Renewing the Promise of Classical Education

Classical education is facing a reckoning, and one that is long overdue. While some classical educators cling to what Jonathan Roberts describes as “a nostalgia for something that never existed” and continue to tout the false narrative of Western Civilization, others have had enough. Convinced that the classical method is nothing more than a relic of a deplorable colonialist past and the engine of an equally deplorable racist future, some homeschoolers have rejected classical education and all its pomps outright. Others remain tentatively committed, but, in tandem with current upheavals in university Classics departments, are rethinking what it means to educate their children classically in a pluralistic society. Is classical education worth saving, or is it an irredeemable part of the problem, best consigned to the dustheap of history?

Not that the existing alternatives are much better, pedagogically speaking. The educational Romanticism that E. D. Hirsch, Jr., so devastatingly critiqued in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them continues to dominate American schools of education. The resulting approaches in the classroom, combined with the current culture of high-stakes testing, make for a perfect storm of educational malpractice. In the home education world, this same Romantic philosophy underpins the many variations on the theme of child-centered learning: unschooling, Waldorf-inspired home education, certain nature-based programs, and the rest. Even some more traditional academic approaches, like Charlotte Mason’s, have been watered down to the point that they would be virtually unrecognizable to their founder. Because these methods rely on outdated methods or false assumptions about how learning works, they too often fail to fulfill their educational promise.

We desperately need to find some middle ground, a via media between the extremes of an insular, self-congratulatory traditionalism and a fanciful ideology that too often eschews common sense for a near-mystical faith in the mantra that “children will learn to read when they’re ready.” (They won’t, because reading is not a natural process.)

To find that middle road, we need a new vision of classical education, one that marries its academic rigor and high ideals to secular sensibilities and a commitment to pluralism.

The value of classical education lies in its distinctive goals, which are, I would argue, as practical as they are elevated. It aims to cultivate personal, social, and civic virtues and to expand students’ intellectual horizons through the study of the liberal arts. It is in this combination of virtue education and rigorous intellectual training that the classical method shows its true worth in a modern, secular, and pluralistic society.

Will such a classical education look different from that of the past? Necessarily so. We are not engaged in some sort of educational cosplay; why should we wish to recreate Ignatius’s Ratio, Arnold’s Rugby, Miss Mason’s PNEU, or a pre-Vatican II parochial school as if nothing of value had been thought or said in the intervening years? We can and should have our students read and discuss the newest books by diverse authors along with world classics. We can and should teach them to read all books critically, even those—especially those—that contain objectionable language or racist notions. We can and should teach them modern world languages alongside Latin and Greek (and Sanskrit and classical Arabic), and we should do so using modern, evidence-based methods of instruction. We can and should address the injustices of the past and the present directly, analyzing the systems that create and perpetuate them with unflinching honesty. We can and should teach current mainstream science, not sectarian dogma or Victorian approaches to nature study—especially in this time of environmental crisis.

Classical education has had a revival. It is facing a reckoning. What it desperately needs is a renewal. If classical education is to be worth saving, it must offer a curriculum in which “the best which has been thought and said” is drawn from every corner of the globe, from people of all faiths or none, from oral and written traditions, from people of all genders and colors. It must teach the Ramayana and Mahabharata alongside the Iliad and Odyssey. It must offer readings from world scriptures for their cultural and literary importance, not just as target practice for budding Christian missionaries and apologists. It must expose students to varied philosophies without any a priori presumption of their validity, while also giving the students the intellectual tools to assess them fairly. It must present history from a variety of perspectives, without whitewashing.

This is the renewed vision of classical education that I support with my curriculum and teaching today. If you find yourself on the same path, please join me as we discuss how best to make this vision a reality for our children.

Copyright 2021 by Drew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.

Drew Campbell is the author of  Living Memory, I Speak Latin, and Exploring the World through Story, and co-author, with Courtney Ostaff and Jennifer Naughton, of How to Homeschool the Kids You Have. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.