The Problem with Classical Education Part 1: Are Classical Educators Proud and Elitist?

The Problem with Classical Education Part 1: Are Classical Educators Proud and Elitist?

Some of you may have read the recent (9/19) cover article by Dr. Louis Markos published in Christianity Today entitled “The Rise of the Bible-Teaching, Plato-Loving, Homeschool Elitists.”

The title certainly piques one’s interest, as does the subtitle: “How evangelicals are becoming the new champions of the pagan classics.” I like the article very much (indeed, I am quoted in it), but I can’t say I like the title. The article really doesn’t address the charge that there is elitism among classical educators, and the article discusses classical schools as much as, if not more than, classical homeschoolers. That said, the article is very well worth reading (though currently one cannot read the full article on the Christianity Today website without a paid subscription). 

Are classical educators elitist? Are their children? Some think so.

I have a friend, Ashley*, now a classical educator, who was once a student in our local classical school. Her mother approached her as she began ninth grade and said, “Now that you are in high school, your grades and GPA will be recorded and seen by colleges when you apply–so you should work hard to keep it high.” To which Ashley replied, “So I can be better than other people?”

Ashley, as a classically-educated ninth-grader, had been taught that education was for human flourishing and an offering and gift for every human being. At her classical school “grades” were downplayed and growth in virtue was played up. Perhaps she had grown in virtues of humility, industry, temperance, and love for truth. Now she was told it was time to….compete. To her credit–and virtue–she resisted. 

This anecdote illustrates not only the predicament of modern grading and testing practices but the criticism that classical educators are elitist. Grading does foster competition and competition creates winners and losers and winners are often boastful and proud. Ashley sensed this and wanted out of the game.

The irony is that while most classical educators regard education as largely consisting of the cultivation of virtue and humanity, their students do happen to excel on the SAT and other testing instruments. In other words, classical students are in the game, and they tend to score quite high. 

Now I can state this with one attitude or another. I can state this with gratitude and humility, and even with some concern, because an SAT score hardly represents a student’s full education. Or I can trumpet this fact every chance I get with a triumphant smile bordering on a sneer.

There is some good evidence that classically-educated students excel on standardized tests, and very well in college. This has been documented by the Association of Classical Christian Schools through a long, expensive, third-party study that tracked classically-educated students over many years. Students in ACCS schools score higher on the SAT than students in every other school category, including independent, private schools. See here.

How does one even report this fact without being charged with pride or elitism? In this polarized political climate, we are all skilled at sniffing out arrogance and pride. We are generally suspicious of one’s motives and on the lookout for various forms of hubris and privilege.

If the mere gathering of facts by the ACCS is hubris, then there is no conversation to be had, and we will stay in our corners, as our political and educational tribalism increases.

On the other hand, when pride does raise its ugly head, it should be called out, and the proud should repent. 

I am a classical educator, and an ardent advocate for the renewal of classical education. I have been humbled by my experience over the last 22 years in the renewal, but I am also tempted to pride at times. Let me, in what follows, try to describe why this is the case. Let me also try to tell you when I think the charge of elitism has merit, and when it does not. I begin with a little history of the renewal of classical education to give you context. Much of what has happened has humbled us; some of what has transpired tempts us to vainglory.

I joined the renewal of classical education in the United States in 1997, when I unexpectedly found myself the founding headmaster of a small classical school in central Pennsylvania. I was a headmaster for ten years until I left to lead Classical Academic Press full-time. The ride from that first day on the job as a headmaster has been wild to say the least— like riding a tiger.

It has been an exhilarating, and often exhausting, journey. There has been much gladness and a good deal to celebrate. There has also been noted sadness, disappointment, and folly. Like all forms of education, classical education is a human enterprise and its renewal has been human too. 

We can compare the recent recovery of classical education as a bridge-building endeavor. Over the last 30+ years we have managed to construct something like swinging rope bridge back to this tradition of education. It is wobbly and narrow. A new generation is now at work on this bridge and rebuilding and widening it with sturdier wood. The next generation, we hope, will rebuild it with stone and greatly increase the traffic back and forth. For the time being we continue to hold on tight. 

Over the last 30 years, we have encountered a particular set of challenges, a few of which I will recount below. Please note that when I use the word “we” and “our” I don’t mean to imply that all or most classical educators are in view. I often have myself and many of my friends in view. There is a wide range of people engaging in the recovery of classical education today, including a growing segment of those serving the disadvantaged in our urban centers, as well as those serving in other continents.

The first difficulty is simple: We have tried to give what we don’t have. How do we pass on a meaningful liberal arts education that we don’t have ourselves? You can imagine the gaps, mistakes, and occasional folly to which this leads. You can imagine, perhaps, how imperfect and fumbling such a recovery must be. How do we teach Latin properly to our students when there is a great shortage of qualified Latin teachers? Logic? Rhetoric? The truth is, we often started to learn these arts ourselves while teaching our children. Generally, this nonetheless proved beneficial and good (though not always!) but it’s true also that many students were not taught these arts very well, especially in the early years of the renewal. It is better now, but we still need many more teachers and parents who are proficient themselves in these liberal arts. This difficulty has humbled us. What cause then for boasting?

