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When Classical Learning Meets Public Education, the Dialogue Isn't Always Socratic

March 07, 2024

The future of the controversial classical education movement will be showcased later this month when Columbia University senior lecturer Roosevelt Montás is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at a national symposium hosted by Great Hearts, the biggest classical charter network.

The views of Montás, author of the widely praised memoir "Rescuing Socrates," are well to the left of many in the classical charter movement, which is rooted in Christian conservatism. What makes Montás’ upcoming speech so notable, then, is the signal it sends about the movement’s effort to diversify its brand and project a welcoming attitude as it seeks to expand beyond conservative strongholds and suburbs where it began.

But not everyone is enamored of the effort, neither educational conservatives nor local school officials, unions, and progressive advocates. The latter liken classical charters to a Trojan Horse, sneaking quasi-Christian right-wing dogma into public education under the cover of liberal arts.

That makes classical education perhaps the biggest culture-war flashpoint in the current disruption of traditional public education prompted by the historic exodus of students during the pandemic – even though the movement's numbers are small.

Related: Which Great Books Can Withstand This Canon Fire? Vince Bielski, RCI

In all, there are about 250 classical charters today, according to one study, making them a small niche within the broader charter sector of 8,000 schools and campuses focused on everything from STEM subjects to art to special needs. They have produced both notable successes and scandalous failures in bringing innovation to public education.

Classical education, whose name gained traction in the 1980s to evoke the movement's focus on liberal arts and the Western canon, is struggling to overcome local political opposition and open schools in lower-income communities where most students reside. By making common cause with a range of prominent black and Latino thinkers and educators like Montás, classical charter leaders hope to show that their style of moral education is valuable to students from all backgrounds and beliefs.

“Our experience has been that the bar for opening a classical charter school that serves disadvantaged students is much higher, and that the process gets extremely political early on,” said Kathleen O’Toole, who heads the K-12 program at Hillsdale College, a Christian school at the center of the wrangling. “The opposition paints us as if we're trying to do political things with children, which we are not.”

Some of the movement’s top leaders are outspoken Republicans and have Ph.D.s from the conservative Claremont Graduate University. And some classical charters convey a patriotic zeal in their marketing as a counterpoint to the social justice zeal found in some traditional public schools.

But classical leaders reject the accusation that they are running a partisan enterprise, saying they aim for something higher, in line with Aristotle’s teaching – to nurture in students a desire to find their own answers to the big question of what constitutes the good life.

“We base ourselves in the West, in the culture of freedom that produced the Magna Carta, the founding documents of this country, and the civil rights movement,” said Dan Scoggin, co-founder of Great Hearts and a Claremont alum. “We read Marx, Rousseau – writers who push back on the Christian tradition, but it’s also a big part of Western culture. To those who try to pigeonhole classical charters as pseudo-Christian, no, we are not.”

Diversifying the Classical Brand

Robert Jackson, who arranged for Montás to address the symposium in Phoenix, is at the center of the effort to mainstream classical education. After teaching at a Christian college and working at Great Hearts, Jackson started Classical Commons, a new platform to unite educators from different political and religious camps and support the recruitment and training of classical teachers – a key to expansion.

“There is an impulse among the classical leaders that this time-tested education should also be available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who haven’t had the opportunity,” said Albert Cheng, who runs a classical education research lab at the University of Arkansas. “There’s a social justice vibe to it. Everyone isn’t marching lockstep to a conservative ideology.”

To enlarge the tent of classical education, scholars like Cornel West, the progressive independent presidential aspirant, are giving talks at events and making podcasts about the liberating power of classical education for all students. Classical Academic Press, run by white Christian writer Christopher Perrin, published “The Black Intellectual Tradition,” highlighting how the classics inspired leaders from Anna Julia Cooper to Martin Luther King in the quest for justice.

Change is also coming to the classrooms. Professor Anika Prather, a co-author of “The Black Intellectual Tradition” and founder of the Living Water Christian school, has made many presentations to teachers at classical charters. Leaders are also debating whether to add more diverse authors to their Great Books reading lists after the Classical Learning Test, an assessment group, did so. (Related article here.)

But reappraising the Western canon doesn’t sit well with hardline conservatives in the movement like David Goodwin, president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools. He has issued several warnings, in his writings and to RealClear, about the dangerous waters classical charters are entering.

Goodwin says it was bad enough that charters removed the moorings of Christian truth from education. Now they are succumbing to the intense pressures for diversity, which he calls antithetical to the mission of classical education – the Platonic pursuit of “truth, goodness and beauty in a meritorious way.”

