When Educators Must Be Partisans

Part of a Symposium on the Agoge “Opening Salvo

When the section of Westminster Palace containing the House of Commons was destroyed in the Battle of Britain in May 1941, Winston Churchill insisted that it be rebuilt exactly as it was originally designed. He reasoned thus: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The same may be said of both laws and forms of education.

The Paradox in Education

A revealing paradox arises at the end of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This paradox helps explain both why education is inherently political and why many people fail to understand it as such.

The paradox is this: the bulk of the Ethics is an account of education for a happy life understood as the rational pursuit of human excellence for an individual; nevertheless, the final chapter admits that such a rational pursuit is impossible for most people unless they have been reared in a community with good laws from a pre-rational age to be well-disposed to certain habits. Education is thus paradoxically both an individual, rational enterprise and a non-rational, communal endeavor. 

At the heart of the paradox is the acknowledgment that an individual’s effort to form habits of virtue requires the psychological help that arises from living in a political community. Among the strongest motives that stir the human heart are the hope for honor and the fear of shame: we all want to become excellent human beings and be recognized as such by the people who matter to us. 

The political debate over laws is a debate over the specific content or form of what a community understands as excellent. Whatever else education may be (e.g., job training), broadly understood, it is the process by which a political community inculcates submission to its authoritative opinions on that debate. The community’s authoritative opinions are best understood as nomoi—a combination of customs and laws, written and unwritten. 

A political community has a necessary interest in inculcating its authoritative opinions—its nomoi—in its young in order to perpetuate itself. The Spartan agoge was renowned even in the ancient world as the most striking example of such a regime-aligned education (even the Athenian Xenophon sent his sons to undergo its foreign rigors). But this interest extends beyond the young; the political community continues to educate citizens throughout their lives through the enforcement of laws (see Plato’s Crito).

The paradox in education is thus an inherently political phenomenon, a puzzle worked out by and worked out on a political community.

The Dilemma in Education

As the charges brought against Socrates at his trial remind us, any form of education that runs contrary to that of the regime poses an existential threat to that regime. Thus, a dilemma within the paradox is that all education points to some conception of human excellence that is either in accord with or at odds with that of the regime. 

In his Politics, Aristotle describes this dilemma this way: the good man as such and the good citizen are the same kind of person, only in the very best regime. In every imperfect regime—which is to say every actual regime—a tension will give rise to a debate over whether the prevailing ethic embedded in the laws is the best or the right ethic simply. This tension reverberates within the human breast of every thoughtful citizen of a particular regime and—one hopes—finds a resolving resonance within a particular paideia, or school. 

For schools that are owned and run by the public, that debate is answered definitively by the politically legitimate authority, i.e., the state government through governing boards. Private schools are granted a degree of toleration to order their schools according to a particular ethos (e.g., religious, elite, or technical), but the nature and scope of that toleration still depends ultimately on the will of a political authority. Consider how students at Roman Catholic schools are taught—ideally—to be both devout Roman Catholics as well as American citizens as a way of resolving as much as possible the tension arising from the good-man/good-citizen dilemma.

The paradox in education is thus embedded within a dilemma that citizens in a political community must accept and work within.

The Riddle of Politics in Education

This paradox wrapped in a dilemma is easily misunderstood—becoming a sort of riddle—when we confuse political in this sense with Party politics. Some people today are so eager to deny that their particular school, pedagogy, assessment, Great Books program, or educational organization is intentionally aligned with a given political Party that they confuse themselves about the fundamental political element of the nature of education. 

This confusion is the origin of the naive comment that classical education merely teaches students how to think and not what to think. Recollect the pernicious folly of young Pheidippides in Aristophanes’ Clouds when he learns at Socrates’ school merely how to think for himself: he rejects everything his parents had taught him, concluding that nothing is right by nature and that thus all things are permitted, including beating his own parents. Such an education corrupts the souls of students and the peace of the political community.

