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Recently a book of mine underwent a perplexing treatment in the New York Review of Books. Normally one is pleased to have one’s book reviewed there (my editor was ecstatic) as the journal has a circulation of over 135,000 and boasts of being “the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language.” This review, however, written by Dr. Erin Maglaque, combined a highly complimentary and (what is more rare) mostly accurate account of the contents of the book with, at the end, sharp disagreement with my presumed political beliefs, as though to warn readers against considering the book’s contemporary relevance. I have never had a scholarly book of mine placed in a partisan political frame before, hence my perplexity. 

The reviewer’s account of my personal political views was inaccurate, but what concerned me more was her misrepresentations of the classical education movement in America. Maglaque writes, “The classical learning movement is partisan. . . . The classical renewal movement is one part of the culture wars that have riven American education.” She adds, “It won't surprise anyone to know that the Christian nationalists and neoliberal free marketeers whose interests have coalesced in the cause of classical charter schools don't actually care about Petrarch. They want to dismantle the public school system and teachers’ unions. . . . Hankins has aligned his scholarship with this movement.”

I wrote a response to the review. I thought that publishing the letter in this Renatae Literae column, with the kind permission of First Thingseditors, might prevent fair-minded readers from too readily slathering the movement with the sticky tar of politics. 

Letter to the Editors
New York Review of Books

I read with interest Erin Maglaque’s complimentary review of my recent book, Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena (“An Overabundance of Virtue,” NYRB September 21). Her main point of disagreement lies with my contention that what I call “virtue politics” might have a contemporary application. I won’t argue that point, since I have an extensive discussion of it in the next issue of The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies. I do, however, think that Dr. Maglaque misleads her readers when she characterizes the classical education movement as a right-wing political project. In my view classical education (a variation on traditional liberal arts education) is something that progressives can and should support. 

I take it Dr. Maglaque is British, so I don’t blame her for not being better informed about the classical education movement in this country. I have spent some years going to classical education conferences, trying to inform myself about the movement, meeting its leaders and classroom teachers, and writing about it. Dr. Maglaque seems to take her information from reports published by the Network for Public Education, a partisan advocacy group for public schools. A large proportion of its news items lately have been devoted to spreading alarm about the classical school movement, which it commonly presents as an arm of Republican Party politics.

It is certainly the case that a number of Republican politicians have embraced the classical school movement in the last several years, particularly in Florida and Arizona. But the project goes back for decades, and existed long before the current phase of the culture wars. My father, after his retirement from a business career, was involved in a classical school during the 1980s and ’90s. Great Hearts Academies, the largest classical charter network, began in the 1990s. It is also true that classical schools vary greatly in quality and levels of funding (something that could also be said of public schools). 

It is not true, however, that classical educators think of themselves as weapons in the hands of Republican ideologues. Almost everyone I have met in the movement avoids making political statements and wants to keep contemporary politics out of the classroom; that, in a way, is the point. I have met no advocates of Christian nationalism, whatever that is. Some are Christians, others are not. Classical charters, which are public institutions, as a rule do not provide religious instruction. Most teachers become part of the classical education movement because they love the liberal education they themselves received in school and want to hand it on to the next generation. Many are distressed that this no longer seems possible in some (not all) public schools. They want their students to be able to receive the deep humanity of Shakespeare and the glorious music of Milton without having to negotiate political minefields. 

I do not think public schools as such are the enemy. Many of them are excellent and filled with dedicated teachers. I know this because five members of my immediate family have made their careers in public schools. Too many public schools, however, have not shown an appropriate restraint and have alienated families with their aggressive politics and their contempt for the religious beliefs of students and parents. They lack the civil virtues, a deficiency that, sadly, has become a general one in our hyperpartisan society. That is one reason why somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of public school parents (and 15 percent of black parents) have withdrawn their children from non-charter public schools since 2020 and have sought classical alternatives. It is also one reason why, according to the latest Gallup poll, trust in American public schools is at historic lows. K–12 education is best served when teachers and parents work together with mutual respect, and party politics is kept outside the walls of the school. That, unfortunately, is not the case at present in many school districts.

The past is a foreign country, but no educated person should want it turned into enemy country, the exclusive preserve of “white supremacists” and “right-wingers.” The Western tradition is too valuable for it to become the foster child of one political party. It should be handed down, with all candor and suitable critical rigor, to future generations. The current tendency on the illiberal left to subject it to ignorant attacks and demonization is destructive of civilized values. 

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article claimed that the NYRB did not publish Hankins's letter. They later published it in the December 7, 2023, issue.

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Image by John Gilbert licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.  

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