5 Common Misconceptions About Classical Education

Aug 17, 2019

With classes resuming next week across the country, it seemed a good time to revisit the most common delusions which beset American classical institutions. It seemed prudent to bypass those delusions which are commonly acknowledged (grades, grade levels) among classical educators in media outlets such as this and to move directly to second-tier delusions which often go unaddressed. As such, I offer the following five observations.   

1. Classical education is Republican in nature. While classical educators are concerned with conserving the great works of the Western tradition, this hardly means everything lately beloved of the Republican party is assumed by teachers in classical schools. Classical education is conservative in nature, by which I mean classical teachers aim to preserve good things from the past and they assume much from the past is worth preserving. To be fair, this is not an assumption held by many modern progressives. While a fondness and preference for old things is definitely conservative, such preferences are not always Republican. Simply put, a classical education does not exist to put a heady theological gloss on the political claims made by the wealthy entertainers who populate Fox News programs. If classical students entering their later high school years are increasingly disenchanted with the bluster of TV news pundits, parents should not suspect the classical school their children attend is secretly infested with socialist eggheads who have been quietly, subtly sowing intellectual mischief all these years. Rather, classical texts espouse classical theories on politics, some of which Sean Hannity would approve of, but many of which would seem outlandish, lenient, and absurd. Anyone familiar with the political thought of Augustine would readily recognize that the great doctor of the church readily, uncritically allowed for the use of torture in political interrogations, but that the idea of nuclear war— wherein pregnant woman and brothels were treated as indistinguishable from priests and cathedrals— would have been thought hopelessly demonic.

2. “Classical education is primarily suited to people who go to my church.” Despite the preponderance of Catholic literature in the average classical school’s curriculum, this is probably a dangerous assumption even by those of the Roman persuasion. Anyone who sends their child to a classical school in the morning will regularly receive their child back in the evening with curious, persnickety questions about theology and philosophy which the average parent might not be able to answer off the cuff. A classical education is suited for people who trust their pastors and priests and are willing to send their children to a clergyman with a difficult question encountered during theology class. A child attending an ecumenical classical school should not be indoctrinated in the dogma of the teacher’s church, obviously, but a classical teacher is teaching the classics and absolutely no church in existence believes everything contained in the classics. Augustine does not agree with everything your church teaches. Dante does not agree with everything your church teaches. Calvin does not agree with everything your church teachers. What is more, it is not the responsibility of the teacher to carefully gerrymander Augustine, Dante, and Calvin such that students never encounter anything which contradicts the teachings of their church. It is my conviction that a good classical education will make a Catholic student more Catholic, a Calvinist student more Calvinist, but this is not accomplished by the teacher agreeing with everything “my pastor says.” What is more, students and teachers alike should be comfortable with the fact that “but Pastor Steve says” trumps the teaching of Augustine only for students who sit under Pastor Steve’s authority, but Pastor Steve’s teaching does not dictate what theological subjects may be broached in theology class.

3. Classical education is about changing the world, or Classical education is about rewinding the clocks to the 1950s. I am perfectly content that the 1950s were a more polite age and that youths commonly addressed their elders as “sir” and “ma’am” and that police were less brutal and pop culture was less banal, but classical education is simply not interested in rewinding the clocks to such an era. Even if the manners and politeness of the 1950s were not irrevocably tarnished by the subhuman treatment of African-Americans in this country, classical education would still have little interest in remaking the 1950s. Classical education is not about the restoration of a golden age, but the preservation of golden things. To put it simply, rewinding the clocks to the 1950s is a laughably small-minded goal.

Classical educators should be far more interested in rewinding the clocks to the 1350s, although even this will not really do. One age might be better than another for food or fashion or art or architecture, but classical educators believe it is good we are here now. All the cautions Christ gives about the evils of “the world” were just as true during the glories of the Renaissance or the Golden Age of Dutch Art as they are presently. People have been dying and going to Hell for a very long time. Human beings have been bartering with the Devil to gain the whole world and lose their souls since the Garden. Even if we could recreate the Paradise in which we were created, we would almost certainly muck it up again. There is no social condition in which a man would not betray God.  

