Classical Education & Its Discontents

A Gentleman Works Upon The Trunk

Jeremy Tate’s Classic Learning Test (hereafter CLT) is one of the more hopeful things happening in the education space. In an era where academic testing is mostly funneled through a very narrow range of organizations that all coordinate behavior, the CLT intends to do for the SAT/ACT what the “classical education” industry is doing for primary and secondary schooling. I have watched its growth since its inception in 2015 closely.

Recently, perhaps as a part of its growth, it has come under fire, pointedly, by Matthew Freeman, in The American Conservative in an essay titled “Classical Education’s Woke Comorbidities.” And this essay has inspired a flurry of responses which shows no sign of dying down. Readers who have not followed the controversy deserve to hear it for themselves. Freeman uses an extended analogy (no doubt borrowed from Covid) comparing liberalism to a virus:

The left’s long march through the institutions has conquered virtually every aspect of modern life in the West; it is held at bay only in the subcultures conservatives form when they break away from institutions infected with liberalism… But as soon as one of these subcultures emerges from the woods and comes down from the hills, it always catches the virus. Once a conservative institution attains some power and influence, the symptoms begin. Think now of the long succession of American colleges formed by Christians to educate clergymen, starting with Harvard. Go down the sorry list. Venerable Catholic universities have developed according to the same dismal pattern. Think of evangelical parachurch organizations, like Christianity Today or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. 

Conservatives are in the position of the immunocompromised in lockdown. You are safe—so long as you stay in your house and disinfect the grocery bags dropped off by Instacart. But as soon as you go where people are, you’re toast. You are getting hooked up to the ventilator. That wokeness first presented itself in the classical education movement just as it entered the mainstream should not therefore come as a surprise.

As I pointed out on Twitter this essay makes two major points. It begins with the theory that liberalism is the ruling ideology of the current American regime. As with any ruling ideology, it will work to co-opt any institution, group, or theory which begins to grow in power. Under King Louis XIV all the successes of the nation were attributable to his rule. Under Stalin, all successful organizations were either Marxist or they were crushed. Why should modern America be any different? If anything is successful in any nation then it will always be tempted to pinch some incense at the altar of the governing power structure. America is delightfully not anywhere near Stalinist uniformity. But the space the CLT is working in is much more authoritarian and much more uniform than America as a whole. CLT is trying to bridge the gap between the growing Christian and conservative “classical education” space and Higher Education, which is objectively dominated by the American political left. Freeman claims to show that the CLT, and perhaps “classical education” more broadly, is in danger of becoming co-opted into this leftist education industrial complex as a result of its success and growth. Let me clearly lay my cards on the table: if this is happening it would be bad in the extreme. Whether Freeman is correct or not remains to be seen. The game is still afoot. However, his second point struck me immediately as inarguably true. 

Freeman is operating on the assumption that modern readers read their own world into the text at hand, and thereby miss the meaning of ancient authors. This assumption is absolutely correct in my experience in the classroom. Egalitarianism may be right, it may be wrong, but it is inarguably the way we see the world. Modern Western people are uncomfortable with the awareness that there is real difference and that that difference may imply rank. Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man perfectly depicts this tension and the insanity it can produce. We constantly see others as better than ourselves and then hear inner voices explaining how equality is still present, or can (should! must!) be established between the perceived unequals. 