Josh Herring, a professor who helped run the Thales network of private classical academies, adds that the movement’s attempt to find a middle ground that no longer exists in America will fail. Instead, he says, it should embrace its fundamental conservatism and accept the fact that all education is inescapably political. “For classical education to continue to thrive, it has to know its own essence and defend that essence,” he says.

Squeezed from both the left and right, classical charters are nonetheless charging ahead in their effort to grow. Their biggest assets are families that form long waiting lists to enroll at the many high-performing classical charters. Some parents are attracted by their conservative reputation, but mostly it’s their rigorous curriculum that focuses on core academic subjects in the tradition of liberal arts, according to a study by Arkansas’ Cheng.

Classical Education’s Roots

Classical education, a term the movement adopted to suggest its ancient lineage, reemerged first with private Christian schools in the 1980s. They provided the inspiration and part of the curriculum for the first classical charter, Tempe Prep, in Arizona in 1996.

Scoggin, a Christian like most of the charter movement leaders, worked as head of school at Tempe before setting up Great Hearts. He capitalized on Arizona’s school choice law, which made it possible to bring the classical model into public education and reach more families that couldn’t afford private tuition. Starting in 2003, Great Hearts now has 44 academies in Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana and expects to get to 70 in five years.

Classical charters are not as antiquarian as the name implies. College prep courses and state test scores still matter, but they also focus to varying degrees on canonical literature, ancient history, philosophy, religious texts, and Latin and Greek. A few schools, like St. Croix Prep outside of Minneapolis, have even resurrected a medieval form of teaching called the trivium that breaks up every subject in three stages over 12 years – facts first, then argument, and finally persuasion.

Put simply, the charters want students to grapple with what it means to be human before they create their LinkedIn page.

Many add a modern touch. Washington Latin, one of a handful of urban classical schools, mixes Latin and student-led Socratic seminars in every subject with a modern twist to the reading list. Students read ancient and contemporary books on similar themes, such as Plato’s “Symposium” and the black scholar bell hooks’ seminal 2000 feminist work, “All About Love,” to create a dialog between the two worlds, says Diana Smith, the charter’s chief of classical education.

“We have a long waiting list to enroll because of our willingness to talk about the true, the good and the beautiful that goes beyond what came from Western Greece and Rome,” Smith said.

What all classical charters share is the hard-to-keep promise to develop moral character. The problem is, lectures and finger-wagging about fortitude in the “Odyssey” or justice in the “Republic” don’t typically instill such virtues in the souls of students, says Jackson of Classical Commons, adding that creating school cultures that convey the rewards of a good life is also hard to do.

“I worry that we may fail,” he said.

The Politics of Classical Education

Aristotle is the go-to thinker for the debate raging about the politics of classical education. The Greek polymath taught that education is about liberation through the questioning of systems of beliefs, allowing students to find their own answers, according to Jennifer Frey, a philosophy professor whom Jackson also invited to give a keynote speech at the Great Hearts conference. A school must be nonpartisan to be truly classical.

That’s a high bar for schools to meet. They are locally controlled and tend to reflect the political passions of their families and school boards. Given the range of thought in the Western canon, a curriculum can easily be tilted right or left. Will it be St. Augustine or Nietzsche? Locke or Marx? There isn’t enough time in school to read them all.

“You can find the Republican classical school in town,” says Perrin, the publisher who also consults with schools. “But the good ones oriented themselves on providing a liberating education, and that’s for everyone – left, center and right.”

The Network for Public Education, co-founded by historian Diane Ravitch, sees a more menacing side to many classical charters. They are “imbued with the ideas of right-wing Christian nationalism” and “seek to destroy democratically governed public schools,” says an NPE report. It highlights the first Christian charter in Oklahoma, patriotic and religious symbolism and misogynistic attitudes at some schools, and curricula that disparage New Deal programs and affirmative action and ignore climate change.

The report also calls out Hillsdale College, which freely provides classical charters with teacher training, curricula, and the approval of their leaders. Hillsdale President Larry Arnn, a vocal conservative and Claremont alum, has saluted Republican governors for their strong support of Hillsdale charters and repudiated traditional schools for indoctrinating students to “turn against their country.” He also chaired former President Trump’s 1776 Commission, which sought to restore patriotism in American education and inspired the creation of the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum, now used in about 78 classical schools.

“What we found is that a growing number of classical charter schools are connected to Republican operatives like Larry Arnn and are teaching a right-wing curriculum,” said Carol Burris, executive director of NPE and a former high school principal. “They want to educate the next generation of far-right Republicans.”

