Classical education isn’t just a lifeboat
Barton J. Gingerich | A closer look at one of the most promising developments of our times
If recent trends continue, more and more parents will decide to pull their kids out of public schools. Onerous pandemic protocols combined with heavy-handed ideology have already driven many families out of school systems across the country. At the same time, teachers find themselves looking for new jobs, discouraged by disrespectful students, disengaged parents, and meddling administrators. American public education is a sinking ship, and folks are hitting the lifeboats. Christian schools, homeschooling, co-ops, hybrid models, parish academies, and classical schools will likely enjoy a swell of new students and teachers. Many of these newcomers may have previously looked askance at those who opted out of public schooling because of Christian conservative convictions. But they aren’t anymore—they are now playing catch-up.
These newcomers are most welcome to come aboard, but they must realize that rewinding the clock a decade or two won’t address the root problems that gave way to radical sexual ideologies being peddled to kindergartners. The errors go fairly deep and have been long-standing. Alternative schooling models challenge common public school values of generational segregation, (merely) quantitative testing, discrete subjects, ever-changing fads in educational “technique,” the relegation of “religion” as mere subject matter (which is a form of secularization), and demanding teacher certification. Many of these aspects derive from the Prussian model of education, which was zealously adopted and enacted by American educational reformers. The goal was to make “competent factory workers, but not free thinkers or innovators.” Of course, “free thought” today includes traditional Christian doctrine and morals. In the case of the classical liberal arts, many American parents assume a good education relies upon standardized testing and pursuing high scores, all to gain a certificate that indicates to employers that a young person is employable and merits a stable job. This, of course, isn’t education. It’s often mere hoop-jumping.
The main goal of education shouldn’t be moneymaking. It shouldn’t be self-actualization or gentlemanliness. It shouldn’t be good citizenship, however defined. It should be wisdom and virtue. Those two universal goods justify the sacrifices of time, effort, and funds, for they are universal and good in and of themselves. Kingdoms rise and fall, constitutions change, economies boom and bust. In all those times, in all those seasons, a person needs wisdom and virtue for himself and others, and he is richly blessed by the wisdom and virtue of his fellows. The kind of person he is—his substance—matters most. The prosperous and civilized can be nice to have around, but they aren’t as needful or eternally significant as the saint. Classical educators see it as their duty to lead a student out of darkness into light—into the enlightenment of wisdom and virtue. Those same teachers realize that, sometimes, the horse won’t drink when led to water, but at least his parents and teachers loved him enough to make the effort.
Other goods like patriotism, industriousness, and chivalry also spring from this fount. But virtue and wisdom are paramount, and they cannot be severed from questions of God, objective reality, or the long conversation of human civilization. Indeed, students of the liberal arts soon find themselves plunged into a millennia-long tradition, reading Livy in the original Latin or meditating on loyalty with Beowulf. Leisure isn’t for passive entertainment—it is for pursuing human excellence and worthwhile avocations, the stuff of humanity and civilization. Likewise, virtue isn’t a matter of vague “character counts” clichés—it is about piety, courage, faith, and charity that springs from our eternal Creator and Redeemer.
Why does this matter? Because, right now, many parents are urgently seeking alternatives. They may land on a classical Christian school as their lifeboat of choice. But it isn’t a lifeboat. Classical education is better seen as an ark.
Classical schools across this country are now the stewards, guardians, and champions of the Great Tradition. American public education has exiled its own heritage via the “canon wars,” Mammon-obsessed pragmatism, irreligious secularism, hyperspecialization, and haughty progressivism that mocks permanent truth and the sort of life such truth demands. In severing itself from such a foundation, the house of public education finds itself in shifting sand. It will not endure a deluge—perhaps the very social upsets we are currently undergoing as a nation. Such schools have tossed out God, the way of life He provided, and the knowledge He has provided over the millennia of wise human voices.
But those voices will remain. A growing archipelago of academies, homeschool groups, church schools, and colleges are rising up to carry the torch. There will be growing pains as parents, administrators, teachers, and pupils shed the deadly errors that have rooted themselves in our minds and our society. Yet classical schooling is seaworthy, and its revival is one of the most promising developments of our times.
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