So we have not been well-equipped to educate classically, yet we jumped in anyway. Many of us have learned by teaching, and have gradually become proficient or perhaps just sufficient. We have a long way to go, and there are few masters among us. There has also been some failure along the way–students who were taught poorly enough that they now have a distaste for or are indifferent to say Latin, logic, rhetoric, and Shakespeare. The same can be said about our teaching the “Great Books”–lacking deep training in these books means few are able to teach them in a great way. This, too, should humble us.

Another challenge: We have been fully-trained by our own teachers and have become like them (Luke 6:40). This simply means that having been patterned by 20 years of our own conventional education, we find ourselves by default teaching the way our teachers taught us. How does one shake off a pedagogical habit that one does not even recognize? This is another reason why the bridge back to the classical tradition is wobbly. Pedagogically, we are still learning what it means to teach “classically.”** What cause, then, for boasting? 

For a long list or reasons too long to mention here, classical educators generally believe that classical education is the best education for their children. Sometimes, however, the way we classical educators criticise modern education has left us vulnerable to a charge of pride and perhaps elitism. Most of us appreciate public education in various ways even while we critique it and none of us (that I know of) would dismiss all other schools as without value. We have also been critical of ourselves. No doubt, sometimes when preaching to the choir we exaggerate our achievements as well as the deficiencies of modern public education. Some of our critics, witnessing this may rightly call a foul.

I argue that there is some good (including classical elements) amidst the bad in our public schools, and there is a great variety of quality among them. I would argue, too, that there is some bad amidst the good in classical schools. The bad that persists in classical schools and homeschools is another difficulty we continue to face.  I recall one year as headmaster when I gathered the staff to study how to grow our school “from good to great.” After a few months of self-study, we determined that a “good to great” project at our school was presumptuous–we weren’t really good yet at all. How could we be good at delivering a classical education that we lacked ourselves? We changed the project name to “mediocre to good.” In retrospect, I think we were not even mediocre at that stage. What we attempted was very good; they attempt itself was limited by our ignorance and inexperience.  Naturally, looking back it all seems clear: We were not masters of the liberal arts nor the great books. We required students to take too many subjects at a time. We assigned too much homework. We taught Latin and rhetoric badly.

Still, we all had to begin at the beginning, and so we did.  We sought in fledgling ways to return to a robust study of grammar (largely through Latin), logic, and rhetoric. We started teaching a collection of “Great Books.” We slowly developed a warm collegiality among students, parents, and teachers. Slowly, we began to notice that through our fledgling efforts many students began to flourish in encouraging ways. Many not only “performed well academically” but displayed an inquisitive spirit and fondness for the books they were reading, the history they were learning, even mathematics. We kept at it.

Our greatest error, however, was to fall prey to a common temptation–to take ourselves too seriously. The temptation is understandable, but nonetheless lethal. We were giving our lifeblood to start these little classical schools, swimming upstream against the strong current of the culture, with tiny budgets, enduring those watching who thought us nostalgic, antiquarian, quixotic, and generally misguided. Noting this crowd of watchful skeptics all around us, perhaps you can understand this temptation to exaggerate the good. We doubled-down to make our schools successful, and sometimes we were animated by the prospect of proving the skeptics wrong. We all know how this works: Success (even when mediocre success) can be one’s downfall.

Chesterton says a man should take his mission but not himself seriously. He says angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. He quips that the devil fell from the force of gravity. Once we become grave, somber, and serious about ourselves we are done for. The Scriptures teach that “God opposes the proud” (Proverbs 3:34) and therefore any classical educator who becomes grave and proud on account of his success will be divinely opposed and then fall.

How do we fall? We become calcified, triumphant, defensive, easily offended, and joyless. We become serious, exacting, and critical of spirit. Schools that trumpet the superiority of the classical tradition with a brittle, dour tone will often start to dwindle, and good work and ideals will be spoiled. If the school atmosphere becomes smug and somber, fewer people wish to continue and fewer wish to come–no matter how strong the curriculum.

I hope the narrative above give you a sense for why and how we classical educators have stumbled as we have engaged the mission to recover classical education. We have reasons to be grateful and gratified, but not boastful and proud. Whenever we have displayed defensiveness, arrogance, condescension, and pride, we are guilty and should repent. Most of us have grown proud at times, and have expressed such pride to others. This is a serious matter that not only injures others but hinders our own work and puts it at risk. When the critics point out such pride–sometimes called “elitist”– their criticism hits the mark. 

Let me now turn to some criticisms of elitism that I think miss the mark. Some have called our expressions of enthusiasm for classical education, or reports of academic success among our students as expressions of elitism, as if we classical educators consider ourselves and our children part of a privileged, exclusive class. 

The words elite, elitist, and elitism should be clarified. “Elite” normally means “the choice or best of anything.” You can see how this can lead to a boastful attitude of “being the best” or gloating in one’s superior achievement or status. This we can call elitist–defined as “considered superior or best by others or oneself.” Elitism, then, is “consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group.” 

Success—even great success—need not be elitist. One can be a truly great violinist, say, and be humble and grateful. An elite violinist (one of the very best) need not be full of pride and display an “elitist attitude.” We, in fact, admire elite athletes, musicians, and artists, without automatically charging them with pride and arrogance. 

Therefore, if a classical school has (as one example) the highest SAT scores in a region, that in itself ought not lead to a charge of elitism. These students may be elite students in the sense of performing very well (or the best in their region) on these tests, but without being proud and condescending, or wishing to exclude or be better than others. The same could be said of the parents and teachers. Certainly, no critic should rejoice to see these students perform worse. Certainly, no student, parent, or teacher should boast and brag on account of something like an SAT score. 