4. Classical students read Virgil’s Aeneid. Or Homer’s Odyssey. Or Paradise Lost. No matter what books are taught at your school, or how many books are taught at your school, your school will always be vulnerable to the visitor from another school who waltzes in, looks at your scope and sequence, and incredulously says, “You don’t teach Virgil? If you don’t teach Virgil, I don’t know how classical you can be.” Let’s cut to the quick: this visitor is a blithering idiot.

If a self-professed classical school does not teach classical books, that’s something of a deal-breaker— and to be frank, there are plenty of classical schools out there where lately-published works by John Piper and NT Wright (or whatever thoughtful theologian is fashionable this year) are taking the place of Augustine, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Calvin, and so forth. However, if a classical school teaches classical books, no one has the right to call that school out for not teaching this or that classical book. While certain classical teachers may favor this or that classical text, no single classical text guarantees the “truly classical” nature of a school. I can imagine a classical school where Augustine is not taught. Or Boethius is not taught. Or Dante is not taught. Or Milton, or Jane Eyre, or Frankenstein. I can even imagine a classical school where Plato and Aristotle are not taught. I cannot imagine a classical school where classical books are not taught, but there are simply so many great books in the Western canon that they all cannot be read. The fear of leaving someone or something out sadly prompts many classical schools to veer off into a survey approach, where little bits and pieces of many classics are read, but none in full.

While I cannot imagine a classical school that did not teach classical books, classical books are not taught for their own sake, but because they are our most reliable witnesses to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. A classical school does not first teach classical texts. A classical school teaches virtue, and only teaches classical texts in support of this greater goal. If anyone comes in off the street and says, “You don’t Virgil?”, simply say, “No, we teach what Virgil taught, which is virtue.”

5. Classical education is about the pursuit of excellence. Of all the misconceptions about classical education, this is the most understandable and the one for which I have the most sympathy. It emerges from a good deal of common sense and has become a common subject of films and inspirational stories we like to hear:

A young man growing up in a tough neighborhood (we will call him Michael) sees that most of his classmates do not care about school, give no thought for tomorrow, and are headed for dead-end jobs. A counsellor or grandparent gives Michael a speech about “being the best” and “pursuing greatness.” Fearful of such a bleak future, Michael redoubles his efforts, shuns popular vice, quits going to booze and drug-fueled parties, gets straight A’s, is mocked and tempted by the cool kids, but finally makes his way to a respectable college, gets a good job, and raises a happy family.

Because such stories are usually quite moving, and because classical schools profess to care about Goodness, parents are sometimes led to believe that classical schools are full of students like Michael and that all classical teachers are primarily geared toward encouraging students to become like him.

Obviously, I am quite happy for Michael. I have absolutely nothing critical to say of him whatsoever, and I think him wise for seeing through the delusions of temporal pleasure. However, the “pursuit of excellence” approach to education is rarely about going to college vs. not going to college, or making it vs. not making it. Rather, “pursuit of excellence” is often (but not always) a euphemism for “being the best” and classical schools are simply not interested in beating anyone at anything.

“Being the best” is always measured by points and dollars and trophies, but Christians work heartily unto the Lord and the Lord rewards His people with treasure that does not rust or break. What is more, being acknowledged as “the best” often involves some kind of capitulation to the zeitgeist. We are not living in the age of Constantine and thus subscription to Christian principles is no longer a fast track to temporal success. “Being the best” often means working on Sunday, bowing to fashionable standards, forsaking tradition— even for those willing to do such things, “being the best” might not ultimately mean producing work of deep, lasting value. While not always the case, “pursuing excellence” often means there is no point in learning to play the cello unless one aims to surpass Yo-Yo Ma, or that the failure of the school’s poetry club to place in the National Poetry Competition means the club should institute great changes in years to come.

However, an average, common sports team should be par for the classical course. Merely competent cellists are also cellists who go to church, enjoy leisurely reads of Jane Eyre on the weekends, and do not make millions recording with Deutsche Grammaphon. As Chesterton once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing even though it doesn’t make you rich, get you scholarships, or earn you a hundred likes on Facebook.”

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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