A growing number of families are enrolling their children in schools that provide classical education. We need a way to identify schools that use a content-rich curriculum, but the “classical” label may be too slippery—and too co-opted by political conservatives—to provide it.
A spate of articles over the past year have noted a surge of interest in classical schools. A study conducted in Texas found that a disproportionate number of students who left traditional public schools for the charter sector were going to classical schools, with several thousand on waitlists. An article in the National Review identified this as a national trend, with networks of classical schools expanding and unaffiliated classical schools “popping up across the country in response to local demand.”
Most recently, the state of Florida announced that its university system would now accept an alternative to the SAT and ACT—the CLT, or Classical Learning Test, which is generally aligned to the kind of curriculum used in classical schools.
What kind of curriculum is that? Generally—and we can only speak generally, because there’s no single defined classical curriculum—it relies on the study of “great books” from the Western tradition. For example, the CLT uses passages from authors like Aristotle or Shakespeare rather than contemporary texts. In addition, classical schools focus on students’ moral development and inculcating values like “truth,” “beauty,” and “goodness.”
While conservative publications like the National Review have applauded this trend, some on the left have viewed it with alarm. A report by the Network for Public Education, founded by education historian and anti-charter crusader Diane Ravitch, focuses on public charter schools that claim the label “classical.” The report identified 273 such schools, plus an additional 66 scheduled to open soon.
Allegations of “Christian nationalism”
According to Ravitch’s introduction to the report, these schools are “imbued with the ideas of right-wing Christian nationalism” and serve students who are “whiter and wealthier” than those attending other charter schools. The report highlights accounts of “group prayers” and “bible readings” during school hours, along with homophobic policies and rules against female students or teachers wearing skirts. (Under current law, charter schools—which are publicly funded and therefore subject to the strictures of the First Amendment—are theoretically prohibited from openly embracing religious practices, although a case in Oklahoma is now testing that proposition.)
The report focuses primarily on a few high-profile charter networks, like Great Hearts Academies, the largest provider of classical education in the U.S., and a charter initiative launched by ultra-conservative Hillsdale College. Even if the report’s allegations are accurate, however, there are surely other classical schools that aren’t bastions of white Christianity.
For example, the study of classical charter schools in Texas found that the most pronounced increases in enrollment there were for Asian-American and Hispanic students. Certainly there are some classical schools, especially in urban areas, that serve students from historically disadvantaged groups. I know of one “classically inspired” network in New York City and New Jersey, called Brilla, that serves a student population that is 74% Latino, 24% African-American, and 91% low-income.
And as a philosophical matter, there’s no reason that classical education should be tied to any particular political or religious orientation. The leftist Black academic and political activist Cornel West recently co-authored a Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing that classical education shouldn’t be seen as “partisan and conservative.” West and his co-author, Jeremy Wayne Tate—founder and CEO of the CLT—pointed out that many of the ideas students study through a classical curriculum were considered provocative or even revolutionary in their day.
Another Black scholar, Anika Prather, co-authored an article in the National Review arguing that classical education provides a necessary foundation for understanding Black intellectual history because its major figures were steeped in the Western tradition. “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,” she and her co-author wrote.
Panelists participating in a recent webinar on classical education sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute heartily agreed. One of them, Susan Wise Bauer—the author of a number of books on classical education, including a manual for home-schoolers called The Well-Trained Mind—went so far as to say that there’s no reason to confine a classical curriculum to the Western canon. The important thing, she said, is to read authors who “struggle with the human condition,” be they African, Asian, or Western, and then “trace their thought back to where it came from.”
What are parents looking for?
But why are so many parents—albeit still a small minority—flocking to classical schools? No one knows for sure, although some speculate it may be due to parents not liking what they saw over their children’s shoulders during the era of remote schooling.
One AEI panelist, Erika Donalds—a parent herself and founder of a virtual classical school—said that for her, it started with an inchoate sense that something was missing from the standard elementary school curriculum. “Parents are dissatisfied with what they’re getting,” she said, “but they’re not really sure what they’re looking for.”
That may well be true. But other parents may not be lucky enough to stumble upon a nearby classical school, as Donalds did. And even if they do, they may not immediately feel—as she did—that it’s the answer. Donalds was excited to hear that the school would provide “more history, classic literature, explicit phonics, and grammar”—just what she felt her son needed. But it was also an explicitly Christian school, and not all parents are looking for that.
There are also undoubtedly many parents out there who don’t feel there’s something missing from their children’s schooling—even if in fact there is. The lack of content Donalds noticed is widespread at the elementary and sometimes middle school level, largely because schools have been focusing on reading comprehension “skills” at the expense of subjects like social studies and science. Not only is that far less engaging for kids, it also sets many up for failure at higher grade levels, when knowledge of history, geography and science is assumed by the curriculum.
For parents who are looking for an alternative to the typical curriculum, what’s needed is an easier way to find it. And the designation “classical” is unlikely to serve that purpose for many of them. As defined by advocates like the AEI panelists, the category is sufficiently vague that they might not feel they know enough about what they’re getting. And values like truth, beauty, and goodness are often in the eye of the beholder. One person’s “truth” can be another one’s falsehood.
The benefits of classical education without the label
But perhaps the more fundamental problem is that the term “classical” has become identified with conservative politics and Christianity, even if it shouldn’t be. That could put off many families whose children deserve some kind of content-rich, knowledge-building curriculum, whether it’s labeled “classical” or not.
There are, in fact, many schools now providing that kind of curriculum, although it can be hard to find them. Brilla, the urban charter network I mentioned above, is one example. Although it identifies as a school “in the classical tradition,” it uses two knowledge-building curricula that are also used by many schools that don’t see themselves as classical: Core Knowledge Language Arts and Wit & Wisdom. And it’s come up with a way of providing religious instruction that is unlikely to raise alarm bells: an afterschool Catholic program run by a separate organization, in which about 40% of students choose to participate.
Another school that could serve as a model is one in London, called Michaela Community School, that also serves a predominantly low-income population. In addition to providing a rigorous academic experience that includes reading classics (when I visited I observed a group of students who were listening to a teacher reading Jane Eyre and appeared totally entranced by it), the school focuses on developing what classical schools might call “virtues.” But instead of more nebulous qualities like truth and goodness—or perhaps in addition to them—Michaela fosters traits like kindness and gratitude. The result is not just one of the top-performing schools in England but also—from what I saw—a community of thoughtful, articulate, and mature young people.
I don’t think any school could ask for more, whether it’s called “classical” or not.