Sometimes the charge of elitism seems to specify that classical education is preserved only for the wealthy and well-educated “elite” who can afford and provide such an education. This charge has some historical merit, dating all the way back to the Greeks and Romans who made use of slavery at times to ensure their own leisure and study. With the advent of Christianity, this practice was curtailed and education was gradually made available to virtually all (with some sad exceptions).  Today, however, classical education is not the privilege of the wealthy only. While there are classical schools that serve a majority of upper middle and upper income families (like so many private schools in general), most schools serve a majority of middle income families who sacrifice greatly to send their children to these schools. Many thousands of middle-class homeschooling mothers have left the workplace to teach their children, forgoing a great deal of family income and personal accolades. There is a growing number of classical schools serving the urban poor. If the charge of “elitism” means “only for us wealthy folks”–well you won’t find many wealthy among us.

In my role as a consultant, I have traveled to more than 50 classical schools, and I speak and cavort about at some 10 classical school and homeschool conferences each year. In these places, I do encounter some pride among classical educators and parents. They are, however, a very small minority in my experience. The great majority of those coming into the classical tradition of education are humbled by it, the way one is humbled upon entering the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with its permanent collection of more than 2 million works of art. The tradition of the liberal arts and the Great Books is dazzling, deep, long, and wide, and will never be mastered. Entering this tradition, like entering the museum, one feels small. Anyone who boasts that she has “got the Met” is delusional. Anyone who boasts she has “got classical education” is the same. It can’t be gotten, but only engaged.

I conclude, therefore, that sometimes we classical educators have displayed pride and an elitist or “superior” attitude. Please forgive us. Sometimes, however, the critics have charged us with elitism whenever we (or others) note the achievements of our students or the growth of the classical education renewal in general. Let us all forgive one another, turn from our pride, and truly educate the next generation.

In my next article, I will address the charge that classical education is largely western, white, male, and European, and therefore not suited to those outside of this tradition. Until then, I welcome your comments and criticism of this article.

*Ashley is not her real name. She is real, though, and an excellent educator.

** We have been working hard to learn what it means to teach “classically” and well. The annual conferences of the ACCS, SCL and the Circe Institute, provide helpful training as does ClassicalU–an online teacher training platform our company has developed.


Cutting School: Why Classical Schools Fragment Education and Turn Learning into Subjects

Cutting School: Why Classical Schools Fragment Education and Turn Learning into Subjects

In a previous article, I argued that classical schools, like their progressive counterparts, “pile it on” or have too many periods and teach too many subjects. In this article, I argue that classical schools also “cut up” the classical curriculum into too many sections, resulting in more diffusion and fragmentation than we should countenance. Why do we have so many “subjects”? We have lost our ideal for what unifies and harmonizes education and human life.

In 2012, British author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson delivered a speech at the Richmond Forum on revolutionizing education in America. After hearing his presentation, a student in the audience asked him a question along these lines: “Do you think it wise for us to integrate our studies across the disciplines?” Sir Robinson’s response was that the world is already integrated—it is we who have disintegrated it.

I love the way he turned common thinking about education on its head with such a comment. The world with all of its fascinating variety, from bubbles (why are they always spherical?) to elephants, is already an integrated whole.

In our mad drive to break things down and apart, we have lost sight of the wholeness of things. “Analysis” (from the Greek analuein, “to loosen, dissolve”) is the word we use for breaking things down into their constituent parts. Analysis is good—we do need to study the various parts of an engine, a molecule, or the human body. But a study of the parts alone is never sufficient without remembering that the parts, well, are part of something. A piston ring is interesting; a metal block that contains a string of countless explosions (the internal combustion engine) is astonishing.

The world used to be called a cosmos—one great, big, beautiful ornament, or an arranged harmony. It was often compared to an organism—something living, something vital. The cosmos was an enchanted whole, existing for a purpose, and containing various integrated elements, all moving toward ends according to their essence and design. Put another way, everything that existed had a cause: a cause for its form and a cause for its purpose or end. Nothing was a mere, brute fact; all things were coordinated and “going somewhere.”

We have sanitized the living cosmos, even sterilized it. And it seems the most we can do with a purposeless world is to cut it up into pieces for careful examination. This began to happen in earnest during the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Studying the material of things (and, for many, becoming convinced there was nothing beyond the material), we sought to put nature on the rack, as Francis Bacon said, and extract her secrets.

Let me give credit: We did learn a thing or two, for the deep study of material reality does indeed merit study and reward it. With the telescope and microscope, we saw things we had never seen before. We were astonished to discover so many more parts to our world that our unaided human eyes could never see. And the great scientists (Kepler, Galileo, Bohr, etc.) expected that these new parts were in fact ordered, that they in fact did have purposes and ends, even if they were kept secret for centuries. In fact, most of these seminal scientists assumed an invisible order behind the material order they observed—they studied matter deeply without becoming materialists.

So I do not reject the deep study of material reality; I only reject the premise that material reality is a dead reality. I do not reject examining the various parts of any whole, but analysis need not become an autopsy. The world derives its life from its divine origin; once that is rejected, analysis will become a lopsided “parsing” of the world with no vivifying unity. With no unity in the cosmos, we will have no unity in education—no more genuine universities, where the many verses are folded into one (the Latin ūnus, “one,” and versus, “toward, facing”). Instead we get fragmented departments and various subjects.