Consider this illustration: most people would concede that proper education includes instilling good manners in students. For example, insisting on “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” in classical schools perhaps and having anti-bullying and civility policies in public schools. Further, most people would probably assume that manners are not political but are above politics, part of just learning to be a decent human being. Note, though, that the word polite shares the same etymological root as politics (same with the Latin-based words civil and civics). It turns out that the particular conception of what a “decent human being” means in this place, by these people, in this time is a quintessential political question.

The riddle of politics in education can only be answered by realizing that the entire enterprise of a school is concerned with forming students into a politically formed conception of a good human being and citizen. As John Adams noted in a letter to his son, John Quincy: “all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”

Putting the Puzzle Together

Before I conclude, I will make what may seem a controversial point—at least to the flurry of classical educators who insist that classical education should not be understood as political or especially “right wing”—and that point is that educators should be partisans.

I do not mean to equate partisan with either of our dominant political Parties necessarily. However, insofar as one Party assumes the citizen perspective of the nation and its culture as an inheritance to be embraced, and the other Party assumes the perspective of the critic, condemning the nation’s heritage except for those few critical voices from its past, classical educators should not feel a duty to be neutral. 

Here I draw on a distinction by Charles Kessler in his Crisis of the Two Constitutions, that between “normal politics” and “regime politics.” As Kessler notes,

Normal politics takes place within an accepted political and constitutional order, and concerns means, not ends. That is, the purposes and limits of politics are agreed; the debate is over how to achieve those purposes while observing those limits. By contrast, regime politics is about who rules and for the sake of what ends or principles. It unsettles any existing political order, as well as its limits. It raises anew the basic questions of who counts as a citizen, what are the goals of the political community, and what do we honor or revere together as a people.1

Our times are those of “regime politics,” and thus educators today cannot help but be partisans. Will they use the term illegal alien or the term undocumented immigrant? Will they teach that our ancestral immigrants to this country from England and Europe were on the whole courageous settler-colonists or vicious oppressor-colonizers? Will they describe transgender surgery as mutilation or gender-affirming care? If they decline to comment and let their students decide for themselves, they are worse than useless for neglecting their duty to educate. These debates are inescapable today, and being partisan is also inescapable. 

Accordingly, during normal politics, educators do not appear as partisans but as mere citizens. During regime politics, though, the only options are partisan. Educators can teach for the original constitutional order with its given ends, or they can join the revolutionaries who want to “raise anew the basic questions” and give students different answers to those questions as change-makers. Traditionally—from the times of the French Revolution—these two positions are designated “right wing” and “left wing.”

I assert that classical education, by its conservative and positive postures toward the American past in our “regime politics” time, is in fact right wing today. That certain men of the Left have relied on classical authors in the past is not a refutation against the basic point that—as with the dispute over the baby brought before Solomon—there is no real compromise between those who would carve up our national patrimony and those who would embrace it whole. 

Or we might rely on the metaphor of transgenderism: classical educators should be able to recognize that what the revolutionaries want to accomplish through schools is mutilation of American heritage, though they insist on thinking of it as something like cultural revolutionary-affirming care. Either way, there is no compromising here. 

The early adopters of classical education—as opposed to those invested in standard, private, college preparatory schools—intended for their graduates to be educated into poor fits for the culture cultivated by our current regime: those graduates were meant to be rocks in the gears, not new cogs in the machine. As classical education becomes mainstream, though, it is to be expected that some in the movement will want to ride its success into respectability among the cultural elites. Such is only possible, however, through compromise, by convincing those elites that classical education poses no real threat at all to the prevailing culture it was created specifically in opposition to.


Education is always political, and in two ways. First, education is political because all schools are subject to political authorities: they are either public and given a mandated curriculum or private and granted circumscribed toleration to provide an alternative curriculum. Second, education is political because any program of education is de facto participation in a discussion over the nature of the good life and that discussion is politics in the truest sense: the why for education is always embedded in the pedagogy, and that answer supplies the why for individual life as well as for society as a whole.

