How Non-Classical Families End Up In Classical Schools

Dec 3, 2020

How do non-classical families end up at classical schools?

I take for granted that every classical school has at least a few families who are not terribly interested in classical education. This truth cannot be blithely dismissed with a recitation of that old proverb, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time,” because the ten least classical students at any classical school—regardless of the size of the school—determine half the topics of conversation among the entire student body. The least classical students have a disproportionate sway over student culture because their wisdom is in the minority, their wisdom is rare, and rare things are always desirable for this reason. Thus, it behooves a classical school to make sure their least classical students are still fairly classical.  

I do not take “classical” and “non-classical” as binaries, but opposite ends of a spectrum. When I say “non-classical,” I mean families who would prefer: more technology in the classroom, more formal prep for standardized tests, a more recent and relevant curriculum, more conventional school spirit events (prom, homecoming, pep rallies, wacky dress days), visual-oriented lessons for visual-oriented learners, relaxed rules about students dating, fewer dead languages, fewer rules governing student social media use, less Augustine, more “grace” and less discipline, more college prep, more study sheets and predictable tests, fewer creeds and catechisms, and far more attention paid to marketable corporate virtues like community, leadership, teamwork, diversity, and world-changing.  When I say “non-classical,” I also mean the sort of Christians who believe every tradition is “a vain tradition of man,” every ritual “an empty ritual,” and every form of piety “mere superstition.”

Despite all this, I am not using “non-classical” in a pejorative sense. As I have argued before, classical education is less of a movement than a fan club. Classical schools should come together around a shared love of the same things and thus a classical education should be forced on no one. Rather, every mother or father who sends his children to a classical school should be “fully convinced in his own mind” that a classical education is best. If a man does not want a classical education for his child, I harbor no ill feelings toward him. I wish him the best and hope he finds the sort of school he is looking for elsewhere.

Neither am I assuming that “classical” and “righteous” are synonymous. It is entirely possible for an old-fashioned luddite to be a royal creep. I am not some fool who believes that people used to be good until the internet made them bad or that there is something special about traditional things that makes their possessors immune to temptation.

Thus, as opposed to saying that non-classical families at classical schools are guilty of duplicity or dishonesty, I would like to suggest that most have simply made an honest mistake.

The ascendent popularity of classical Christian schools has been more or less concurrent with the rise of boutique culture and corporate virtue-signaling. Every modern clothing brand, snack company, and jewelry shop now presents itself as a little church because the modern store must have an inspiring origin story, a noble cause, a fashionable philosophy, and a global network of empowered employees. The modern customer must feel that in buying something for himself he is actually fighting evil. Simply selling delicious bread at a reasonable price is no longer a business model for a bakery.

Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the average woke café sells very good coffee, the average woke bakery sells very tasty biscuits, and the average woke jewelry merchant sells very handsome necklaces—which is where matters get dicey for classical Christian schools. While conservative Christians are willing to acknowledge that coffee is way better today than it was twenty years ago, they do not believe there is much of a connection between the virtue-signaling of a local roastery and the quality of their roast. Likewise, for some people, what is attractive about a classical Christian school is that evolution isn’t taught in science class, fashionable politics are not taught in literature class, the uniforms convey a certain level of discipline, and predictably teenage vices are not tolerated. What more could a reasonable Christian want? The lengthy presentation the school offers prospective parents about virtue, leisure, Latin, rhetoric, Dorothy Sayers, Doug Wilson, John Senior, John Henry Newman, and Renaissance humanism is perceived as nothing more than the sort of nerdy obsession with details that now accompanies every modern boutique product. One easily imagines a conversation between prospective parents while driving home after touring a classical Christian school:

Husband: Great looking school. The students seem really nice, too. One of them called me “sir.”  Although, the guy giving the tour was really into the whole classical thing, right?

Wife: I know. That classical part didn’t really do anything for me.

Husband: Same. I am sure some people get really wrapped in that, but my interests in the school are just far more basic. I don’t need Latin and rhetoric to sell me on a school where the students are that polite.

Wife: You don’t think we’ll need to get into the classical thing, do you?

Husband: Eh, no. I mean, some people join the military because they are super patriotic. Some people join the military because they want stability and a good-paying job. Both sorts of people can make fine soldiers.

Wife: That’s a good way of putting it.