Our common current vocabulary does signal our breakup. Our world is fragmented, and therefore so are our schools, studies, and terms. As a fragmented school is not unified, it is therefore weak, therefore fragile. In Latin, frangere means “to break,” frāgmentum means “something broken,” and fragilis means “brittle, fragile, fleeting.” The Latin simply reminds us of the connection between breaking up and breaking down.

Our word “college” used to signal a “collection” of scholars who gathered to read (see the lectio in our word “collection”) and teach a common curriculum; now it does not. We are left with traditional educational words (university, college, liberal arts, grammar, logic, rhetoric) that have become squishy and vague, connoting something revered and cloudy from a past we have only recently forgotten. Contemporary colleges, working out the latest expression of our reigning American ideas of materialistic relativism, pragmatism, skepticism, and pluralism, are split and fragmented, likely beyond the possibility of unification. Departments and majors have multiplied, fields of studies have proliferated, and one can get a graduate degree in “areas of study” that even twenty years ago would have been considered bizarre and beyond serious academic inquiry.

When there is no unity, there is also no criteria for what is “academic” or “nonacademic,” for what is excellent or lacking excellence. Without unity, the implications for learning follow logical lines: Why should Shakespeare be considered greater writing than The Vampire Diaries? Why shouldn’t we study “Tree Climbing,” “Getting Dressed in the Morning,” “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” or “How to Watch Television”? Colleges can and do offer such courses now, and usually without any sense of irony.

Here is the rub: American high schools have been designed to prepare students for what our colleges and universities have become. The trends on our college campuses become the curricula of our high schools. Classical schools want to return to the studies of a common canon of the Great Ideas and the books that contain them; modern high schools want to (and need to) make students ready for modern colleges without a canon.

Classical schools are working hard to remember what we have forgotten (and to remember that we have forgotten), and have been trying to do so for about thirty years now. It turns out that remembering is hard. It turns out that what was forgotten over two or three generations is not recovered in a single decade. We have been doing good work recovering the classical trivium (first) and then the classical quadrivium (second), while slowly learning to integrate learning and study across the curriculum and cultivate a vibrant culture (third). The work has begun and is well underway. We have not yet, however, come to terms with the way that time and space are ordered in our schools.

Our schools are generally drab, pedestrian, and pragmatic in design. That is to say they look and function like virtually any other modern school. This is not surprising, nor is it really a criticism. We have been formed in these kinds of schools, and our blindness is only healed gradually. Now, however, there are many who are seeing our school buildings and schedules for what they really are: modern and progressive. (Aside: What should a school look like? Visit a monastery or any college at Oxford. Build a school around a garden.)

The ordering of time and space matters, and it matters deeply. We are embodied creatures and our five senses are very good qualities indeed. I will leave behind concerns about our school space and architecture (though these are related dynamically to our use of time and space) to focus on the fragmentation of time. We might say that our buildings are “cut up” in ugly ways; so is time. We cut up time into seven or eight fifty-minute periods with a brief twenty-minute lunch period crammed in the middle (your school may have a thirty-minute lunch period, but measure the amount of time that students actually get to spend eating). Most classical schools follow this pattern as an inherited educational norm (like the way we grade). Most classical schools are just beginning to question the practice.

Thus, we are left with “periods” and “sections.” Even these words connote the science of dividing, rather than unifying or harmonizing. Secāre in Latin means “to cut,” and we indeed cut our way through education. Our word “period” suggests a small unit of time after which we definitely will have to stop. In our class sections and periods, we know that we take a small cut at something and then stop in short order—often just when things were warming up. Our learning is periodic. We constantly start and stop, we cut learning short, we sell learning short. It is no surprise that many American students are inclined to cut classes, or cut school altogether. They want to do what we do to them. We cut school; they cut school.

There is an irony here, because classical schools know that learning should be integrated, and seek to integrate subjects and to integrate faith and learning. You might remember that a whole number in math is called an integer. Both “integer” and “integrity” come from the same Latin root word, integer, literally meaning “untouched” and thus something that is unimpaired, undivided, or whole. Learning should be holistic, for if Ken Robinson is right, the world lies before us already integrated.

But even to call our courses of study “subjects” can be problematic. The word “subject” has a legitimate use as a generic word for any directed matter or study. It is similar to words like “theme” (a general conception running through a composition of some kind) and “topic” (often meaning a more specific idea treated in a section of a composition or speech). The reason I think we have grown comfortable with the word “subject” to refer to courses of study is that we have so widened our “curriculum” that it can include just about anything. Thus, we need to use adjectives to further modify “subjects.” We have traditional subjects, literary subjects, mathematical subjects, vocational subjects, technological subjects, classical subjects, linguistic subjects, and so on. We used to study the liberal arts and the four traditional sciences (natural science, moral or human science, philosophical science, and theological science). There was a time when virtually all that we studied was either an art or a science, and with a clear idea of the difference between the two.

The word “subject” originally meant something “thrown beneath,” as something thrown before you for your examination and consideration. Now virtually anything can be thrown at our feet, and virtually anything is in our modern schools and colleges. Virtually anything one encounters can be a subject, possibly even configured into a four-year degree. While we cut up the curriculum, we find that the curriculum has become a pie as big as the moon—so we must press on with our cutting, as there is so very much to divide.

