The Growing Movement to Restore Classical Education
For the average middle school or high school student, hearing the name Aristotle or Socrates evokes either confusion or a vague memory of a notable figure from Ancient Greece Day in World History class. Occasional mentions of the epic battles between Hector and Achilles at the gates of Troy or the precarious nautical voyages of Aeneas or Odysseus are often met with blank stares, and discussions of Augustine stealing pears from an orchard are met with bewilderment. .
By contrast, reading the texts that were considered for generations to be hallmarks of a “well-rounded” education meant that students would have been well-versed in the rhetorical defense that Socrates made before his Athenian jury in the Apology or Aristotle’s idea of the golden mean Ethics in Nicomaque. The Homeric Epics of Iliad and the Odyssey and that of Virgil Aeneid informed student imaginations as much as the latest fantasy novel.
But centuries-old works belonging to the so-called “Western canon” ended up no longer being used in most classrooms. School curricula evolved and new fashionable pedagogies came into fashion, with classrooms and textbooks eventually replacing a wide range of original texts, especially those belonging to the “Dead White Men”, who were once a reading compulsory for most students. The in-depth study of primary sources has, in general, been greatly diminished in contemporary education in favor of reading ‘strategies’ and learning concepts.
What is now commonly referred to as a “classical” or “liberal arts” education has been relegated to a handful of predominantly religious private schools. But this “old” schooling is experiencing a kind of renaissance. As public schools and many private schools have found themselves embroiled in controversies over critical race and gender theory, coronavirus mandates and virtual learning, a cohort of so-called classical schools, mostly Catholic or Christian evangelicals, but even some charter schools, have seen steady growth since the early 2000s.
This classical restoration is based on a fundamentally different approach to the purpose of education, says Jeremy Tate, founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test and a major player in the classical education restoration movement. Tate founded the CLT in 2015 as a classic alternative to the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Education properly understood, says Tate, is the formation of the individual in social awareness.
“[G.K.] Chesterton articulates so well [this vision] of education being the soul of a society that passes from one generation to the next,” Tate told the Washington Examiner. “But suddenly there was nothing we were transmitting. Everything had been dismantled or deconstructed, and there was nothing beautiful or meaningful left to pass on to the next generation…and so the classic revival movement is a beautiful movement to reclaim something precious that was almost lost.
The CLT is intended to encourage schools to adopt a more traditional curriculum, Tate says, because, as a rule, college entrance exams go a long way in dictating lessons in schools. “At the end of the day, whoever controls the tests owns the education,” he explained. “We believe at CLT that the tests end up having an impact and … drive the program to a certain level. So instead of reading the meaningless texts that the SAT and ACT put in front of students, CLT has students read George Washington. We have students reading Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Flannery O’Connor, Tolstoy, Augustine, texts that students would never see otherwise.
But if it’s true that the average student in a public school would never have read Anna Karenina Where Confessions, CLT’s work has found enthusiastic partners in a network of private schools that have embraced mainstream education. And these schools have seen the number of students enrolled and new applicants grow exponentially over the past few decades as public school enrollment continues to decline.
When the Richmond, Virginia-based Veritas School was founded in 1998, its initial cohort of K-5 students numbered just 25. Now, having outgrown its original campus and moved to a new in 2009, the school has over 600 students enrolled in all grades from kindergarten through 12th grade. In an interview with the Washington ExaminerVeritas principal Keith Nix said enrollment for the 2022-23 school year is the highest the school has ever had, and at this point he doesn’t see the opportunity to grow more.
“We are kind of at our maximum size. Veritas is a bit unique because we’ve grown 12-15% over the last 12 years,” he explained. “When that surge last year started happening,” Nix said, referring to the large number of students leaving traditional public schools to go elsewhere, “we didn’t fully experience it just because we were already full”.
The growth of the Veritas school is mirrored by another classic Christian school in Austin, Texas. Austin’s Regents School opened its doors to 17 students in 1992 and now has over 1,000 students. Although there is still room for growth, the school’s principal, Dan Peterson, says there isn’t much. “Our maximum capacity is 1,100,” Peterson told the Washington Examiner. “It will probably be at 1,080 next year, so here we are…we have a little room to grow, but not really.”
The stories of Austin’s Regents School and Veritas School are not unique, Tate said, noting that dozens of classical schools across the country that work with CLT are experiencing similar, if not greater, growth. He credits this to families’ renewed efforts to assess the quality and value of their children’s education: “It’s no longer a secret to parents that this classic revival movement is happening. And parents do everything they can to give their child that kind of education.
Classical educators such as Peterson and Nix say the unique education they offer students is ultimately what has sparked renewed interest from families looking for alternative options to public schools and even schools. private schools that often mirror public education. “The purpose of education [should be] the wisdom and virtue and the preparation of citizens to pass on a culture from one generation to the next and less simply job training or getting test scores or passing,” Nix said. “If you have a good school, these things happen, but the goal should be something bigger, longer term, more beautiful – the kind of human beings we grow.”
From school uniform requirements, smaller class sizes, and the classic texts that underpin the curriculum, cultivating the human mind provides, as Nix puts it, an educational experience significantly different from that which the found in public schools and even in most private schools. Peterson explains that part of the culture of this education, which is based on the writings of historical figures from long ago, is to ensure that students learn to understand why the texts have endured and are considered valuable. millennia after their first publication.
“There are a lot of great books we can read, but we want to study what’s been the most excellent, we want to study great books,” Peterson said. “The reality is that students can use the things they are exposed to as stepping stones to various aspects of culture. And so there has to be some type of connection point with them, some type of practice to help them see that it’s actually beneficial to their training. We are a place of character building and we seek to help [students] pursue what is true, good and beautiful.”
“What they realize is that there are these ideas, this literature, this art, this music, it’s beautiful. And by connecting to it, you stand on other shoulders and play a part in this great story,” said Nix of Veritas. “You dispel the idea that only new is better and only now is better and all that is old is irrelevant. We yearn for tradition, ideals, works, people and examples that can connect us, that we don’t have to experience with every new fad that comes along. There’s a reason things last and are considered great.
A retrospective vision of the past is accompanied by an ambitious vision of the future, which goes beyond the academic and professional achievements of the students. Dan Peterson sees this in graduates who have passed through the Regents School campus. “We are what I call life preparation,” Peterson said. “We want to prepare students for college, we want to prepare them for this next stage of life, but if that’s the extent of our education, it’s just myopia. Our heart is to prepare them to be great people who can serve the culture they invest in well, whether as a mother, father, husband, wife or grandparents one day, we have this vision of what they’re going to be like when will they be 65?
“We have this Latin phrase that is engraved on the rhetoric building of our school. It’s a quote from Quintilian, and the quote is, “The good man speaks well,” Peterson continued. “And so, we want the good man to speak well, the good woman to speak well, like someone who can interact with the culture around him, but he’s also a good person. … They don’t aren’t perfect, but they contribute to the culture around them.
Jeremiah Poff is an education journalist for the Washington Examiner.