These values we read into the texts inevitably lead to misunderstandings of the texts themselves and then to further misunderstandings of which texts ought to make up a curriculum. As egalitarianism infects our concept of what virtue is, we conceptualize virtue as a mass phenomenon. We forget that the theoretical possibility of the excellence of all humanity is a theological postulate. Christianity was the first to bring it forward. They drew from the Jewish belief in the brotherhood of all men and in the commonality of one lawgiver of all. But from this rose the belief that virtue was possible for mankind en mass provided humanity, whole families and whole nations, bent the knee to Jesus as Lord and Savior and received baptism and the Holy Spirit. Natural virtue might, they’d quibble, still be only accessible through habits (after all, we still had to work for bread) but the highest excellences of supernatural virtue—grace—could be found equally in poorhouses as in palaces. Liberalism co-opts Christianity’s end and presumes to make it a starting point. It is the political theology of our era. We have assumed the conclusion. We attempt to make ourselves the agents, rather than the receivers, of the operations of grace. Which is to say we have traded in grace for something else entirely. Our current stated position is that we are all virtuous, we have made ourselves this way, and everyone must acknowledge this truth. Moderns, unaware of this transition, read ourselves as we understand ourselves into the ancient philosophers and poets… But when we do the same with Christianity it is spiritually lethal. The old word for this was idolatry. 

In this way, liberalism is indeed at work as we read. Freeman is correct in principle, if not provably correct about CLT specifically. The preference that liberalism shows for the individual over and against the claims others might have on that individual–all in the name of equality–results in the mass-man of modern education. We all have to read the same books, readers must draw the same conclusions, we must take the same tests. At the end of this line of logic, the CLT should see that it will require all students to get the same grades on the test. At which point: why have a test? This is going to be bad for business! And this alone should make the managers at the CLT sit up straight and pay attention. The SAT already went through this: How do we make the test more accessible to all? How do we norm scores for all various demographic slices who take it? And behold where it has gotten them. First, the SAT lowered its standards, making the test subtly easier over time. Now it is being dropped from admissions requirements by colleges nationwide as an irrelevance.

I have argued along parallel lines recently in Ad Fontes Journal that modern classical educators must develop the conviction to stand against modern educational trends, recover genuinely forgotten traditions of education, and begin advancing much more radical proposals. I concluded, in this essay, which expands an argument I made in Reforming Classical Education, a recent book published by The Davenant Institute, that Christians should not teach Plato to children, and that we can and should have new schools:

Schools that recognize the signs of the times need to be much more radical. Current “classical schools” mirror Conservatism Inc.’s nostalgia for the Great Books tradition of the 1950s, but this is neither Christian enough nor American enough. It is not even classical. Schools should be preparing students for conversion and conquest. Where are the schools that teach students to evangelize like Paul, to conquer like Constantine, to pastor wisely like Augustine, to rule justly like Louis IX, and to divide the truth like Shenoute the Great? To do this requires we train ourselves to submit to nothing more nor less than the truth of God as found in Scripture. 

To accomplish some of the above may require the necessary addition of subjects beyond the Bible. Exercise and music and math for the young ones I have already allowed. But once the students are sufficiently aged, then vocational training so they can sustain a life, history to inspire them with the deeds of greatness, rhetoric so they can win some for Christ, hunting and advanced topography in preparation for great journeys, the laws of Church and State so they can rule and be ruled in turn, and finally, for those who are so called, philosophy and, perhaps, some Plato. But note that this is not recommended for the young and neither is it necessary for all. They are adjuncts to the curriculum which is offered to the world of learning as supplements which aid us in returning to the Word of life and aid us in guarding the community of that Word from error until the very end of time. This is the advanced collegiate level study for specialists, and when they go on to advanced study our students will be the envy of their secular peers

Children need to be Bible maxing. They need to be conversant in Koine Greek and biblical Hebrew. They need to be memorizing Scripture so it is lodged deep within to be drawn from at a moment’s notice, so it informs the structures of their mind, so they can resist the attempted psycho-formational processes of the coming self-imposed dark age. Returning to deep reading and memorization is a reclamation of both the ancient traditions of the Church and the venerable traditions of the American frontier. If we are to move into the future with the confidence of a coherent community we must choose to live a certain way.

