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Classical Education Is Taking Off. What’s the Appeal? (Opinion)

Classical education has seen remarkable growth in recent years. Since the pandemic, hundreds of new classical schools have opened. Across the nation, it’s estimated that there are around 1,000 classical schools in operation today. These schools have tapped into a population of families attracted to their “back to the future” emphasis on the great books, traditional virtues, and the foundations of Western civilization. But it’s not always clear what this translates to in terms of pedagogy or practice. What’s driving the appeal? What’s happening in these classrooms? And where does this model fit in the educational landscape? To answer these questions, I reached out to Rob Jackson, the founder of Classical Commons, a web-based social network designed to further the advancement of classical schools. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Rob, there’s a lot of talk about “classical education” today. But that term strikes me as pretty vague. So, for you, what exactly is classical education?

Rob: Simply put, classical education is a recovery of liberal arts education, where language, mathematics, history, and the sciences are integrated in K–12 academics. Good and great works serve as the exemplary content for those subjects—e.g., Herodotus on history, Faraday for chemistry, literature from Jane Austen, and so on. In addition, most classical education incorporates training in the fine arts and athletics for a well-rounded experience of schooling. Most importantly, K–12 classical schools place character—which includes the development of intellectual virtues like understanding and craftsmanship alongside moral virtues like courage and self-control—at the center of students’ formative years. In short, classical education is a holistic approach to schooling that encompasses mind, body, and spirit.

Rick: So, practically speaking, how do curricula and instruction look different in a classical education school from what’s in other rigorous school settings?

Rob: The use of good and great works distinguish a classical education from a nonclassical one. Classrooms are filled with exemplary models of language, scientific reasoning, musical composition, philosophical speculation, and more, which serve first as standard-bearers—i.e., this is what greatness looks like—and then as models for emulation. In many ways, classical schooling is an apprenticeship to the great minds and creators of the past, where students develop their own thinking and creativity by close study of past masters. First, they study the master’s craft through careful observation and analysis. Then, they repeatedly practice producing similar arguments, demonstrating proofs, drawing objects, and so forth. Classical education resembles the atelier, or workshop, of a master artist, where students apprentice under the guidance of the master—learning and practicing the use of tools, materials, techniques, styles, and so on to produce fine art of their own.

Rick: What you’re describing strikes me as quite different from popular instructional practices such as project-based learning or SEL. Is that fair? How do classical educators generally think about these kinds of practices?

Rob: While the virtue of justice is certainly central to a classical education, teachers in this tradition recognize the integral quality of all the virtues. If you want justice done, you’ll need to develop courage, self-control, and prudence, at the very least, for justice requires giving each person what they deserve, and often the ego is the source of error and injustice. The tradition teaches that much injustice is done by those who claim to be acting in the name of justice. As for project-based learning and SEL, we could get into the finer details, but suffice to say that human flourishing is the objective of classical education.

Rick: How many classical schools are there? Do they tend to be private or public?

Rob: We estimate that nearly 1,000 classical schools exist today in all 50 states. Nearly three-quarters of those schools are private, while the remaining quarter are public charter schools. Interestingly, state funding of classical charters has propelled increases in their student populations, which are often two to three times the size of their private counterparts. And that does not include the hundreds of thousands of home schoolers who are pursuing classical education. Private classical schools can be found in every state. Public classical charters are more likely to be found in states where charter laws have been receptive to the growth of classical—which has happened largely in the past decade. Arizona, Texas, Colorado, and Florida have dozens of classical charters.

Rick: I’ve the impression that there’s been growing interest in classical education, but that’s rooted more in anecdote than evidence. What do we know about that?

Rob: The number of classical schools has doubled in the past 10 years. The growth in the last decade has been aided by the arrival of a few charter-management organizations taking the classical model to scale, including Great Hearts, Founders Academies, American Leadership, Classical Academies, etc. Then, there’s the Hillsdale College Barney Charter Initiative, which has provided support—in the form of a liberal-arts curriculum, counsel, training, and best practices—for two dozen schools within its K–12 school network. However, the vast majority of classical schools are operating independently, in relative isolation, which means that we have an opportunity to develop some collective wisdom by connecting these schools to discover the many ways in which classical education serves diverse local communities.