This couple have made an understandable mistake. Their reasons for sending their children to a classical school are not bad. In a consumerist, pluralistic, boutique-minded culture, we have all had to listen to the true believer give a lengthy, idealistic spiel about some conventional product for which our own interest is real, albeit shallow. However, while this couple’s reasons for choosing a classical school are not bad, in the long run, they are bound to find classical education quite vexing.

Why?

Because sending your child to a classical school means giving up on quite a bit of what the world finds important— and when I say “the world,” I don’t just mean the Democratic party. The fact that two fathers vote the same way does not mean they are raising their sons the same way. This is also true of two fathers who attend the same church, even two fathers who are elders at the same church. There are plenty of Christian dads out there who vote Republican and would not mind all that much if their daughters became successful swimsuit models. There are also plenty of Christian dads out there who would be mortified if this happened, but both dads can find plenty to like about classical Christian education, at least from fifty yards away.  

For many non-classical families, the peskiness of classical education does not really show up in earnest until high school. There are several reasons for this, the most important of which is that classical elementary classrooms do not use classic books, which really are the sine qua non of classical education (sorry, methodology). As soon as Augustine, Aquinas, Boethius, Benedict, Bede, Chaucer, and Calvin are being taught in earnest, students and parents see a rather massive chasm open between “classical” and “Republican.” Neither are “classical” and “my church” necessarily compatible on all fronts, for there are a good many churches today that appeal to Republican voters, yet openly mock and belittle ritual, ceremony, dogma, catechesis, tradition, and so forth. “Classical” simply cannot be made alloy with every manifestation of Christianity out there.

High school is also the point at which grades become monetized. Non-classical families have a tendency of viewing grades as the ultimate barometer of a child’s well-being, which means that as long as a non-classical sophomore boy has a good GPA, his non-classical parents are generally less concerned with the fact the boy has terrible taste and spends four hours every day playing video games. An exhortation that parents curb their son’s screen addiction is bound to seem nit-picky, judgmental, and old-fashioned. Teachers will always be “on the boy’s case” and seem incapable of admitting that one need not be a bore to be successful. When the boy’s grades drop, his parents are apt to accuse teachers of being vindictive. Parents who are disgruntled about such matters are bound to quickly discover other parents are disgruntled about the same matters. The next time the school is forced to draw a thoroughly classical line in the sand (about curriculum, senior theses, hiring or firing a certain teacher), a perceptible number of families decide to send their children elsewhere. Most schools go through these “corrections” about once every ten years.

Non-classical families will also be frustrated by the classical school’s resistance to educational trends supported by “the latest studies,” the school’s reluctance to bring in young and relevant motivational speakers to address the secondary, the school’s baffling resistance to playing very cool (and totally clean) Christian rap songs at basketball games, the school’s complete lack of interest in throwing support behind benign fashionable social causes, the school’s unwillingness to raise every 89% on a report card to a 90%, the prudish standards of modesty which govern the selection of sports uniforms, and the school’s insistence that dull hymns be sung at chapel when all the students would obviously prefer praise choruses. Simply put, non-classical families will eventually begin to wonder why classical schools aren’t more normal, more conventional, more like every other private school out there. They will wonder why classical schools make everything so hard for themselves and so hard on their students.  And then they will begin pushing for their classical school to be less classical.   

In writing all this, I do not mean to suggest that non-classical families should be squeezed out of classical schools. Rather, I believe classical schools must do more on the front end to communicate to prospective parents what exactly “classical” means so that non-classical families do not waste their time and money. “Classical” does not simply mean Latin, Rhetoric, and Homer. It means a preference for traditional things, a disenchanted view of “recent studies,” a somewhat cynical stance toward fashionable corporate virtues, a willingness to laugh at self-care, a refusal to see “grace” and discipline as enemies, and a belief that truly loving students means not establishing student-oriented classrooms.  

Latin, Rhetoric, and Homer are simply too easy for prospective parents to agree to. “We don’t care so much about grades as we do the souls of our students” is easily confused with relativism, an emphasis on self-discovery, or belief that “self-care” is virtuous. What classical schools need, then, are a series of jarring, disruptive questions to ask prospective parents that communicate just how strange, how countercultural, and how hostile to the zeitgeist classical education really is.

While it is tempting to say what exactly I think these jarring, disruptive questions ought to be, I should simply say they ought to concern (corporal) discipline, smart phones, and social media. The rest I will leave to the reader’s imagination.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething 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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