Classical, Christian Education as a Battle

How a Jewish thinker, Leo Strauss, opened me to faith

As schools adopt radical leftist ideologies, American parents and politicians are looking for a refuge. They flock to homeschooling, “classical schools,” Christian schools (ACSI), or classical Christian schools (ACCS and ICLE). Such schooling at least promises to do no damage—not to trans kids, not to promote the queer agenda, not to advance climate alarmism, not to embrace anti-racist radicalism, and, generally, not to dishonor country, marriage, the West, the Christian faith, family, virtue or honor (as public schools do). Classical education—old, respectable, grounded, and full of discipline and standards—provides a refuge from the political madness of our day. It’s the Shire!

Yet imagining that any form of education coincides with a vacation from moral or political controversy (the Shire!) is a naïve delusion. All education is political and hence controversial, as my brothers at AGOGE write. Unless classical schools develop standards of judgment for themselves, a purely negative education leaves a vacuum in the souls of students—one that will be filled with whatever cultural trends are most appealing and powerful. Many students from classical schools either succumb to cultural trends or turn off their brains to remain uncorrupted. Neither response delivers on the essential promise of classical education or classical Christian education.

I learned this long ago, from a Jewish political philosopher, Leo Strauss. Strauss, a University of Chicago professor (d. 1973), is best known for seeking a revival of classical natural right. Though his thought contains deep, abiding and serious ambiguities on fundamental issues, none of that mattered to me when I first encountered him. His unforgettable analysis of the crisis of the west led me to change majors at the university and ultimately to change direction in my undergraduate studies, to attend graduate school, and become a professor.

The Crisis of the West

Strauss spoke directly to the disillusion I felt in my undergraduate education. “The more we [moderns] cultivate reason,” Strauss wrote in the introduction to his great Natural Right and History (1953), “the more we cultivate nihilism: the less we are able to be loyal members of society.” Modern reasoners deny that man can have knowledge of the good and the right. Science today is “instrumental and nothing but instrumental,” as Strauss writes. Universities are based on the fact-value distinction, where social and natural scientists alike claim only to discover maxims of cause and effect in different disciplines—how to split the atom, how to empower the government, how to manipulate human minds. Scientists as scientists disclaim knowing how “facts” can be used. “Values” determine the use of “facts” but a “value” is just the arbitrary, willful choosing of one “value system” over another “value system.” The bomb works like this. Should we drop the bomb on Nagasaki? Who knows? That is a value. Public schools have long reinforced the fact-value distinction through equating tradition or today’s power arrangements with mere prejudice and seeking to eradicate all elements of intolerant ideologies. 

What was most invigorating about Strauss, for me, when I read his writings in the early 1990s, was how he showed that all efforts to evade the question of right and good were fruitless. All approaches were inherently political, in the deepest sense. Even those who accept the fact-value distinction embrace some understanding of right and good. Modern liberals are no different. It is easier to see that today, but Strauss whispered it when dreams of liberal neutrality ruled the day intellectually.

Modern nihilists reasoned that our inability to gain knowledge of what was naturally right and good compelled us to “be tolerant of every opinion about good and right, or to recognize all preferences or all ‘civilizations’ as equally respectable. Only unlimited tolerance is in accordance with reason.” Only the tolerant would be tolerated. No Nazis or truly believing Christians allowed (to use today’s formulation). No strong gods. Belief in tolerance leads people to conclude that “the one thing needful is respect for diversity or individuality” or to favor the “uninhibited cultivation of individuality.” Demands of creating a political order dedicated to such ends have surely but slowly gained momentum since the French Revolution, when political orders dedicated to universal principles of freedom and equality became the norm and countries pointing citizens to Christian duty died out. 

In the contemporary world, ever more radical ideas of what it means to be a choosing individual wrestled for political control. “Genuine choice” as opposed to “spurious or despicable choice,” as Strauss wrote, became the standard of public justice. People wanted to choose their own choice! Nihilists in the grip of this ideology smash the old and re-define conditions for political rule and common life—and their mode of thinking pervades America’s ruling regime and its educational establishment. They act continuously, in a rolling revolution. Accredited American universities embrace this nihilism as a “learning outcome” today. Strauss saw it all coming generations ago. 

I was reminded of how Strauss red-pilled me even before the Matrix was filmed when, at my son’s recent graduation, the president of the university equated higher education with courage in the face of nihilism. This president told the graduates:

Life is a series of trapeze swings. When we release our grip on one bar–the trapeze bar of the past—but before we’ve grasped the one in front of us, we are . . .in a transition zone. That’s the time when we’re airborne flying through space but without the certainty and security of that bar we’re reaching for. . . We often look upon those transition zones as no things, no places in between and we rush through or ignore the moment. I have a sneaking suspicion. . .that the transition zone is the only real thing and that the bars are the illusions we dream of to avoid the void where real change, real growth occurs. For us, you [graduates] are in that moment now and you will have to deploy the strength you’ve developed and remember graduates as you set your course to make your unique mark on the world. Courage isn’t being unafraid. It’s moving ahead even when you’re facing a wall of fear.