Freeman’s essay parallels this and has inspired a flurry of responses which shows no sign of dying down. More readers have jumped into the conversation than I can mention here. Go read them for yourself.1 A personal favorite of mine was Ben Merkle’s response that stands as an articulation of my own thoughts on the movement in general. “True Classical Christian Education knows that it is passing down the intellectual tradition of a Christian people (warts, pagan ancestors, and all).” And of course, it should focus on transmission of the gospel and of a way of life that conforms to it. Classical Education that isn’t Christian is a waste of time–and not a holy one. But the one response that caught my attention and required me to enter the lists was Jeremy’s own. Jeremy Tate wrote a response–no not a response, an apologia of his organization and its development. This was also in The American Conservative and titled “Diverse Classics and Whole Persons.” 

Tate begins his defense by stating his argument, “that the whole point of traditional education is to arm a new generation with the tools they need to think critically for themselves, and that mission requires a selection of works diverse in subject and author covering the period from antiquity to the modern era.” And this, he says, will prevent them from falling for political gimmicks. I imagine Tate has C.S. Lewis’ admonition from his introduction to On The Incarnation in mind that reading old books keeps the “sea breeze of the centuries” blowing through the mind which, even though past thinkers were never perfect, they tend to be wrong in different ways than we are and this develops in us an awareness of the errors of our own era. But note, C.S. Lewis did not say we needed to read books “diverse in subject and author” and he did not think we needed to read “the modern era.”2 Rather Lewis was given to thinking we didn’t need to teach modern books because students who are well taught will read those on their own, in their bath! Is Tate’s consistent beating of the drum of diversity a sign that perhaps Freeman was right? It is a worthy question. But a fear which is quickly allayed by Tate as he immediately invokes Aristotle in defense of his argument. “But who better to explain the nature of what it means to be classically educated than the classical world’s leading scholar? Aristotle’s conception of the educated man from 2,300 years ago is the exact opposite of the product from today’s single-subject specialization universities.” I know some things about education, but on that topic, I am sure Tate is much more of a professional than I, a mere spectator and occasional commentator. But by invoking Aristotle, Tate has invited me to participate. I know something about Aristotle. He quotes Ogle’s translation of Aristotle from the opening of De Partibus Animalium:

An educated man should be able to form a fair judgement as to the goodness or badness of an exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and the man of general education we take to be such. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus able to judge nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject.3

Tate takes this to mean students should be taught a lot of different things, which is, on its face value, a plausible reading. Although he does say there should be a sort of progression. The classical educator might be tempted to think, with Aristotle at his back, Tate is correct. We should educate our students broadly; the problem with modern education is it is too vocational. Tate continues:

A classical education is naturally going to be broad if it encompasses ‘all branches of knowledge.’ And the ancients themselves lived by this standard. One of the most striking things about the ancients is that they always sought to refine their understanding by disputing with one another, constantly testing new ideas.

The theory is that what Aristotle was pointing towards was obviously intellectual diversity. 

But this is precisely the kind of dangerously shallow understanding of ancient authors I warned about earlier. We are desperate to see “diversity” and “equality” in the ancient texts and we insert it even when it isn’t there. Liberalism loves to call for dialogue and considers dialogue for its own sake a good, perhaps even the good. The ancients, when they engaged in dialogue, thought it was good because it could lead to truth. It led to someone finding out they were wrong. And it uncovers anyone who knows they might be wrong, but refuses to admit it, as a dangerous menace. This is why Socrates often shuts his dialogue partners up as quickly as possible. Some people are not open to the truth and can do a lot of harm if they are allowed to spread lies.

Tate should continue reading his Aristotle. In the very next section after the one he quotes, Aristotle unpacks the argument for what this “universal education” requires and it is not “intellectual diversity.” Rather it is that the man who wants to be omnicompetent must be educated not in the particulars of this or that kind of animal or this or that part of a kind of an animal. Rather the man of universal education must be educated in the causes.4 In fact, in that section Aristotle brings up an analogy to arts (sometimes translated as crafts).5 Learning about animals is like learning about any craft. This, to anyone familiar with Aristotle, should put us in mind of another famous passage where Aristotle makes basically the same point. In the first few chapters of Metaphysics Book 1 Aristotle explains in what way the wise man knows all things. It is not by learning a lot, it is rather by understanding the principles which undergird reality. By understanding, for example, the principle of how to build a house the architect becomes superior to the builders. He outranks them and he gains this rank not by building houses, but by thinking about houses and understanding things beyond housebuilding. Things like law (to govern building codes and customs), physics (to understand weight-bearing beams and the like), material sciences (should we build in wood or brick, etc), and leadership (how do I get the laborers to obey my commands). Aristotle is hereby demonstrating not only the distinction between the worker who is ordered and the manager who is as a law to the worker but also the relations (ranks) of the forms of knowledge.

