Have the Liberal Arts Gone Conservative?

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There are many charter schools that aim to address the problem of low achievement, often through an obsessive focus on test scores and discipline. Brilla cares about both of these things, but what sets it apart is its mission. Classical education is premised on the idea that there is objective truth, and that the purpose of school is to set kids on a path toward understanding it. This principle is often framed in philosophical shorthand—classical educators love talking about “truth, beauty, and goodness,” which can sound like a woo-woo catchphrase to the uninitiated—and it’s paired with an emphasis on morality and ethics. Brilla students attend a character-education class every morning, where they talk about how to live out the different virtues reflected in the texts they read. As Alexandra Apfel, an assistant superintendent for Brilla’s middle schools, said, “We’re building students that are not just going to be academic robots but moms and dads someday.”

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers, a motorcycle-riding Anglican crime writer, delivered a paper at Oxford titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in which she bemoaned the state of education. “Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves?” Young people do not know how to think, she argued, because they’ve never been taught. They may have been introduced to subjects, but not to what it means to learn.

In the face of this contemporary problem, Sayers proposed an ancient solution: the revival of a medieval teaching format called the trivium, which divided learning into three stages—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. The first stage is about mastering basic skills and facts; the second teaches students to argue and to think critically about those facts. By the third stage, they’re ready to express themselves in essays and oration. This model of education, cultivated by Renaissance thinkers and the Catholic Church alike, was common among European élites for centuries.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

Sayers’s essay built on a long-standing debate about whether this kind of education made sense in a rapidly changing, industrialized world. Classical-education advocates often point to John Dewey, the early-twentieth-century progressive reformer, as the bête noire who marginalized their preferred form of schooling: “There was a war going on between the progressive and the classical educators, and the progressives won in a rout,” Andrew Kern, the founder of the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education, told me. Although this story is perhaps overly simplistic, Johann Neem, a historian at Western Washington University, said, it’s true that Dewey and other progressives thought that the old ways of education were inadequate for modern students. These progressive reformers planted the seeds of two trends. The first was shifting the focus of school toward appealing to the interests of the child, rather than transmitting ancient knowledge and wisdom, which these reformers considered élitist. (“Academic and scholastic, instead of being titles of honor, are becoming terms of reproach,” Dewey wrote.) The second was a utilitarian impulse—some scholars thought that the purpose of education was to train workers. They did not believe that every student needed to read Plato.

In the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, classical education reëmerged as a pushback against these trends. A handful of schools built around Sayers’s ideas launched in Idaho, Massachusetts, Kansas, and Indiana, independently of one another. They were all Christian, but of different flavors—two had Catholic roots, one was ecumenical, and one was evangelical. Doug Wilson, the pastor who founded the evangelical school, in Idaho, later started a conference for Christian parents and educators who were interested in creating their own schools. This was the beginning of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, or A.C.C.S., which has since grown into a network of more than five hundred and forty schools, most of which are Protestant and use aspects of the trivium model. Even in Christian circles, Wilson is a polarizing figure—he promotes a theology that prizes strictly traditional gender roles and has made inflammatory comments about race relations. But the classical movement has expanded into something much broader: there are more than two hundred Catholic classical schools, which call their approach “Catholic liberal education,” along with a growing number of classical charter schools with no religious identity. The movement is diverse, in part because classical education has boomed among homeschoolers, who run the gamut from serious athletes to kids with learning differences to conservative Christians. These homeschooling families “like the idea of a traditional, rigorous education that really demands a lot out of a child, and that is also responsive to them,” Susan Wise Bauer, the co-author of “The Well-Trained Mind,” a popular guide to classical homeschooling, told me.

The notion of a standardized curriculum, let alone a shared value system, no longer exists in most American public schools. Proponents of classical education argue that any student can find value in the same timeless texts—Augustine and Austen, Chaucer and Chesterton—regardless of that student’s race, religion, or class. James Baldwin once said that reading Dickens “taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had been alive.” Classical-education advocates want kids to read Dickens and feel that same connection.