I know the words “section,” “period,” and “subject” are here to stay and can be used without causing cancer. Still, what if we used some older words instead? Consider the following:

  • Art: from ars, artis, which means “skill, craft, craftsmanship.” This is the fitting word for any of the seven liberal arts. Each liberal art is a study in verbal or mathematical skills that find application in any human study or enterprise. Art can also be applied to the fine arts that connote something we make or fashion that is an end (finis, “end”) in itself.
  • Science: from scientia, “something known, knowledge.” Any collected, organized body of knowledge can be called a science. In this sense, biology and chemistry are sciences, but so can philosophy and theology be regarded as collected, organized bodies of knowledge, and thus sciences. We use our training in the liberal arts to classify, collect, categorize, arrange, and organize a science. The liberal arts enable us to create sciences.
  • Discipline: from diciplīna, which means “learning, teaching, instruction, training, habits, discipline.” A discipula is a student (female) or a learner engaged in a discipline.
  • Form: from fōrma, “shape, idea, kind, model, pattern.” The British refer to their “grades” as forms.
  • Course: from cursus, “a passage, journey, course.” This word connotes that we together are heading in the same direction to an appointed end.
  • Session: derived from sedere, “to sit.” A session is a gathering in which we all come together and sit down to learn.
  • Seminar: from sēminārium, “a nursery or seed plot.” This is a place of exploration, discovery, and planting and growing seeds. Often the seminar is conducted around a table.
  • Symposium: a Greek word that means literally “with a drink.” This generally connotes a larger gathering of mature learners who gather for discussion, usually hearing from several presenters or lecturers.
  • Conventiculum: literally a “coming together.” This Latin word can also designate a place as well as an activity, and may be smaller in scope than a convention.
  • Convention: a “coming together” that generally will involve a larger number of people.
  • Conference: literally a “bringing together,” often with a small number of people who gather to discuss a given topic.
  • Colloquium: literally a “gathering to talk or discuss,” usually on a designated topic. Any class that is dedicated to discussing a particular topic could be called a colloquium. (The plural is “colloquia.”)
  • Tutorial: a class in which a tutor guides and instructs either an individual or a small group of students.
  • Forum: This Latin word means “marketplace.” A forum today is a gathering for the purpose of discussing questions, often with a larger group, and possibly in a public setting.
  • Workshop: a seminar or discussion group that emphasizes the exchange of ideas surrounding a particular art and the demonstration of a technique or skill.
  • Disputation: from disputātiō, “discussion, debate, dispute.” A traditional word for a debate in which a resolution or claim is disputed by two parties, following a moderated and formal pattern of exchange.
  • Declamation: from dēclāmātiō, “practice in public speaking, oratorical exercise.” A traditional word for a set speech prepared on a theme in which persuasive counsel is given for resolving a dilemma and adopting a wise course of action.
  • Oration: from ōrātiō, “a speaking, speech, discourse.” A traditional, general term for a prepared speech.

After contemplating all of the above, why do today’s classical schools, like progressive schools, still fragment the curriculum—still cut school? The answer is simply because classical schools have been busy working on other pressing matters, even pressing priorities. We have been working on reimplementing the seven liberal arts and the Great Books. We have been working on cultivating a culture of wonder and delight.

Over the last thirty years, many of us questioned what we found in our progressive educations, but only recently have we begun to question the wide, sectioned curriculum. To be honest, at first many of us did not have the eyes to see it. Yes, we changed or substituted the subjects. We brought in Latin, logic, and rhetoric—but we still called them “subjects” and treated them as such. It turns out they are not so many subjects among a sea of other subjects. It turns out they are arts that cultivate humans to be the fullest versions of themselves. It turns out they are the occasion and setting for mentorship, formation, and friendship. Perhaps they are holy places where we learn to love the True, Good, and Beautiful. They are not mere subjects.

Now, however, it seems time to dedicate our full attention to the matter of putting back together the pieces of our fragmented curriculum. Just how we might do this will be the subject of my next article, on reunifying our classical curriculum. In the meantime, I welcome your ideas, suggestions, and criticisms.

Piling It On: Why Classical Schools Have Too Many Periods and Teach Too Many Subjects

Piling It On: Why Classical Schools Have Too Many Periods and Teach Too Many Subjects

Piling it on . . .

Over the years, a question has continued to rise before me like a puppy on alert after hearing a strange sound. Why do we organize a school day over eight periods, and why do we teach up to twelve subjects to students—sometimes all in one year? Like so many of our modern school practices, it turns out that this is not a traditional, classical practice. The classical tradition insisted upon multum non multa—much, not manyas a meaningful approach to study.

We moderns, however, have fallen in love with the buffet line. We like to sample many foods and fill our plates with small servings of nearly everything. I myself love the buffet line, or a really good potluck. Our church hosts one every Sunday (yes, every Sunday). I scan the line of dishes as I approach to make sure I don’t fill my plate with some good x when there is some scrumptious y ahead. I usually succeed in gathering a remarkable collection of about eight to ten different dishes.

It turns out that a buffet can be a marvelous way to eat, but not such a great way to study. To study and learn well, humans have learned that it is important to study a few things deeply, even to mastery, rather than to dabble and sample dozens of things. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, while recounting his junior-high education:

In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life. Smewgy taught us Latin and Greek, but everything else came in incidentally.