Rick: You mentioned Hillsdale’s charter initiative. As readers may know, Hillsdale is a famously conservative college. Indeed, it strikes me that classical education is frequently regarded as “conservative” in today’s polarized environment. Is that accurate?

Rob: It’s disappointing to see classical characterized as political, as though studying good and great works with children was intrinsically partisan. So, no, I don’t think it is accurate. In fact, “conservative” and “progressive” are categories that were established in the past 200 years. This means that it would be anachronistic to apply those labels to the study of politics in antiquity, the medieval period, the Renaissance, and early modernity. The classical schools with which I’m most familiar read deeply and broadly into the political philosophical tradition, from Plato through Marx, while studying the history of various regimes from antiquity to modernity. In that sense, classical education is philosophical and pre-political, seeking to teach students the political options that exist based on human thought and the historical record.

Rick: Can you talk a little more about what happens in classical classrooms? What do pedagogy, assessment, and technology look like in these schools?

Rob: I’ve touched on the imitative or apprenticing aspects of classical education. It might be helpful to discuss Mortimer Adler’s useful description of the “Paideia Proposal,” which includes studying great works in three distinct ways: didactic instruction, or lecture; coaching in skills; and conversational seminars. You will see all three in a good classroom. The assessment of students will measure their ability to retain certain information from the didactic component, practice specific skills under the coaching of the teacher, and explore great works in the context of a vigorous conversation among peers, guided by a teacher. Technologies from the book through the web are used judiciously in a classical school, but cellphones and digital distractions are severely limited—for the sake of focusing students’ attention on the good and great works that they are exploring and learning to emulate.

Rick: At a gut level, I find this all pretty appealing. But is there much in the way of evidence to suggest that the classical model is effective?

Rob: Yes, there is—but much of the evidence is anecdotal and aggregated from local classical schools, where students have attended, gone off to college, graduated, and are now making their way in the world. Alumni of classical schools are qualitatively better prepared, in academics and in character, than their nonclassical counterparts. For instance, classical graduates have exceptional standardized-test scores and very high college-acceptance rates. Moreover, classical education is concerned with the quality and character of the graduate—including intellectual qualities such as wonder, inquiry, and discipline and moral qualities like compassion, generosity, and courage. If classical education accomplishes its purpose, a young person becomes knowledgeable, competent, and good. Still, the classical world needs more empirical evidence of its success: Though there has been at least one longitudinal study of classical alumni, there need to be numerous studies of the long-term effects of classical liberal arts education. I think we are on the cusp of an educational revolution, and it deserves to be chronicled by scholars and researchers around the country.

Rick: I get the sense that classical classrooms require highly skilled teachers with deep subject knowledge and skill at leading seminars and discussions. How hard is to find these teachers? Where do they get trained and what kind of support do they receive?

Rob: Sure, it’s harder to find the right kind of teachers. They need to have both the subject-matter expertise and the pedagogical acumen to deliver the content with didactic instruction, seminars, and the coaching of skills—no easy job! What we’re finding is that the best teachers love their subject area and are always growing in their understanding, even while they continue to master the craft of teaching their subject to K–12 students. Training is being done within schools and networks, but we’re also seeing higher education get involved with graduate programs designed specifically for classical education. And we’re on a mission to bring those colleges and universities into contact with K–12 communities across the country, through a virtual platform, social network, regional programs, and a research agenda that creates a K–20 ecosystem around classical—a national organization of local communities united around classical liberal arts education.

Rick: Finally, we live in a time when many in education have argued that the Great Books themselves are outmoded or irrelevant. How do you respond? And, more generally, how do you explain the value of classical education in a 21st-century world of TikTok and AI?

Rob: We should point out that any criticism leveled against the Great Books can first be found in those books. Simply put, classical education is a systematic program of study highlighting the best arguments in every subject area. Thus, when it comes to exploring specific topics, a classical education introduces students to a chorus of authors who prepare students’ minds to engage those topics. For example, if you want to root out racism, you should read the greatest thinkers and arguments that address the perennial human error of viewing others with disdain—e.g., Augustine, Bartolomé de las Casas, Ghandi, King, and others. Such writers remind us that society’s defense of human dignity is ongoing—and those writers inspire the next generation to take up that just cause. A classical education equips today’s students with a treasure chest of ideas from which they can create a more humane and just society.

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