The branches of knowledge, which Tate quotes, is not a statement about the equality of the branches, each of which needs to be learned, but rather is a statement about the fact that the branches all relate to some common trunk. Knowing the trunk eventually gives the learner access to all branches. Learning all the branches will not teach the relations of the branches to one another, only the trunk will offer that. This trunk, Aristotle claims, is theology.6 He ends the section with a striking assertion that all other branches are more necessary but none are better. We are tempted to read that as an insult, or, as modern egalitarians, as Aristotle saying “Since others are more necessary be sure to learn them” but it is not intended that way. He is asking you: would you like your children to grow up to be day laborers building houses or  famous architects? Obviously, we want the architect, even though the laborers are more necessary. Houses could be built in their millions if not a single star architect existed; without a single laborer, not a single house would ever be built. And yet the star architect outranks all laborers. I cannot name a single housebuilder famous for building houses, but Frank Loyd Wright, George-Eugène Haussmann, Christopher Wren. There’s a reason Wittgenstein took a break from philosophy to design a house but not to build it. I have gone out of my way to observe with my own eyes a rare Julia Morgan, I have never stopped to watch a particular house builder laying brick. 

Another, simpler, articulation of what Aristotle is saying is this: If you can actually master philosophical-theology, then you can in principle master any other discipline. Those who firmly grasp the hard, but essential, truth and do the work to understand it will be rewarded in any discipline. Those who settle for “intellectual diversity” and “conversations” may end up being useful, but Aristotle thinks they will, at best, be merely useful. This is tragic since merely useful is neither pleasant nor good, the merely useful have narrowed their minds to fit only a few small branches of knowledge. The merely useful left to itself is bad. 

This leaves the CLT in a tricky position. If they choose to aim at diversity as an end they will drift into irrelevance. They will be one among the many institutions confusing America’s students, leaving them at best tangled in the branches of the tree of knowledge. If the CLT reforms their position to aim at the trunk, as Aristotle advises, then they will become a profound, perhaps unparalleled, force for good. I remain hopeful for the test and commend Tate’s willingness to take these challenges seriously. It is one of the few points of light in the educational scene. And Tate has the prudence to know that the ultimate aim of any classical education is in fact theology. The implications of that claim seem lost in an apologia designed to defend modernity from the ferocious dangers of antiquity. He ended by inviting Freeman to come on his podcast for a pas d’armes, an invitation which, to my knowledge, has received no response. I will end this piece by accepting the challenge. If Tate would like to discuss theology, and a mild defense of Freeman’s concerns (as I have articulated them here) I welcome the conversation.

Image Credit: Raphael The School of Athens, 1509-1511. Fresco. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

Show 6 footnotes
  1. Respectively: David Goodwin, Pavlos Papadopoulus, Clifford Humphrey, Lue-Yee Tsang, and Nathan Rusticcia.
  2. I am open to the argument that “true diversity” is found only when reading those from long ago and far away, like ancient Athens or Confucius or (as Lewis was saying) Athanasius. But that is clearly not what Tate has in mind.
  3. De Partibus Animalium 639a4-11
  4. De Partibus Animalium 639a20-640a11
  5. De Partibus Animalium 639b24-26
  6. Metaphysics 983a5-11
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Colin Redemer

Colin Redemer is Director of Education at American Reformer and Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a founder of the Davenant Hall graduate college and co-host of the weekly Ad Fontes Podcast.