Putting these concepts together, education is political insofar as the end toward which one is led (e + ducere) in the process is a conception of a good human being as understood by a particular political community. This conception might be that of a productive worker, a devoted communist, a devout Christian, or merely a compliant consumer. In a larger sense, one never truly graduates from a political paideia, for its boundaries encompass all of society. Whenever you are subject to a polity’s laws, school is in session, and you are learning. 

The vital implication of these points is this: educators should be more aware that they are engaged in a quintessentially political activity, and they should self-consciously teach in accordance with that acknowledgement as patriotic partisans of their country’s heritage and the specific mission of their school. In fact, they have a duty to do so.

Show 1 footnote
  1. Charles R. Kessler, Crisis of the Two Constitutions, Encounter Books, NY, 2021: xii
Print article

Share This

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.

7 thoughts on “When Educators Must Be Partisans

  1. We should first note that happiness for people varies from person to person. The standard presented by Humphrey is an authoritarian one where government is suppose to act as some kind of parent to the individuals. The “paradox” here is that government is suppose to act as a peer that is merely an acquaintance to those in the business world.

    But I do agree that education should be political. But adapting the words from one of my childhood heroes, the question must be asked: Is it a friendly political education? After briefly emerging from a world of authoritarianism and establishing beachheads of democracy, much of the West, which is all of Europe and the U.S., is facing a choice between pursuing Democracy with equality or returning to some kind of authoritarian regime. That authoritarian regime could be based on aristocracy, ideology, Fascism, economic class, or ethnicity. For the West, the apparent choice appears to be an authoritarian ethnocracy. However, some apparent ethnocracies are mere camouflage for a plutocracy or oligarchy. Russia is an example of sometimes appearing as a religious ethnocracy that is really an oligarchy led by a tyrannical Head of State..

    Regardless of whether a nation is a democracy with equality or has some kind of authoritarian rule, preparing children to fit into a society requires political education. The kind of education that a democracy with equality requires includes an education with certain political and social views. And that is where the conflict is between where America is going and where a large percentage of Evangelicals want their lives to be.

    Finally, teaching about the past is important. But to limit the definition of America by past demographics and culture is an attack on freedom itself. That is because freedom implies the ability to change. And unless one wants to return to the vomit of social injustices practiced in the past, we need to treat the past as the Bereans treated the words of Paul as he spoke. That means that we neither reflexively reject nor accept what was said and done in the past.

    1. Hi Curt, I like Dr. Humphrey’s article…I think he speaks plainly that which used to be a given.

      Your statement about government being a peer…I’m not sure I follow. Christians seem to debate a lot over Romans 13:1-7. I am not subject to a peer. Matthew 20:25-28 indicates rulers should be servants…but again, authority is assumed. Jesus is many things to me…even friend and brother…but always in authority, even as He served me as a ransom.

      I actually think the USA would benefit from a modern day Westminster Assembly…my guess is that they would land on a working definition of Christian Nationalism…as well as on the rights and responsibility of citizens. ‘How should we then live?’ would be an active question, in our families, in our education, and in our civic participation.

      1. John,
        Thank you for your friendly note even though we disagree.

        Does Romans 13 imply that the only kind of government that should exist is an authoritarian one? That is what Paul faced back then and so did many Christians who paid a high price for that kind of government.

        We have the beginning of democracy now and democracy means rule by all of the people, not a subset of them. And thus equality comes with democracy. And it was Jefferson who warned us against oppressing others by not respecting their equal rights.

        But democracy rubs many of us religiously conservative Christians the wrong way in two areas: it is anti-authoritarian and it calls on us to participate by working shoulder to shoulder with unbelievers. We religiously conservative Christians have a strong tendency for authoritarianism and not just for ourselves. In addition, many of use religiously conservative Christians are now isolating ourselves from unbelievers. There is that even in The Gospel Coalition in terms of working with people to solve society’s problems. But note what it says in the middle of I Cor 5. There Paul talks about how we should be in the presence of unbelievers.