No more nauseating example of thoughtless cultural nihilism could be found. Meaning or stability in natural right is illusory. The void of meaning is the place of “real growth.” The transition zone, in fact, where there is no cosmic support for justice or right, is the only real thing. Such meaninglessness must be met with resolution and an overcoming of fear. Shouting, “Nihilism is actually great!” this president whispers assuming that nihilism has a happy face–is tolerant, open, and destructive of the “illusions” of the old. This is morality, today.

The Turn to Classical Education

The leap from nihilism to “celebrate diversity” is both tendentious and moralistic, as Strauss also showed. He asked why should toleration be the response to nihilism? The strongest could just as easily impose their vision of rule in light of supposed nihilistic truths (that was kind of Neitzsche’s point) or tradition could be our ballast in an otherwise un-orderly universe (that was Edmund Burke’s, kind of). How was a human being to choose between toleration, tyrannical force and tradition? Even granting the truth of nihilism (which Strauss did not do), the response to nihilism was ultimately political and moral, and hence contestable.

Many who sense the problem of nihilism are, today, turning to classical education as a remedy. Parents and teachers complain of AI, or phones, or other signs of decadence. Most complain, however, about the symptoms of the deeper crisis where citizens turn their backs on their heritage, their faith, and their political community. Is classical education enough to meet this crisis? Maybe.

The same turn to something like classical education was happening in Strauss’s heyday. He welcomed a turn to great books education, but always with lingering doubts. His essay “Liberal Education and Responsibility” was first an Arden House Lecture in the late 1950s, given to a group establishing an adult great books program. After accounting how “mass society” embraces scientific reason, Strauss writes: “Our present predicament appears to be caused by the decay of religious education of the people and by the decay of liberal education of the representatives of the people.” The Arden House group, he worries, may have been expecting too much from mere liberal education: “Is our present concern with liberal education of adults, our present expectation from such liberal education, not due to the void created by the decay of religious education? Is such liberal education meant to perform the function formerly performed by religious education? Can liberal education perform that function? It is certainly easier to discuss the other side of our predicament—the predicament caused by the decay of liberal education of the governors.” A haunting question for us faithful teachers of great books.

Liberal education seeks to understand the world as it is, rather than to transform it in line with progressive ambitions. There are at least two ways to understand liberal education, first in the name of tradition and then in the name of philosophy. First, classical education or liberal education develop an appreciation for the tradition in Western Civilization. Great epic poems, histories, and the deeds of statesmen provide distinctively Western models of human excellence. Models of virtue and political excellence (Strauss lauds Winston Churchill in this context) can be identified to provide inspiration for those who have inherited our civilization. The purpose of education is thus, in this context, a willingness to conform to what has come before and to understand it as well.

The problem with classical education so understood is that modernity itself is a solvent for all traditions. This is our crisis. Strauss never defended classical or liberal education in terms of tradition, in part because his philosophic nature rejected the idea of equating the old and the good. Instead, less dogmatically, classical or liberal education, as Strauss imagined, identifies most crucial tensions in human life as we understand it—the conflicts between reason and revelation; philosophy and the city; moral virtue and intellectual virtue; human being and citizen; the conflict between justice and the need to love one’s own; the mystery of sexual attraction and its relation to the public good. None of these tensions can be resolved through the methods of modern science. Liberal education understands how these tensions reveal themselves in the great conversation. Options for dealing with these tensions are laid before the educated. Costs are estimated and counted. 

Even this more philosophic conception of liberal education can guide political and moral life. So often in politics, these tensions are erased as fanatics impose a one-sided ideology on society (as C.S. Lewis and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observe as well). Revelation is forgotten. Love of one’s own is dishonored in the face of public justice. Sexual attraction is reduced to bodily rutting. Citizenship is forgotten in the face of the “rights of man” or the virtue of humanity. Statesmen must, in these circumstances, seek to reinstate or reimagine the great tensions in human life under these circumstances; they must swim against the stream of their regime to maintain the manifest tensions in human life. Classical educators must do the same, swimming against the strong tides in their politicized regimes, while regime-aligned educators fit students to be part of the system. 

