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Last weekend I attended the “Higher Education Summit,” an annual gathering sponsored by the Classical Learning Test (CLT) in (mask-free!) Annapolis, Maryland. For two days I mixed with the movers and shakers of the spreading movement for classical education among American K-12 schools and colleges. I heard talks from the likes of Robert George, Cornel West, Anika Prather, Spencer Klavan, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Jennifer Frey, and Elias Moo. It struck me how different this movement is from the classical education movement of the period I study, the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance the study of the classics always had an elitist edge. When Petrarch refounded classical education in the fourteenth century, his goal was to fight the tide of ignorance, violence, selfishness, political corruption, and religious indifference he saw rising all about him. The real problems of his time could not be solved by passing more laws or strengthening institutions. Laws were worthless if made by evil men; institutions could not accomplish their goals if the men (and some women) who ran them could not be trusted to do what was right. The character of Christendom’s elites  would have to change if institutions human and divine were to be restored. 

Petrarch’s solution was to found the humanities, a new cycle of studies that would not simply teach students pre-professional skills, but transform them morally and intellectually, restoring some of the greatness of character and intellect that Petrarch found in the ancients. His movement was amazingly successful by any measure: By the middle of the fifteenth century, Italian elites had accepted that classical education was a necessity. Modelling yourself on the noble Greeks and Romans had become a cultural imperative. The Parallel Lives of Plutarch had turned into a kind of humanist Bible.

Nevertheless, Petrarchan idealism wasn't the only thing driving Italian princes, nobles, and oligarchs to learn Latin and Greek and to study classical authors. The humanist schoolmasters and orators who spread the gospel of the humanities in the quattrocento also mixed in the idea that the humanities were a way to enoble yourself and to justify your rule over others. Acquiring moral legitimacy through education was an attractive idea: Jacob Burckhardt, the founder of Renaissance studies, already in 1860 pointed out that Renaissance elites in general had a legitimacy problem. The humanists told Renaissance elites they could acquire “true nobility” by studying the Greek and Latin classics. The idea gradually took root in Europe over the following centuries that classical education was the way that upper-class people should be educated. Classical education acquired snob value. In the plastic arts, in architecture, in literature, and even in manners and mores, classical styles imparted an aura of nobility.

The classical educators who gathered in Annapolis last weekend could be described as elite in the humanist sense. They take seriously the call to cultivate “true nobility,” that is, moral and intellectual excellence. But the type of education they are devoted to is no longer that of the social elite. It’s countercultural, even a touch populist. It’s an education fired by a sense of urgency to preserve precious things in danger of being destroyed. By contrast, the values embraced by (so-called) elite American prep schools and Ivy League universities are now utterly different from and incompatible with classical education. As those of us in education are all too aware, the “elite” schools are now determined to transform their students into political activists. Students are to learn what to think, not how to think. Being elite now means holding a particular set of ideas, not a set of virtues. Virtue is signaled, not acquired.

The classical authors—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and the like—on this view are all tainted with sexism, racism, and white supremacy. To read them uncatechized or uncensored might undermine the pure doctrine of Wokery. Censorship is hard work, and explaining why an author is morally defective only leads students to ask, “So why do we have to read this awful book?” Hence the growing trend among the wokerati to exclude such dangerous authors from the curriculum entirely. I suppose for political types with no love of literature for its own sake, one author is as good as another. Forget Shakespeare; kids are better off reading the works of Donna Gephart. A colleague of mine, recently arrived from Europe, decided against sending his daughter to the most elite (and expensive) private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he discovered that her English classes would assign no work written before the year 2000.

Above all, the urge the young have to distinguish themselves, to shine among their fellows, to win honor, is now being kept under strict control. If someone starts to stand out and show real merit, and an equal merit cannot be ascribed to all the minority children in the class, well, that means the school must be lacking in “equity.” It’s time to call in more consultants.

The meritocratic urge is hard to suppress, though. Another friend told me how his six-year-old boy outfoxed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) trainer at his grade school. The trainer had asked each child to identify one thing he was good at. The interrogation would then continue until the children acknowledged that their special ability was owing to “white privilege.” My friend’s little boy, however, blurted out, “I’m good at DEI!,” a response that left his trainer (temporarily) flummoxed.

One result of all this is that the new trend toward “classical education”—making great works of literature the center of K-12 education—is gaining strength among Christian and more traditionally-minded parents, especially among the rapidly expanding population of homeschoolers. According to Robert L. Jackson of Great Hearts Foundation, between homeschoolers and brick-and-mortar schools, 750,000 to a million students in America are now involved with some form of classical education. What I saw in Annapolis last weekend was a group of people with a deep understanding of the value that great literature has in sharpening intellects, forming character, and enhancing the power of expression—what the old humanists used to call eloquence. The theme of the conference suited this understanding: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” 

The question I’m left with now is how long elites can remain elite when their “elite” educational system is turning the next generation into ignoramuses, people who have never been allowed to think for themselves, androids who know only how to repeat the approved slogans and adopt approved attitudes. A decade from now, won’t the children who have been brought up on great literature, encouraged to think for themselves, taught how to argue and speak with eloquence, urged to develop their full humanity, children who know history and poetry and philosophy—won’t they become the new elite, the “true nobility”?

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

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