Studying and learning well is more akin to building a house than to strolling through a buffet line. A foundation must be laid, and laid very well. It is no good doing much of anything else until a solid foundation has been dug and poured. Then we turn our attention to framing; then to wiring and plumbing; then to exterior walls, windows, and a roof; last to interior walls, flooring, and finishing work. There is a natural sequence to building a house, and each stage in the sequence requires mastery for a lovely, strong home to exist. The sequence matters—no one can start building with a roof. Mastery matters—a poor foundation will risk destroying the entire edifice.

I am sure that to you, reader, the analogy is obvious. In “elementary” school we should teach the foundations; in “primary” school we should teach what should come first; in “secondary” school we should teach what comes afterward. “Higher education” should follow secondary education, and so forth. We know this, and our educational vocabulary signals it. Yet we don’t follow this wisdom well. How can a secondary high school student reasonably track ten to twelve subjects across an eight-period day without dabbling? After all, “no one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty.” How many of us, looking back on our own secondary and college educations, realize that we mostly dabbled, and mostly have forgotten all of our dabbling? We are not even a “jack of all trades,” but instead commonly a “master of none.” Why, then, are we so comfortable having our children do just as we did?

Even AP high school courses, despite granting students high school and possibly college credits, are often not much more than another kind of rapid-pace dabbling. Students who read twenty-three novels in AP English in a given year may get to skip English 101 in college, but many have not digested or grown to love the books they raced through in high school. CliffsNotes are quite popular with such students, as we all know, but surely reinforce our dalliance with literature.

Classical schools, like other modern schools, generally follow a curriculum that, according to Lewis, dabbles far too much. Our graduates really don’t “know” Latin; many of them don’t do math, or study literature, history, math, or science “incidentally.” There is usually no room for any of this incidental or accidental learning, because we fill students’ every hour with all matter of what becomes academic “stuff.” Sadly, loves are not cultivated by rapid sampling or “drive-through” courses of study—or by simply asking students to pile their plates high with great heaping helpings of the True, Good, and Beautiful. We have a phrase to the effect that one’s eyes can be too big for one’s stomach. In contemporary classical education, I fear that our eyes are too big for our students’ souls. We dish it up, eight periods a day, with eight different enthusiastic chefs serving large amounts of what we know our students will want and love. They, however, have had enough.

I have exaggerated a bit to make a point, hoping the point will reach its mark. Some schools employ block scheduling and have dialed back the number of subjects students must track. And, yes, some students can manage our rigorous schedules and curricula. Many, however, burn out or lose their passion for study.

To those of you still chafing under my critique—well, I chafe, too. I find myself, however, compelled by Lewis and the classical tradition that knows little of our wide curriculum and eight-period day.

What I think we should do in response will have to wait for another post. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts, suggestions, ideas, and criticism.

Here is a video version of this post, for those of you who are interested:


A Restful Return to School

A Restful Return to School

I have various memories of returning to school. I was not homeschooled (virtually no one my age was), so school was a matter of returning to a bricks and mortar building, year by year, sometimes facing the prospect of a new school, with new teachers and scores of unknown students.

I grew up in a Navy family (the NCIS to be precise) and spent 11 of the first 17 years of my life overseas in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam. I attended a mix of schools–Department of Defense schools, local private schools, local public schools. Like so many military kids, I Iearned to be adaptive, moving from place to place, school to school, making new friends at each new location. For me, returning to school several times meant attending a new school at a new place. I adapted and made my way well enough, but not without some stress.

I am sure that many of you, like me, can remember the stress of attending a new school. Even if you did not move from place to place like I did, you did move from elementary school to a junior high school, or from junior high to high school (unless you attended one of the few K-12 academies). How did you experience the first day of school–or the first week? At Hogwarts, there apparently is a sorting hat that will direct students to one of four houses, where you will be placed with the right sorts of people for your temperament and background. I was not sorted so well going from school to school. I had to “sort things out” the best I could on my own. Do you remember that loneliness, that sense of displacement, that sense of not knowing one’s place and yet longing for it?

In Latin sors, sortis means “lot”–as in the kind of lot that is cast. It can also mean “allotted duty,” “prophecy,” “fate” or “fortune.”  Many of us returning to school felt as if we were encountering some predetermined, unknown fate. It was not usually a pleasant experience. Think back to entering the big, consolidated high school as a freshman. Casement windows that did not open, polished floors, fluorescent lighting, loud buzzers, cafeteria chaos, raucous bus rides, the terror of changing and showering during gym class. How would we fit in? What sort of people would be my people? What sort of person am I?

As I mentioned, I made my way, but I had to learn to be as wily as Odysseus. I learned to assess those who appeared charming but meant me harm, and those who while less popular were thoughtful, interesting and trustworthy. On Guam, as a white minority student, I learned the ins and outs of being the odd one out, the one sometimes viewed as an outsider and intruder. I learned how to play it safe and stay safe by making the right alliances, choosing those places to be that risked less trouble.

I had some good teachers, some bad teachers, and many mediocre teachers. The private Catholic school I attended for two years featured some excellent Benedictine teachers but is also featured some dismal non-Benedictine instructors. Math and biology were taught very well. The rest is a blur. The public school I attended my junior year was filled generally with well-meaning mediocrity. The few admirable teachers I heard about were not available given my schedule. I barely recall reading that year; I do remember thinking that it was distinctly clear that my Algebra II teacher did not want to be teaching algebra at all.

