Magazine October 19, 2015, Issue

Back to Basics

The resurgence of classical education

Dan Scoggin once thought that he would spend his career teaching college students about Victorian novels. This was back when he was pursuing his Ph.D. in English literature. After taking a job at Tempe Prep in Arizona in 1998, however, he realized that higher learning can occur at lower levels. “Students who are just 13 or 14 years old are deeply philosophical, searching for meaning in their lives,” he says. “It occurred to me that they could benefit from the kind of classical education I received in graduate school. They’re not too young for it — they’re in fact just the right age.”

Today, Scoggin stands at the vanguard of a small revolution in K–12 education: the rise of modern classical academies. These schools and their leaders reject much of what has passed for education over the last century and seek to restore traditional approaches that focus on the Great Books and the liberal arts. “We want to create renaissance men and women who have noble characters and a sense of purpose that’s larger than themselves,” says Scoggin.

About a dozen years ago, Scoggin co-founded Great Hearts Academies, which opened its first school in a leased church. Now it operates 25 public charter schools in Arizona and Texas. Five of them are brand-new this fall. Altogether, they enroll 13,000 students. Another 13,000 are on waiting lists to get in. “We’re ready to go on growing,” says Jay Heiler, the chairman of Great Hearts. “We see ample green fields in front of us.”

No other set of schools provides a classical education to more students than Great Hearts, but its network is just one piece of a diverse and disorganized movement that keeps getting bigger. Some, like Great Hearts, are public charter schools and therefore secular. Others are private and Christian. Christopher Perrin, of Classical Academic Press, a Pennsylvania publishing house, estimates that classical academies in the United States may total as many as 500. Home-schooled children who receive a classical education may outnumber their conventional peers by a factor of ten. “Almost none of this existed a generation ago,” he says. Their success is an expression of deep dissatisfaction with the progressive methods and goals that have dominated American schools for a century — and, for conservatives, one of the most heartening developments in the field of education.

Every movement needs its creation story, and the new wave of classical schools is commonly said to have started in Moscow, Idaho, at the Logos School, founded by Douglas Wilson. The kernel of the idea for it came to him from reading, of all things, National Review. “In the early 1970s, I was in the Navy,” he says. “I was also a subscriber.” He came across an essay by Dorothy L. Sayers titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Originally published in 1947 but reprinted in the magazine, it called for rejecting newfangled forms of education in favor of older ways that focused on the “trivium” — i.e., grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Sayers — best known for her crime novels but also a translator of Dante — had doubts about her proposal: “It is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect,” she wrote. Wilson ignored her pessimism. “Her essay went into the bookshelf in my mind,” he says.

Several years later, as Wilson’s children neared school age, he and his wife began to have misgivings about the options in their area. “We couldn’t see handing our daughter over to someone we didn’t know,” he says. “We were afraid she’d receive a secular and superficial education.” So he met with a few other parents. They hatched the idea of starting their own school. Around this time, Wilson remembered the Sayers essay. He tracked it down in the University of Idaho’s library. It offered a way forward.

When the Logos School opened in 1981, it had 18 students and the mission of providing them with “a classical and Christ-centered education.” Two years later, 120 students attended Logos. “That’s when we really took off,” says Wilson, who is now a full-time pastor but remains the school’s board chairman. Logos outgrew the rooms it rented in a church basement and bought an old roller rink, taking its big, open space and framing in classrooms over time.

“We have tried to give students a rigorous education, so that they graduate with a map of human history in their heads,” says Wilson. They read the Great Books, including the Bible and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. “We don’t propagandize,” says Wilson. “Our students read the best that has been thought and said and engage with it in a worthy way.”

As Logos students aced their standardized tests, thrived in debate competitions, and matriculated to top colleges, people began to notice. They wrote letters to Wilson, visited Idaho, and started their own schools, many based on the Logos curriculum though often with their own variations. In 1990, Wilson started the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS). Today, its ranks include Logos and more than 230 other private schools that serve about 44,000 students. As the popularity of home-schooling also grew, many parents adopted classical approaches. A small industry of textbook and curriculum publishers began to serve this emerging market.

“Parents are pulling their kids out of schools that don’t focus enough on basic skills and in which students receive a disorganized scattershot of information without really mastering anything,” says Susan Wise Bauer, a popular writer in the field whose Peace Hill Press has sold more than a million copies of its books on history and literature. “Classical education is different. It provides an overall structure — you’re not dining at a buffet but at a well-designed seven-course meal.”