        We should note that democracy with equality protects us from lording it over others; remember that Jesus prohibited us from treating others that way. A Christian ethnocracy would not so protect us. In addition, democracy allows us to follow Jesus’s instructions to walk away from those who will not listen without providing stumbling blocks to them listening to the Gospel again. Again, a Christian ethnocracy would not allow Christians in general to do that since the government would act as a proxy for the Church which exercises judgments over unbelievers. The Church is to preach the Gospel to unbelievers, not discipline them when they disobey it.

        A democratic government is no less ordained by God than an authoritarian one. Only an authoritarian one will be much more likely to oppress people and I just don’t mean oppressing Christians.

        BTW, I get the idea of government being a peer rather than a parent from what has already been said about democracy. Democracy with equality calls on us to be more active stewards of our local, state, and national politics. And that allows us greater opportunities not just to evangelize, but to speak out against injustices committed by and against our nation. There are many more opportunities for Christians to take under a democracy with equality. As for being under an authoritarian gov’t, we have to decide which is the worse choice: receiving unjust persecution or silently complying with the unjust persecution of others.

        BTW, if you want to see the fruits of Christendom including the Westminster Assembly, then read about Critical Theory, Post Modernism and alike. They are legitimate reactions to the observed injustices practiced under Christendom.

        1. Curt, you’re welcome. In trying to understand what you think, I’m definitely honing what I think.

          As for Romans 13 – ‘exousia’ (power, authority, jurisdiction) is there in the first verse. Rule by the people naturally requires rules…and ultimately the people decide how rules should be enforced. Verse 3 and 4 suggest categories of good and bad conduct, right and wrongdoing.

          I’ll grant that dictators and churches have both practiced injustice…however I don’t see that a long-term application of biblical principles allows either to continue. Romans 13 says that authorities (without qualification) are ministers of God. I would think only God’s people would actually agree or even care if this is true…but also be the only people to judge wether those authorities are acting to approve what is good, or as an avenger, carrying out wrath.

          Since I grew up playing sports and still enjoy watching them, I’ll use baseball as an example. The strike-zone is often hotly contested. No one votes on balls and strikes, but there is often disagreement with the umpire (the authority). There are arguments, appeals, and even ejections. But what think is interesting about baseball is no one argues about the distance between home plate and 1st base. The foul line locations are indisputable…though sometimes where the ball lands in relation to them is debatable.

          I don’t think government is a game; but I do think that the two-party system has created a situation where one side ‘says’ we need to go back to Doubleday; the other side ‘says’ the game is rigged, we need to completely overhaul it for everyone’s benefit. Meanwhile this administrative behemoth that neither side really controls and was originally put in place to curate the ball field now regulates everything from cleat length to bubblegum usage. Baseball is dead; long live baseball!

          I digress…but I want be a Christian that lives out…”All of Christ for all of life.” Which means that if I get to live and vote in a Democratic Republic, I want it to be a Christian DR. I think that’s what the AmRef writers are trying to sketch out in their writings. I don’t think I’m a sycophant, any more than you’re an autonegative. The site aspires to be rooted in Protestant social and political thought; certainly not without past errors, but striving to follow Jesus.

          1. John,
            I agree with Romans 13. And in a democratic republic, the governing authorities are elected officials. But a Christian democratic republic is as much a contradiction in terms as a Jewish democratic republic or a Muslim one. Why is that.

            One can have democratic procedures and still not be a democracy. Nations like Iran and Russia have democratic procedures, should we call them democracies?

            With democracy comes equality. A Christian democratic republic establishes a hierarchy for Christianity over other religions and their followers and thus eliminating equality from the mix. If you remember from one of my comments, I said that a democracy with equality gives us best opportunity of not going against Jesus’s prohibition against ‘lording it over’ others. In addition, Jesus also told His disciples that when an audience does not accept their preaching, then move on.

            I don’t have to remind you what the Apostles wrote about living as exiles in the New Testament epistles. What I want you to consider is, how can we evangelize unbelievers if we first tell them that because of our spiritual superiority, that we are entitled to determine the laws that everyone lives by?

