education in three eras: Everything before 1900 is labeled “classical education,” wedged in the middle is progressive education from about 1900 until the 1980s, and then “school regained.”

The elevator pitch for classical schools usually goes something like this: Modern public schools have become a hotbed for cultural Marxism and are indoctrinating students in leftist ideology. Meanwhile, schools reach for every technological fix and educational fad, to no avail, as U.S. students’ scores in reading and mathematics continue to lag behind those of other developed countries. But it wasn’t always this way.

Reshaping American Education

Beginning in the early 20th century, progressive educational theorists such as John Dewey reshaped American education as a means for social progress and political reform, turning students into cogs in a collectivist machine and robbing them of the wealth of the Western cultural tradition. Classical schools turn back the clock on the progressive degradation of education by returning to the ideals, methods, and curricula of an era that “abolished slavery, challenged tyranny,” and “built a new form of government.” It truly warms the cockles of the conservative heart to pull at nostalgic strings of apple pie and American exceptionalism.

Dewey and progressive education may be every bit the bogeyman they are made out to be, but the story many classical schools tell is a gross oversimplification. Schools before the turn of the last century were anything but a monolith operating on a singular model.

On the European continent, school reform had been a matter of perennial interest. In Germany, for example, school reformers in Halle in the 1700s developed schools that replaced instruction in Latin with more practical subjects such as mechanics. There was, indeed, an ideal of classical education in the 1800s, but that had little to do with what was taught in most Midwestern one-room schoolhouses.

The term “classical education” referred more specifically to the sort of education one could receive at a German gymnasium, a French lycée, or a posh British public school such as Eton or Rugby. In the 19th century, only a tiny proportion of the American population had ever been “classically educated.”

Very Modern Muses for Most Classical Educators

The claims of the classical school movement to restore a genuinely classical education would hold water if they were modeling themselves on German gymnasia and British public schools circa 1900, but they’re not. In fact, most influences on the classical school movement date from the same time as the advent of progressive education or afterward.

Most books on classical education cite the influence of Charlotte Mason, Dorothy Sayers, Mortimer Adler, or John Milton Gregory. Of these pedagogical theorists, only Gregory’s work significantly predates the work of Dewey, and Gregory’s “The Seven Laws of Teaching,” as useful as they may be, were developed for teaching Sunday school and have little to tell us about classical pedagogy as it was practiced before the turn of the last century.

Of the major influences on the classical school movement, Adler’s work bears the most resemblance to older models, but mainly by providing a list of books that includes the classics of Greek and Roman civilization. Alder’s proposed reforms were a direct jab at progressive education, but they weren’t exactly a return to the past, at least not in terms of instructional method.

The thinker with perhaps the most influence on the classical school movement, Dorothy Sayers, did explicitly advance a return to an older “educational theory.” The educational theory Sayers advanced was supposedly the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric). Sayers was not so much reacting against Dewey’s theories as she was against the increasing specialization of curriculum, a trend that predates Dewey.

At first glance, it seems Sayers wants to turn back the clock even further than the 1800s, but closer inspection reveals that what Sayers is suggesting is no restoration of older methods or theories at all. Her entire program is based on turning the trivium into a framework for child development. What Sayers proposes, with the exception of learning Latin, has very little to do with education as it actually existed during the Middle Ages and more to do with her own rather unprofessional musings on child psychology.

Profile of a Classical School

What, then, did schools that were “classical” look like more than 100 years ago? A number of schools in the 19th century published their instructional plans. A friend of mine, Ian Mosley, instructor of Latin at the School of the Ozarks, provides a glimpse into one such school.

Compared with any number of published instructional plans from German gymnasia from the same time period, one curricular distinctive stands out: The overwhelming majority of instruction was in languages, especially Latin and Greek, both through explicit grammar instruction and reading in primary sources. These primary sources, the works of Cicero, Xenophon, Herodotus, etc., were the classics, hence “classical” education, and the objects of study, not Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis.

All other subjects of instruction, including the study of history and literature in the vernacular, were accorded substantially less time. Most modern classical schools include instruction in Latin, sometimes as much as five hours a week. Occasionally, a classical school will offer Greek or a modern language. But compared with students at a 19th century gymnasium, students at classical schools today are mere dabblers.

High school-aged students at a German gymnasium in the 19th century would have spent 10 hours a week or more in Latin instruction, five hours or more in Greek, and additional hours of instruction in Hebrew and modern languages. The result was students, at least those at the top of the academic heap, who could read and even compose in the classical languages with relative fluency. Just imagine: Most doctrinal dissertations written in Germany well into the middle of the 19th century were composed in Latin.

Thoughts from an Educator

Full disclosure: I teach at a “classical” school. The purpose of my criticism is not to level friendly fire and shoot myself in the foot. I also attended a public school K-12 where I have no recollection of learning history until high school and spent two years learning French to say little more than “Comment ça va?”

That same public high school, in rural Missouri of all places, became a battleground for the transgender agenda, resulting in the exodus of the few sane individuals from the school board. Traditional public schools have by and large abandoned the Western heritage and are nurseries for demagogy.

Students at modern “classical” schools, on the other hand, gain mastery of English grammar and are immersed in great writing from the best English children’s literature, such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Wind in the Willows,” to staples of the Western canon, such as Homer’s “Odyssey” (in English translation, of course).

Choose between sending my son to school where he will learn to write beautifully in cursive, receive a content-rich instruction in history and science, and read “Treasure Island” versus a school where he’d be given an iPad, sat in “pod” with other students pooling their ignorance, and read sections of “I Am Malala”? That’s a no-brainer. But I’m also under no illusion that my son would be receiving a classical education in the historical sense of the word.

Missing the Point of a Classical Education

Although it is a little disingenuous, I don’t suspect that administrators giving tours to prospective students are going to cut the whole bit about this being a “revival” out of their pitch, nor do I anticipate that the ACCS will revise its timeline graphic anytime soon. Perhaps, however, school board members, teachers, and parents will begin to take more of an interest in exactly what sort of models they do want to recover and what the curricular priorities of a truly classical school ought to be.

Take Latin, for example: Most modern “classical” schools have an awkward relationship with Latin. It’s a staple, part of the litmus test for a “classical” school. But it is treated as one subject among many and might enjoy the good fortune of being required five hours per week. Classical schools tout the benefits of Latin to improve SAT scores, provide a basis for learning other Romance languages, and teach logical problem-solving skills.

They offer these benefits with a tinge of guilt, however. Classical educators aren’t supposed to view the benefits of a classical education as merely functional means to college admittance; that’s what progressive education is about. Inevitably, they have to present these benefits as merely ancillary to the true benefit of learning Latin: enjoying and entering into conversation with the foundational works of Western literature in their own idiom.

Any honest Latin teacher, though, finds a lump in his throat just as he begins to wax eloquent on the internal goods of Latin. He knows almost none of his students will achieve fluency. How could they with, at most, five hours of instruction per week?

Prudence teaches the Latin teacher at a “classical” school that one or another of his students might minor in classics at university. Perhaps someday in his graying years, he’ll even get an email from an excited former student about some translation project. Perhaps he’ll even indulge in reverie and imagine a school where students spend hours poring over texts, and the graduates sight-read Livy for leisure and compose student songs in Latin.

Could such a school ever exist? They did. You could call them “classical schools.”