The number seven is important, as it alludes to the trivium that Sayers advocated as well as the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Today’s classical educators stress that their goal is not merely to dust off an antiquated style of education, but to find new ways to apply tried-and-true approaches that have fallen so far out of fashion that they’ve all but disappeared from mainstream education. In her essay, Sayers noted the importance of defining the terms of any conversation or debate — and “classical” may be a bit of a misnomer, harking back to the vanished glories of Greece and Rome and perhaps even conjuring up the image of headmasters who wear black gowns to class and never crack a smile. Sayers called her approach “medieval,” which unfortunately now passes as a synonym for “unenlightened” and makes people think of torture racks. Bauer suggests adopting the word “neoclassical,” though this also evokes certain associations. It might be fitting just to call the academies “American” because they offer something similar to the type of education John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and so many others received for such a long time.

“Before 1900, nobody had anything but this kind of education,” says David Goodwin, president of the ACCS. Then came John Dewey and the progressives, who thought that America’s public schools should serve more explicitly utilitarian purposes. “Dewey wanted to change the culture through the schools and create a population that could sustain an egalitarian democracy,” says Martin Cothran, whose Memoria Press is a leading publisher in the classical market. “This made education serve a political goal, and in time it morphed into multiculturalism and political correctness.” Other approaches also took hold, such as “child-centered learning,” in which lesson plans revolve around student interests and the teacher becomes “not a sage on the stage but a guide on the side” — a mantra that has become a kind of orthodoxy in today’s education colleges. “The parents who choose a classical education are tired of the endless cycle of reforms that don’t reform,” says Perrin. “They want to get off the carnival ride.”

Even among parents who sympathize with the goals of classical schools, Dewey’s influence remains strong: Is a classical education relevant in the 21st century? A large majority of classical schools, after all, require several years of Latin — a “dead language,” as every Latin teacher constantly hears. The teachers have their retorts: Learning Latin may be the best way to an understanding of English grammar, it disciplines the mind, it boosts test scores, it allows direct access to centuries of wisdom, it’s worth knowing for its own sake, and so on. “Latin isn’t dead,” jokes Tracy Lee Simmons, author of Climbing Parnassus. “It’s just no longer mortal.” Whatever else it does, a rudimentary knowledge of Latin will help prevent the embarrassment of mistranslating the American motto e pluribus unum — a blunder committed by Al Gore in 1994, when he was vice president. He said it meant “Many out of one” rather than “One out of many.”

Yet Latin is only a single aspect of a classical education, and questioning the usefulness of the whole program is a little silly. When did it become old-fashioned to reason well? Or to speak and write persuasively? Or to understand the physical laws of the universe? These are some of the main concerns of the trivium and quadrivium, and they sit at the center of every classical school’s purpose. Moreover, these schools commit themselves to Western civilization and culture as well as to the deliberate cultivation of good character. “Do you believe that there is such a thing as truth, that we can know it, and that we can communicate it — or not?” asks Andrew Kern of the Circe Institute, a provider of classical-education resources. “That’s the fundamental distinction between classical and conventional.”

Although private Christian schools sparked the revival of classical academies, the biggest area for growth lies in public schools, in states with favorable charter-school laws. It’s no coincidence that Great Hearts began in Arizona, which has made public-charter startups as easy as anywhere in the country. The Barney Initiative of Hillsdale College (where I teach) has built the country’s second-largest network of public classical schools, with a total enrollment of about 6,000 students in seven states, spread across 13 schools. One of them is the Savannah Classical Academy in Georgia, a majority-black school that occupies a building where Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas attended class as a boy in the 1960s, when it housed a Catholic school. An unstated purpose of the school is to show that classical education is for everybody, not just white kids with parents who can afford the tuition.

Another goal of the movement is to show that the best teachers often aren’t the ones who majored in education and received government licenses, but rather those who majored in the subjects they teach — e.g., history teachers who took courses on history rather than those who overdosed on pedagogical theories. Leaders of the charter-school movement say that the freedom to hire teachers who haven’t received state certification is essential to their success.

In her famous essay, Sayers accused modern schools of failing students in the most fundamental of ways: “They learn everything, except the art of learning.” For classical academies, fixing this problem is an urgent priority. Call it their sine qua non.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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