            We are called to serve, not to rule over. We are called to evangelize, not compel them to follow church laws. Besides being a contradiction in terms, is a Christian democratic republic biblical? I see more evidence against that idea than for it. In fact, the arguments presented on this website appeal excessively more to Reformed traditions than on the New Testament Scriptures. As for Romans 13, the definitions of good and evil were never specified there; instead, they are assumed to be understood by the church at Rome.

            I don’t see Paul using what would be Church law as a criteria for government to use in determining good and evil. Rather, there is a general morality that governments are to enforce and a Christian morality that the Church is to enforce. And it seems that from reading Paul in Romans 1-3 or in I Corinthians 5, that the standards of morality that the government is to enforce are far more lax than what the Church is to enforce. If the government was to enforce the same moral laws as the Church, then the government would prohibit the practice of every other faith other than Christianity. Do you honestly think that that is what the Apostles would want? If so, why do you think that?

  2. Curt,

    I don’t have a lot of time today, but I don’t see the contradiction you posit in your first paragraph. Most statistics show that 60% (210MM) people in the US identify as Christian. Oddly, nearly that same percentage of people voted in 2020. So if my math is correct, 125 Million Americans, voting as Jesus following Christians, could put Christian values in the White House and leading the country.

    You and many others state; “It’s wrong to enforce Christian morality!” I’m not a fan of the morality currently being enforced, and neither are the many others who are proponents of CN. “It’s not whether, but which” is becoming a more common litmus test.

    At the end you jump to the question, Do I think that the Apostles wanted to prohibit every other faith than Christianity? Certainly not, however they definitely wouldn’t celebrate faiths and practices that are opposed to the teachings of Christ. “Go and make disciples of all nations…” sounds a little stronger than go willingly be one of many ideas on a COEXIST bumper sticker. What it means to fulfill the Great Commission in our day and time, by the means that God has granted to us, should be a question every individual, every family, and every community of believers should strive to answer. I appreciate AmRef publishing articles that make me consider it regularly. Be blessed!

    1. John,
      Go to the details of the 60+% who identify as Christians and see how many are religiously conservative Christians vs how many are liberals. Check out how many of that 60 some odd % regularly attend church. The last poll I saw on Russia was that while the majority identify as Russian Orthodox, a very small minority regularly attend worship services. All of that points to the various definitions that people use for a given religious faith. BTW, you can also check out the details as to how many from that 60+% support Christian Nationalism.

      However, I don’t know why the above demographics would contradict the first paragraph of my last comment. I am using specific definitions for democracy and ethnocracy that do not depend on how people identify, but depends on whether the people support full equality or favor some degree of privilege and power for a given ethnicity. The definition of democracy I am using is based on what Jefferson said in his 1801 Inaugural Address when he said even though the rule of the majority must be held, but when the majority does not respect the equal rights and equality of the minority, it is oppression. Then include some of the definition that Jeff Halper uses of ethnocracies. For when a given ethnic group gains power to privilege themselves and the nation is said to belong more to that ethnic group than any other ethnic group in the nation, you have a hierarchy between groups. Once you have that hierarchy, you no longer have equality. And once you no longer have equality between the different groups, then you have an authoritarian regime even if democratic processes are used to choose leaders. Why is that the case? It has to do with the beginning of each word. Demos refers to all of the people while ethos refers to a given ethnic group. And religion is counted as an ethnicity.

      Regarding your last paragraph, no one is asking Christians to celebrate every faith. I have had friends who are Muslims and I don’t celebrate their faith. But I do very much respect their presence here and would defend their right to have whatever kind of presence here that their population dictates as much as I defend the right of Christianity to have a presence here according to their numbers.

      See, in a democracy with equality, we share power in order to collaborate. In a political situation in which there is hierarchy, one competes to gain and consolidate control in order to rule. And regarding the Great Commission, the Apostles were clear in describing how that would be fulfilled. It is by the preaching of the Gospel by which the Great Commission takes place rather than the seizing of political power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *