We have been hearing a lot in recent months about a staffing crisis in district public schools, teacher burnout, and the large numbers of teachers planning to leave the profession sooner rather than later. The National Education Association, a union representing nearly 3 million public school teachers, published a document in February with some eyebrow-raising statistics: 90 percent of members say they feel that burnout is a serious problem (67 percent say very serious), and more than half, regardless of age, say they plan to leave the profession sooner than expected because of the pandemic. Of course, this being the NEA, the document ignored the teachers union’s own responsibility for the costly mistakes of public schools in the pandemic era. It segued immediately into the usual tone-deaf demands for more taxpayer funding, higher salaries, fewer hours, more protections from COVID, and so on and so on. Other recent reports describe the rapidly accelerating flight of students and teachers from district public schools. The cat is finally out of the bag about what is being taught in the public schools: politicized history, radical gender ideology, and racialized and decolonized everything else. Meanwhile, math and reading scores continue their decades-long slide.
If you are as depressed as I am about the state of K-12 public education in America, one way to cheer yourself up is to take a look at what is happening in the classical education movement. There you can find teachers and parents who love to teach, high enthusiasm for learning among students, and institutions devoted unashamedly to fostering love of personal virtue, family, and country. As far as I can tell, nearly every classical K-12 school in the country is growing, some rapidly. The rubric “classical,” mind you, can apply to any school following a classical curriculum, whether public charters, private schools, parochial and religious schools, flexible microschools, or homeschooling communities. Classical schools in all categories now have long waiting lists, and new ones are being founded almost every month. If the sound coming from district public schools is like the slosh of dirty water circling the drain, the sound of classical schools is of fresh springs bubbling up in the mountains. As the old Christian humanists of the Renaissance used to urge, ad fontes! Back to the classics! Back to the sources of civilization!
A few weeks ago I was in Arizona for the fourth National Symposium for Classical Schools, held under the aegis of the Institute for Classical Education (ICE). The institute, headed by Robert L. Jackson, was created to serve teachers and headmasters in the largest and most successful classical charter school network in the country, Great Hearts Academies. The network numbers some forty schools (up from 33 in 2021), located mostly in Arizona and Texas. Not bad for a company that started twenty years ago in church basements and strip malls. The institute has gradually expanded its remit, and now exists “to promote civic and personal virtue through the strengthening and expansion of classical education”—not just for Great Hearts but for the classical education movement throughout the country. Its function is to raise standards of pedagogy and to develop a philosophy of education for the movement that flows from understanding the priceless value of the Western inheritance.
At the symposium I saw that the process of building alternatives to public schools suffering from woke capture was well underway. We are now far into what might be called the glossy-brochure stage of the movement. First come the various associations of classical schools: the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education for Roman Catholic schools in the movement; the CIRCE Institute, which is not affiliated with any church; and Classical Conversations, which works with Christian homeschoolers. There are new magazines and journals: ICE’s own Virtue and a just-launched scholarly journal, Principia. The latter is a joint venture between ICE and colleges like Templeton Honors College, Hillsdale College, and the University of Dallas, which have graduate programs to train classical K-12 teachers. Classical Academic Press has long been the chief textbook publisher for the movement and also offers online courses and teacher training. Lately it has branched out, through its Scholé Groups, to sponsor summer programs and year-round reading groups for home education communities. Some new companies like ESI specialize in teacher recruitment and offer administrative services. Others, like the Paideia Institute and the Institute for Excellence in Writing, offer online programs in subjects like Latin and Greek and English composition to homeschoolers or new schools that may lack expertise in some subjects. Classical schools and homeschoolers have their own testing service, the Classic Learning Test, to provide an alternative to the increasingly moribund SAT and ACT college admissions tests.
As I saw in Phoenix, people in the classical education movement don’t spend a great deal of time bewailing the condition of schools controlled by progressive teachers’ unions. Too depressing. They find their joy in rediscovering and reviving the great educational traditions of the past, in the chance to teach moral and intellectual virtues, eloquence, love of country, and the traditional arts and sciences. Classical educators know they are participating in a revolution, in shameless acts of civilizational renewal, and they are plainly experiencing the euphoria of all those who enlist in successful movements. There is a certain kid-in-a-toyshop attitude, a sense of astonishment that abandoned, centuries-old techniques of learning are just lying about, ready for someone to pick them up and use them again. Memorizing poetry, what a great idea! Logic and rhetoric? You mean there are ways to teach people how to think clearly, how to express themselves persuasively? Cool!
ICE’s symposium this year, held in the Phoenix convention center, was the largest ever. It was attended by around 500 teachers (with another 100+ online) as well as invited speakers and other supporters of the movement. This year’s theme was “For the Love of Poesis,” and the focus was how best to integrate literature and the arts into classical schools. There were lectures and workshops on painting, drawing, sculpture, music, and theater, as well as on teaching fiction and poetry. The emphasis was on encouraging students to produce their own art and music, their own theatrical productions, and their own stories and poetry in traditional meters. In the hallways of the convention center, teachers had set up display boards to show off the best student work, and student musical groups were on hand to perform. Students are learning classical drawing techniques and playing classical music, and the level of accomplishment in many cases is remarkably high.
To my ears the loveliest refrain came in the hymns to beauty heard everywhere among the symposiasts—the need to perceive it, to seek it out as the condition of good art and a happy life. It was almost as though the twentieth century's flight from beauty, and the culture of transgression in art, had never happened.
The symposium’s first keynote lecture set the tone. Frederick Turner, the distinguished New Formalist poet and an authority on the science of aesthetics, laid out evidence from physics, neuroscience, and anthropology that beauty, far from being “culturally constructed” or a fiction of bourgeois culture or a sublimation of sexual desire, was rooted in the structure of nature itself, the evolution of the human body, and the cultural evolution of all human societies. The human person has a “neural lyre,” a “spiritual sense of gravity,” that is attuned and oriented to the real structures of beauty that underlie creative processes in nature. Nature has a “feedback loop” that gives us pleasure when we perceive beauty. We can perceive beauty naturally, but through culture—through the classical genres of art created by our civilization—those perceptions are amplified and deepened and directed to personal and social goods. Without teachers to pass on the arts of civilization, human life becomes deeply disoriented and we lose our sensitivity to the most refined, worthwhile pleasures.
Thanks to the classical education movement, some children, at least, will not have to live their lives unable to perceive the beauty in Shakespeare’s sonnets, Michelangelo’s Pietà, or Handel’s Messiah. It’s a pity so many, trapped in politicized schools, will have to endure a diminished humanity. But the door to the classical school is open.
James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.
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