Though classical schooling might have once been the education of élites, the modern version has egalitarian potential. In Texas, enrollment in classical charter schools is growing most quickly among Asian and Hispanic students. In Arizona, a charter-school network called Espiritu, which mostly serves immigrants, recently overhauled its curricula to be more classical. And yet, perhaps inevitably, the movement has also felt the gravitational pull of the culture wars. With many classical schools focussed on moral formation and civics—and, incidentally, white male authors—this educational mode is primed to be co-opted into something that’s not just traditional but reactionary. The architects of contemporary classical education believed that, by reaching into the past, they could build a better future for American education. Today, many of the people embracing classical education are more interested in running away from the aspects of progressive schooling they fear.

Pete Hegseth, the perfectly coiffed Fox News host, sits on a stage in Franklin, Tennessee, a small city south of Nashville. To his left is a giant American flag. He is here taping a segment of his Fox Nation special “The MisEducation of America” before a live audience of parents who are disturbed by what they’ve encountered in local public schools. “We are fighting the battle of fires,” Cameron Sexton, the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, tells Hegseth: “You’re talking about C.R.T.”—critical race theory—“you’re talking about books in the library,” which might incorporate ideas about gender or sexuality. Sexton goes on to explain that the only solution is for people to enroll their children in classical schools, like he did with his own daughter, where students won’t be spoon-fed ideology. “There’s nothing more powerful than for an individual to have the ability to think and decide things for themselves,” Sexton says. “That’s how you stop the government from intruding on your life.”

When we spoke, Hegseth acknowledged that his interest in the movement “started as a reaction against” what he saw as progressive indoctrination in typical public schools. He has since reoriented his life around classical Christian education; in 2022, he and his wife moved outside Nashville to send their kids to such a school. He also understands the appeal of the model to a politically conservative audience. “What our viewers are looking for is a back-to-basics approach,” he said, one in which Christianity is “front and center.”

Hegseth is close with David Goodwin, who became the president of A.C.C.S. in 2015. Under Goodwin, the number of A.C.C.S. schools has more than doubled. Goodwin and Hegseth recently co-wrote a book called “Battle for the American Mind,” in which they argue that Marxists “have taken full control of America’s education system.” Wokeism, they explain, is driven by a vision of education that prizes “control of your identity, being accepted for who you are, finding adventure, and creating your own path in life.” Arguably, these are contemporary buzzwords with roots in century-old progressive ideas—that knowledge and virtue are not objective and external but, rather, subjective and internal, to be discovered as one develops one’s sense of self. Hegseth and Goodwin believe that, by focussing students’ education on the civilizations that flowed out of “the convergence of Greece, Rome, and Hebrew cultures,” America can recapture the norms it was built on. “We are the new radicals, the new revolutionaries,” they write.

As part of this revolution, Goodwin and the A.C.C.S. have been promoting classical education overseas. They see Africa, in particular, as fertile ground: over the last twenty-five years, Christian missionaries and pastors have planted classical schools in a dozen countries. This past fall, I went with Goodwin to Nairobi for a conference hosted by the Rafiki network, which runs schools in ten English-speaking African countries and publishes a curriculum used by dozens of other schools. Goodwin lives in Boise—it was his first time in Africa, or south of the equator, for that matter. Wearing a slightly baggy blazer and a yellow tie, he stood in front of roughly two hundred people in a dim auditorium near an Anglican cathedral.

The obvious question of the day was why Goodwin’s version of classical education would be compelling to people living outside the West. “It took me about twenty hours from where I live in the States to get here,” Goodwin said. “Fifteen hours in, I started crossing over the territories that most developed the West. I crossed Macedonia. The plane flew down through Greece and near Alexandria, in Egypt, and then down the Red Sea, with Mt. Sinai on the left.” In Nairobi, he argued, they were far closer to the history of the West than he was back at home. “This is where Christendom grew up,” he said. He noted that the word “Western” is often associated with colonization. Goodwin framed his role not as one of domination and takeover but, instead, as an emissary from a possible future. “We’re in a pitched battle in the United States,” he said, “between the powers of light and the powers of darkness.” His prayer was that the audience wouldn’t let progressive education take root in their country.

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