That was my high school experience until my senior year when I moved from Guam to South Carolina and finished by senior year of high school at the local public school. I think I graduated with a few hundred seniors. I was shocked to find myself part of large group of white students. Having been a minority on Guam, I had no hesitation engaging my African American classmates, but I noticed they typically stayed among themselves at lunch and other social settings. I played football, which enabled me to become friends with several black classmates, but our friendships had difficulty transcending the football field.

That was me. How about you? Mention “high school” and most of us can recall a flood of such memories as I just did. How would you qualify “returning to school?” For me, it was a combination of anticipation, hope, and fear.  It was stressful.

Many of us now are either homeschooling our children or sending them to a peaceful classical school. Would it not be wise for us to consider how we can ensure that our own children avoid the stress of “returning to school” that we experienced as so normal? How can we welcome the new year of study with a kind of liturgy of communal gratitude? How can we help provide a restful return to school? Here are some ideas that I have either witnessed or that come to mind:

  • Plan to welcome every child into the school or homeschool–for a solid week. Plan a weeklong “liturgy of welcome.” Children (and yes, adolescents) need not just one word of welcome on the first day of school; they need ongoing gestures of warmth, reception, delight, and inquiry.
  • Don’t jump immediately into academic work. The first two days should be focused on orientation, fellowship, and forging friendship. Academics can be woven into these activities, but not so as to detract from the purposes of commencing communities of friendship.
  • Lead with those activities, therefore, most conducive to building community and friendship: music, play, contemplation, story, food and drink.  Getting outside (especially if the weather is beautiful) for both guided and unstructured time can also help students to form friendships as they can observe one another in setting apart from the classroom.
  • Invite parents to be a part of things. Education should be intergenerational and collaborative (i.e., Paideia). Those of us in classical schools and co-ops should be serving together as a community of co-educators. Returning to school is a much more enjoyable activity–especially for younger children–when mom and dad are also present through most of the day.
  • Put God in the center, not the margins. In our public schools, God has been legally relegated to the margins of school life (an issue, for the moment, we ignore). We should do the opposite and help our children see that all education–and thus returning to school–is under God and the blessing of God.
  • Think about the ways in which you were ushered back to school 30 years ago–and then consider doing the opposite.
  • Don’t sort; salute. Exchange fate for faith. Don’t worry; welcome. Don’t rush; rest.

I hope the advice above will stimulate some thinking and wake us up a bit to the importance of salutation and welcome. Let’s greet one another with a holy kiss. If you homeschool, that should be easy indeed.




John Henry Newman and Classical Education

John Henry Newman and Classical Education

Some of you have heard of John Henry Newman, or Cardinal Newman as he is often called. Those of you seeking to renew the classical tradition of education, no doubt have come across Newman’s name, and some of you have read through at least parts of his famous book, The Idea of a University. This is a book and writer that cannot be ignored.

To understand the state of classical education in the Victorian era, when classical education was beginning to falter and diminish, Newman must be read. He is a bright light seeking to illuminate and preserve the classical tradition of education at a time when a great fog was rolling in, a time when a secular paradigm for learning was ascendant, a time when the value of studying classical languages, literature, and theology was being questioned and mocked. Newman held forth the flame, and not only defended the tradition, but managed to brilliantly restate it for his own time, and extend it.

Newman was born in 1801 in London. He went to Oxford University at the age of 16, and after graduating become a tutor at one of the colleges there—Oriel College. While serving as a tutor (professor) he also was ordained as a priest in the Church of England and served as the vicar St. Mary’s, the university church.

He and several other colleagues at Oxford become concerned with the ways they perceived the Anglican church to be drifting from its more liturgical and sacramental aspects and began to call for a return to traditional liturgies and practices that resembled those of the Roman Catholic Church. This renewal movement became known as the Oxford Movement and was described as Anglo-Catholic. Newman was the chief writer of many small pamphlets or tracts arguing for this “high church” renewal. In 1845, Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1879 was appointed a cardinal in the church–at the age of 78.

When Newman was asked to found a new Catholic University in Ireland, he delivered a series of nine lectures in Dublin that were then collected and published in his book The Idea of a University in 1852. This was about the same time (1872) that Nietzche was railing against the deterioration of the German university system which he thought was being destroyed by what he called a “micrological” pendantry. Newman argues for traditional liberal education, that instead of seeking hyper-specialized knowledge sought to master the studium generale which he translates as the “School of Universal Learning.”

For Newman, a liberal education was its own reward, valuable for its own sake, and befitting someone who would truly be free. For Newman education was the cultivation or perfection (full development) of the intellect–“the true enlargement of the mind and the power of viewing many things at once.” He is truly eloquent on this point, offering not just a restatement of the ancient Greek ideal, but revivifying it. I quote at length, so the reader can get a sense not only of Newman’s thought, but his eloquence:

To have even a portion of this illuminative reason and true philosophy is the highest state to which nature can aspire, in the way of intellect; it puts the mind above the influences of chance and necessity, above anxiety, suspense, unsettlement, and superstition, which is the lot of the many. Men, whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and are startled and despond if it happens to fail them. They are ever in alarm or in transport. Those on the other hand who have no object or principle whatever to hold by, lose their way, every step they take. They are thrown out, and do not know what to think or say, at every fresh juncture; they have no view of persons, or occurrences, or facts, which come suddenly upon them, and they hang upon the opinion of others, for want of internal resources. But the intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another. It is the [tetragonos] of the Peripatetic, and has the “nil admirari” (nothing to surprise) of the Stoic,—