Yet, Strauss worries, liberal education so understood may not be compelling enough to resist the modern paradigm. Even at an elite level. Proponents of modern science ridiculed the uselessness of classical debates. They promised control of nature and clarity of purpose in our world–very American ambitions. They have also delivered the goods, helping to secure inventions, prosperity, to delay death, and reward labor and trade. Most people work in this system or must work in it. Our modern system detracts from the prestige of liberal learning and from religion. Science justifies our nihilistic assumptions and our teaching of “tolerance” and it corrodes popular attachment to tradition. All this makes liberal education, even where it could be found, weak and unattractive. Modern universities even in the 1950s, however, no longer even knew what liberal education was. Indeed, “liberal education” has mostly been remade in the image of nihilism so that it would never challenge the scientific ambitions or the “open society” of our politics. 

Efforts of revival might have to come from outside the so-called learned professions. Strauss counsels citizens, like those at Arden House, to “set up outposts” that “may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving it its tone,” though he says that he is “hoping against hope” for the success of such a project. 

The Turn to Classical, Christian Education

Once I earned my PhD, I moved to Boise and helped a then-fledgling classical Christian school to get off the ground, remembering Strauss’s talk at the Arden House. Liberal education may offer an alternative to our nihilistic regime for some. Perhaps classical Christian education promises a more effective route, since it seeks to revivify our tradition based on genuine, revealed wisdom. People may turn to classical education to fill the void left by the decay of religion, as Strauss suggested. Perhaps the crisis of the west may be solvable only through a turn to revealed religion as it comes down in the West. Remarkable about Strauss is how little he has to say systematically about Christianity and about Protestantism specifically. Several scholars have added up his scattered reflections to reveal a Strauss pretty hostile to Christian faith (for its universality as applied to politics and for its tendency either to eclipse reason with revelation or to meld reason and revelation to the detriment of the former). 

I will just say that, for me and others like me, Strauss had the opposite effect. Strauss never approached revealed religion with condescension. He always took it seriously as an alternative way of life, perhaps the alternative to the philosophic life. Modern thinkers ridiculed religion as a reaction to ignorance or a fear of the unknown. Strauss took a much higher road, arguing that revealed religion was ultimately grounded in a thirst for righteousness. As a result of this seriousness, Warner Danhauser, a student of Strauss, once said that Strauss was hardly an observant Jew, but he inspired some of his students to become better Jews. Perhaps I am too bold to claim the same thing about Christian faith. Strauss may ultimately have been hostile to Christianity as a philosopher and, perhaps, as a Jew, but his treatment of the crisis of the west and his elevation of the quarrel between philosophy and revelation set me and many others toward taking our Christian faith more seriously, to seeing it as the foundation of everything in our lives.

Can liberal education and Christian education coexist? In some respects, yes. The permanent questions and conflicts dividing the Western tradition testify to the endurance of the created order. No level of prosperity or trade relieves human beings of death or diminishes our concern for justice or righteousness. Christianity responds to the concerns articulated so well in the tradition, in part because it shaped that tradition in decisive respects. Great Questions; Christian answers is a formula for classical, Christian education. There is a Christian way of understanding the specific tensions embedded in our lives. 

On the other hand, however, liberal education culminates in a concern for enduring questions, while Christianity answers many of those questions, dogmatically. Liberal education culminates in philosophy, something arguably  in tension with how citizens and believers live. Liberal education as it often appears in the West today is not consistently an enemy of the open society that is nothing but modern nihilism with a happy fact and a tweed coat or skirt. 

As I see it, classical education is liberal education plus a focus on languages. Latin, Greek and Hebrew are important as anchors for the Western tradition in particular people with particular concerns. Today we should see ourselves as active inheritors of Western civilization’s peaks in Rome, Athens, Jerusalem and London. We are late arrivals to this tradition. Much in our politics today involves obscuring this tradition or judging it by today’s fanatical concept of “individuality” and “choosing one’s choice.” Those who embrace the attitude of classical education must use the traditional knowledge to judge ourselves. Knowing ourselves demands that we know how we emerge from this rich, somewhat varied tradition. 

Why might classical, Christian education be an antidote to the problem of nihilism, the problem of rank in a world where cultivating reason seems to dissolve all attempts to rank and order value? Some people at least are disgusted at how open societies dishonor genuine human nobility and mock the strenuous, moral life. The longings for righteousness (or justice) and for immortality arise because our people know their lives and their communities are significant, while philosophers and nihilists have their doubts about human significance (but for different reasons). The classical tradition unites liberal education, the abiding concerns of the moral life and Christian faith in a fruitful mix. While the liberal arts traditions reveal the tensions that guide human life, Christian education provides answers to deep human concerns. The rich, thoughtful tradition of Christianity guides moral life and addresses many of the tensions that define our lives on earth.
Great questions. Christian answers. And Christian reformulations of those great questions. Those guide classical, Christian education. A civilization where citizens are immersed in such a paideia is more attractive than the meaningless trapeze swinging promised in modern education.

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is Director of State Coalition at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. His Recovery of Family Life (Baylor, 2020) is now out in paperback.

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