As students return to school this fall, classical education is experiencing an historic boom. The classical-education model has a tradition — steeped in the great books, the liberal arts, and the natural sciences — that extends back millennia. The appeal is obvious, even if it had, until recently, lain somewhat dormant. So why the sudden resurgence? Simple: It is an unexpected outcome of COVID-19’s disruption of the American education system.
When COVID hit, many schools and teachers pivoted quickly to remote learning and worked to move their curricula online. While students and teachers may have been focused on frustrating technology and scheduling, many parents were getting an insider’s look at their children’s classroom experience. And, too often, they didn’t like what they saw: declining standards and hollowed-out curricula, devoid of meaningful content.
Remote learning exposed the reality of American education: that too many students are being left uneducated and unprepared for college or the workplace. Many parents knew that problems with education existed before the pandemic. But the time spent at home revealed the gravity of the situation. Moreover, in 2021, some school districts began eliminating graduation requirements altogether. Oregon governor Kate Brown signed legislation in July suspending math and reading requirements. The governor’s office did not mince words on the rationale, explaining that suspending these standards would aid “Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”
But mathematics, reading, and writing are human skills that anyone who is well-taught can learn. Lowering the bar — or simply removing the bar altogether — does a disservice to students and their communities. Unfortunate developments such as this make it clear why parents have become desperate for alternatives. Many have found one in classical education, which has always sought to cultivate wisdom, virtue, and eloquence.
Supply is growing — but, in many cases, demand is outstripping it. At the 30 Great Hearts Academies — the largest public provider of K–12 classical education — there were over 13,000 students on the wait list in 2020. That means every single Great Hearts Academy had to turn away an average of more than 430 students. Other institutions are stepping up as well. Hillsdale College, a classical liberal-arts college, promotes the founding of classical charter schools around the nation. This year, the K–12 Education Office welcomed three more classical schools in Wisconsin, Florida, and Georgia, to its existing 20.
Similarly, Classical Academic Press, which provides classical-education curricula, has experienced an 82 percent increase in requests for its materials since 2019. Our own online school, Scholè Academy, has experienced a 155 percent growth in enrollments since the 2019–20 school year. Both are strong indicators that families are turning to classical learning for at least part of their students’ education.
Demand for classical education is particularly notable among African Americans. In August, a study by the RAND Corporation found that 18 percent of African-American families were uncertain about sending their children back to public schools this fall — compared with just 6 percent of white families. This hesitancy stems in part from pre-pandemic concerns about safety, transportation, and lack of learning. But the pandemic put those problems into sharp relief. And the number of African Americans choosing to homeschool grew from 3 percent to 16 percent. Many of them are choosing classical learning.
Urban classical schools (such as Hope Academy in Minneapolis and The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis) that enroll higher numbers of African Americans and students of color are on the rise. And African-American educators are sharpening their knowledge in this area. ClassicalU’s course “The Black Intellectual Tradition and the Great Conversation,” which one of us, Anika Prather, is co-teaching with Angel Parham of the University of Virginia, has seen rapid enrollment.
We shouldn’t find this surprising. Black history is intertwined with the classics. It is impossible to understand great champions of human dignity and freedom such as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. without reading Exodus, Aristotle, Luther, and Shakespeare. African Americans are not isolated. Their experience is part of a broader conversation that spans millennia — an expansive history of adversity and triumph, trial and redemption. It’s only when the black experience is viewed as part of the “great conversation” that we can see subjugation as a dark episode to address, but far from the definition of black existence.
Unlike so much contemporary politicized teaching, classical education studies the great human ideas and texts as a source of common ground across cultures. Important issues such as race and identity become simultaneously illuminated and contextualized in the face of fundamental questions about the broader human experience: What are freedom and liberty? What is justice? What is a good society? What are right and wrong?
No person — black, white, brown, or otherwise — can live a flourishing life without confronting these human questions. This is why many parents and students of all races are turning to classical academies. For the first time, many parents have found schools that help each student learn what it means to be human and to embrace the great adventure of a full and good life.
The pandemic has left tremendous damage in its wake. But it is also leading to a transformation in education that will ultimately benefit many more children with a vibrant, bright future.
Christopher Perrin is co-founder and CEO at Classical Academic Press, a classical-education curriculum, media, and consulting company. Anika Prather is a lecturer in the English department at Howard University, an adjunct at Messiah University, and the founder of Living Water School.