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas, (Happy is he who can understand the causes of things)
Atque metus omnes, et inexorabile fatum (And the fear and inexorable fate of all [death])
Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari. (He throws underfoot, with the din of the greedy Acheron river)
There are men who, when in difficulties, originate at the moment vast ideas or dazzling projects; who, under the influence of excitement, are able to cast a light, almost as if from inspiration, on a subject or course of action which comes before them; who have a sudden presence of mind equal to any emergency, rising with the occasion, and an undaunted magnanimous bearing, and an energy and keenness which is but made intense by opposition. This is genius, this is heroism; it is the exhibition of a natural gift, which no culture can teach, at which no Institution can aim; here, on the contrary, we are concerned, not with mere nature, but with training and teaching. That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.

I think I can safely say that nearly no one speaks this way today about education. To our ears, “the perfection of the intellect” is masked by the din of the Acheron River–the river of the underworld–our coming demise–or by the yelps and hoorahs of current carnival culture, with its ubiquitous distractions. What’s worse, we don’t even know what the words “perfection” and “intellect” mean as Newman uses them. To tell an 18 year-old college student that we seek the perfection of his intellect is like telling him we that we think he should “develop his cognitive capacities”–bleh.

Newman was able to restate and revivify the classical tradition in the middle of the 19th century–and he continued the great conversation about education. Who will do this in the early 21st century?

I will leave the reader with one more distinctive emphasis found in Newman: education is essentially a relationship, a friendship between student and teacher, making a university a vibrant community of learning. When we talk of education as the cultivation of virtue, we are certatinly echoing Newman (who was restating the great thinkers before him); When we talk of education as community, we are also echoing Newman. Students learn from teachers and colleagues. Humans, he thinks, are compelled by nature to engage in “mutual education”—we can’t help but to share knowledge and educate one another. The university is one evolved and grand way we do this; it is a place “for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse.” While the university may represent a pinnacle of learning, he argues by way of illustration that similar kinds of “university” education exist in the education of a gentleman, politician, scientist, city-dweller and catechized Christian.

Man cannot live by books alone. Newman loves books, but he regards those capable of writing books to be best at cultivating wisdom and securing an education. Why not just read great books? Newman’s answer: Why not study personally with the authors? Why not become an academic disciple? If you could study with the man and not just his books—wouldn’t you do so?

This “man to man” personal intercourse Newman calls a rival method, a method that rivals the mere reading of books, and all attempts to become a self-educated man or woman. While we admire those who have read many books and studied “on their own,” we instinctively know that a full education requires a relationship with a master. Christ said as much when he said that “a student is not above his teacher, but when he is fully-trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Newman says the same when he argues that the life of a study “which makes it live in us, you must catch… from those in whom it lives already,” and “we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom.”

Haven’t we all known a self-educated man or woman who lacked the deeper, living wisdom found in those who had been tutored by a virtuoso? Don’t many of us lament that while we have learned from our private reading, we long for a person who embodied those books and who could better guide, lead and teach us?

Over 150 years ago, Newman makes a case against online learning and internet research as sufficient for a full education. He notes the same objection we hear today from advocates of a wholly online education: “Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge comes down to us?” His humorous description of the “profusion of print” is similar to the contemporary laments of the profusion of distracting digital devices that have nearly replaced our real lives with virtual ones. No doubt, Newman today would exhort us to put down our smart phones and actually converse with one another, face to face, student to teacher, disciple to master. This is Newman’s rival method, the “Oral Tradition.”

Newman raises us for the question: Why have we come to college? What is it we seek at college? Most likely students enroll in collegee for several reasons—to explore new subjects, enjoy new friendships and community, prepare for a working career, to grow in wisdom. Of these good goals, should any be chief among them?

For his part, Newman privileges the communal cultivation of wisdom and knowledge as the chief purpose and “idea” of a university. The word “university” means (from the Latin) “turned into one” such that many various parts might come together in a unity. It is similar to our word “college” that is derived from the Latin collegere, which means “to gather.” A college is a gathering of scholars and students who come together in a unity qualified by excellence in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge.

Newman mentions that universities have a kind of gravitational pull, attracting excellent thought, scholarship and interchange. If true, this means it is a great honor to attend a university and associate with such excellence, with a fair chance that we might acquire some small quantity of excellence ourselves. In fact Newman says that “excellence implies a center.” Perhaps he was thinking of the Latin root for excel, for it is excellere, which means “to rise up high, to tower.” Universities and colleges are known for their high towers that symbolize at once the quest for knowledge and wisdom, the reach for greatness, and the call for us all to gather and seek together. For many of us, it is at college that we grow up.

For further reading: 

  • Certainly, the reader will want to consult Newman’s The Idea of a University (1852).
  • The reader may also want to read his brief essay by the same name that can be found online or in the Harvard Classics, volume 28. This essay was published in 1856 as part of a book called The Office and Work of Universities and is clearly derived from his previous book bearing the same title as the essay. This essay presents Newman’s distilled thought about the purpose and function of a university, and has become a classic description of the traditional model of university education.