The Ends of “Mere Classical” Schools

Which Way, Western Man?

A recent dust-up in the classical education world is a healthy conversation that has been coming for a while. I welcome it, and I see in it a parallel to the issues recently brought up at American Reformer regarding “mere Christian” colleges. I want to suggest that “mere classical” is likewise not going to be a sufficient identity in the years ahead. 

I spent two years teaching at a classical Christian school, and I have attended conferences by all the big names: Association of Classical Christian Schools, Society for Classical Learning, and CiRCE. I also worked closely with the Classic Learning Test when I helped found Thales (classical) College in Raleigh, North Carolina. I have deep admiration and genuine love for the classical school movement.

Nevertheless, as Timon Cline recently asked in his article “The Scandal of the Evangelical College,” when remarking on Grove City College’s commitment to “Christian principles”–“whose Christianity” and “which principles”–I want to ask of the classical education movement: “whose classical tradition” and “what do you mean by education”? 

In my years around people in classical education, I have always been struck by the general agreement not to agree upon a clear definition of classical. Increasingly, I see a disagreement about the meaning of education also. 

This day of reckoning for both questions has now come, and it is good that it has come. Briefly, I see two diverging opinions on both of these terms, classical and education

First classical. As Matthew Freeman argued at The American Conservative, one form (and I agree it is the older form) of classical meant reference to standards of excellence held in many cases by god-like men, such as the half-god, half-man Achilles, or the strictly human pantheon of Plutarch’s Lives of the Famous Greeks and Romans, or the purely fictional account of tragic greatness in the characters of the Greek myths and tragedies. Philosophy too was preoccupied, for the most part, with political philosophy, the task of gaining true knowledge of human excellence as it manifests itself in questions of the best regime.

All this is to say that this form of classical is what Freeman says it was, practically speaking: hero worship, or hero-emulation as a form of education for producing the greatest men. As someone who now directs a leadership program at a university, I am well acquainted with the attempts to jettison this form of education and replace it with a social science for producing leaders.

The standard of excellence upheld in this old form transcends all human categories of race, sex, and ethnicity (even Socrates visited the foreign-born Aspasia to query her with his puzzles). The same standard, though, is ruthless, and most people fall short. Further, it is a difficult but engaging question to answer how Christianity aligns with and/or contradicts this older view of classical. This view is evident in the etymology of the word classic, which meant originally “belonging to the highest class; approved as a model,” and “relating to the (highest) classes of the Roman people,” thus, “superior.” 

The second form of classical that Freeman seems to describe in contradiction to the old type is a subtly different take. It assumes that because excellence is found equally in potentiality among all humans, two things follow: first that we should expect to see excellence actualized equally among all humans, and thus that all disparities are evidence of an unjust marginalization, and second that such injustice can only be made right by redefining the old view of excellence to mean equal inclusion of all voices, on the assumption that all ancient or medieval authors are of equal merit if viewed without bias.

Classical in this other sense, then, means something more along the lines of cultural preservation. In this understanding, the goal is to preserve all the voices that can be found–even the most obscure– and especially to lift up the ones that have been ignored or not equally appreciated. In this view, classic means, not so much objectively excellent so much as objectively entitled to perpetual consideration of excellence. 

To excellence in the old sense, it does not matter if there are disparities along race, sex, and ethnicity: excellence does not notice and does not care. Accordingly, it looks upon all the efforts to find “black” or “female” authors distracting at best, and corrupting of the raceless, sexless standard at worst. Plutarch nobly expresses this perspective in an encomium to Alexander the Great’s virtue. He praises Alexander for proclaiming that 

his friends and kindred should be the good and virtuous, and that the vicious only should be accounted foreigners. Nor would he that Greeks and barbarians should be distinguished by long garments, targets, scimitars, or turbans; but that [those he would call] Grecians should be known by their virtue and courage, and the barbarians by their vices and cowardice.

Excellence as virtue is the standard that cuts through race and sex.

Someone might say, though, that the purveyors and canonizers were biased and that there is true excellence hiding in obscurity that we must now reveal. This point leads me to discuss the second term under question here, education.

The two opinions on the meaning of the term education diverge on two points. First, they diverge on faith that the tradition as generally received is trustworthy or not, and second, they diverge on the purpose of education. These two points are related.

The older view sees the received tradition as a trustworthy guide for laying out what texts are truly good (which can be gathered simply by reading the authors that the main authors cite and/or are clearly engaging with, going all the way back). Accordingly, it sees the purpose of education as the passing down of a patrimony, a received inheritance of knowledge of heroes, language, and ideas–concepts of what is good and bad, ugly and beautiful. This view understood the word liberal in “liberal arts” to mean “an education appropriate to a free man” (one who has leisure from the necessity of labor and is thus likely to hold a leading role in his community). Education is a process of shaping students according to a mold that is revered as excellent.

The newer view sees the received tradition as suspect and in great need of updating and equalizing. “We today,” it says, “have a better and more just view of what texts deserve to be considered good than the received tradition.” Accordingly, it sees the purpose of education as freeing the mind from ignorance and bias (and unjust traditions and systems). This view understands the word liberal in “liberal arts” to mean something like freedom to become your true self, no longer bound by your own or others’ prejudice. Education is a process of shaking free of molds for the articulation of self-expression.

Of course, there is a spectrum between these two views of classical and two views of education, but I hope that by laying out what I see as the extremes, we can more easily understand the differences that divide us. A major problem today is that very well-intentioned people are confused on these matters and do not know it. As evidence, consider how popular is the proverb that classical education “does not teach students what to think but how to think.”

Despite the spectrum, I think these different views are not reconcilable ultimately, and thus divergence on them will likely lead to greater frustration. This problem will not go away simply by wishing it so. As John Peterson argued all the way back in 2019, “We must understand the difference between a classical and civic education, on one hand, and a progressive and ‘global’ one, on the other.” Which way, Western man?

Perhaps it is time to consider that a “mere classical” identity is insufficient for crafting intentional communities of learning in K-12 schools. I suggest that school boards consider which vision they more closely align with and then make that decision clear to students and prospective students.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

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Clifford Humphrey

Clifford Humphrey holds a doctorate in political science from the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He is a 2024 Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow. He is on X at @cphumphrey.