The enduring value of classical education
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made headlines for dodging a basic question: Should pornographic materials be in K-12 school libraries? Whitmer’s unwillingness to answer the question (which should be a resounding “No!”) is indicative of the state of mainstream education today. While many schools have excellent teachers who work within the mainstream system, public education in America is not what it once was. Endless studies have concluded that public education is failing (see articles on this topic here, here, and here). There is a better way: Classical education begins with a traditional understanding of the human person, espouses specific educational goals, and employs clear methods to transform the student.
Classical education begins with a right understanding of the human person. As Katy Faust notes, children grow in predictable ways. Classical education recognizes the stages of childhood development. In the earliest years, students have very little knowledge. Their minds are curious; they long to know. In those years, sometimes called the Grammar stage, classical education asks students to memorize lots and lots of information. Here is the time to learn the 50 states, multiplication tables, timelines, and the periodic table. As they grow into middle school, students shift into the logic stage: moving from concrete to abstract thought, students want to contemplate, debate, to interrogate the information they have learned. Students move from mathematics to algebra and geometry, into increasingly complex literature and history; they begin distinguishing their culture from other cultures. The process culminates in high school study, where students enter the rhetoric stage; as high schoolers, they are asked to engage in conversation about their study areas. The process culminates: they study, they interrogate, and then they speak. Ideally, a classically educated student has studied a topic deeply and stands ready to enter the world of adult conversation from that study.
While recognizing distinct stages in childhood development, teachers continually mix all three stages. A middle school class might have a research project culminating in presentations to help each other learn better; an upper elementary class might have a debate, and then write a response detailing conclusions drawn after conducting the discussion; high school students might need to memorize a poem to declaim it to their peers. Classical education recognizes the student as a developing human being and seeks to equip him or her with the knowledge, skills, and tools to steward their intellectual heritage.
Such an education aims to prepare a student for a lifetime pursuit of eudaimonia, the highest human excellence. Aristotle argued that virtue is the path that leads to this greatest excellence, so the most important element of education is training the students in right action. There are specific habits that result in a better life: honesty, integrity, work ethic, loyalty, and temperance all result in better ways of living than vice. People who lack self-discipline, exemplify laziness, and cultivate habits of lying and self-flattery fail to position themselves to live well. A classical education seeks to prepare students to live well and do well for the rest of their lives. Through his study, the classically educated student is prepared to recognize goodness, truth, and beauty in the world, and then live by it. The goal is to help such students become excellent human beings.
A classical education employs specific methods to achieve these ends. The first of those is a clear expectation for moral behavior within the school environment. By clearly articulating expectations and enforcing those expectations through both positive and negative consequences, a classical school helps shape the student’s habits. Secondly, a classical school is filled with teachers whose passion for their subjects invites students to join them in deep study. Through Socratic dialogue, primary text exploration, reading, writing, and discussing great books, lab experimentation, studying Latin and/or Greek, encountering and creating beauty in the fine arts, and going as far as possible in their mathematical studies, students are invited to see the world as a place of beauty and wonder; their task is to receive that world, and take great joy in coming to understand it.
Thales Academy is a model of classical education this essay describes. At each campus, faculty seek to help students perceive themselves as creatures with dignity, worthy of respect. The students expand their mental powers through their studies, practice virtue, and grow in wisdom and stature. Faculty work with students to help them master the material and form strong communities within the school. Together, we become excellent humans caught up in studying the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Pornographic material has no place in K-12 education, and both politicians and educators should make it clear that their goals are about something far more important than exposure to varieties of human sexuality. We are about the task of human formation, of helping each student see him or herself as a creature with a great capacity to learn to know the true, the good, and the beautiful. We should settle for nothing less in education, pedagogy, and faculty.
Josh Herring is the Dean of Classical Education for Thales Academy Apex JH/HS. He hosts a podcast called The Optimistic Curmudgeon, and tweets at @TheOptimisticC3. In his spare time, he is reading and writing towards a PhD in Humanities from Faulkner University.