Several sources in the movement told RealClear that the political activism and provocative public comments from high-profile advocates like Arnn are a problem. They fuel the reputation of classical charters as a political project, hindering their efforts to go mainstream. Hillsdale didn’t respond to a request for a comment from Arnn.

But classical educators say what goes on inside the classroom isn’t a reflection of the fiery rhetoric of the culture wars. The best teachers keep politics out of the classroom. They just want their students to learn how to think for themselves.

“We say strongly and frequently to our schools that if instruction in politics takes the form of commenting on contemporary political debates, we are doing a disservice to students,” said O’Toole of Hillsdale. “There’s too much to do of fundamental importance. Whatever the right and left are fighting about now is going to be over soon.”

Prather, the black author and educator, says she discovered to her surprise that Hillsdale charters are not the bastions of white supremacy they are reputed to be. In her presentations at Hillsdale and Great Hearts charters, she found receptive audiences as she described the influence of the classics on black civil rights leaders. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” for instance, Martin Luther King found justification for civil disobedience in the teachings of Socrates and St. Aquinas.

“I know the leadership has said things that are troubling to black people, but every single teacher and school leader I met were very open to having this conversation,” Prather said.

The Battle to Expand

The reputation of classical charters lives on, narrowing their options to expand. Scoggin of Great Hearts says the network has yet to veer out of school-choice friendly regions, but he expects a fight as it targets more low-income areas.

Hillsdale provided a lesson in the perils of expansion when its big plan to open 50 schools in Tennessee blew up in the face of opposition from families, district officials, and the state teachers union. Now another Hillsdale school, the Cincinnati Classical Academy in Ohio, is struggling to find a permanent location.

Since 2020, local officials have rejected the charter’s bid to secure a property in the Cincinnati area more than a dozen times, often for political reasons. When the charter sought to buy property in the Princeton City School District, where more than 70% of students are black and Latino, residents protested, accusing the charter of having an ethnocentric and racist agenda. One said that the school is part of “Western chauvinism movements like the Proud Boys, which make references to European culture as a thinly disguised dog whistle for White supremacy.”

The charter ended up in a temporary location in a working-class suburb, and in its first year in 2022, it drew mostly white students from wealthier families to its campus. Now, a coalition led by the Network for Public Education is demanding that the U.S. Department of Education rescind a $2 million grant given to the charter, saying it misrepresented itself in its application as a school that serves a disadvantaged population.

Jed Hartings, a neuroscientist and founder of the high-performing school, says the protests are part of a “smear” campaign that misses the important point that the pursuit of equality is central to the Western tradition upon which the charter is based. He says the charter seeks to serve a more diverse set of students but that the public protests have turned some of these families against the Cincinnati academy.

“Teachers unions, politicians, and activists that publicly oppose classical education are depriving students of a tremendous advantage,” Hartings says. “They mock the teaching of Latin, but it’s the kind of privilege we want to make available to children of all backgrounds.”

Urban Classical Charters

At Boys’ Latin in Philadelphia, Latin made all the difference. Charter executive David Hardy, who co-founded the classical school in 2007, sought to address a crisis among black boys from poor families: only about a quarter of them in Philadelphia district high schools were matriculating to college.

At Boys’ Latin, not only did the students have to learn a more rigorous curriculum than they experienced in traditional schools, but the code of conduct was also stricter, reinforced with a requirement that they memorize – in Latin – a long pledge about the importance of education and their commitment to their family and community.

Hardy’s gamble on classical education paid off. Boys’ Latin high school has typically sent about 76% of its students to college. “Latin was the magic potion for us,” said Hardy, now the president of Girard College. “To learn that language, students have to do all the academic things that make them successful in other subjects, too. The boys rose to the challenge.”

Many classical charters, including Great Hearts and Hillsdale, tout their academic success. St. Croix Prep, for example, has been ranked the top public school district in Minnesota for the last seven years and has a waiting list of nearly 1,000 students, says Executive Director Jon Gutierrez.

Although Gutierrez credits classical instruction for his schools’ achievements, researchers have yet to pin down why classical charters as a group get strong results. In a study comparing the performance of different types of charters and traditional district schools, the classical model came out on top in both math and English. Notably, disadvantaged students saw their biggest gains in classical charters. But it’s unclear if classical charters were the best because many of them have relatively fewer disadvantaged kids, or because of their curriculum, or something else.

As classical charters pitch themselves to more diverse communities, they hope the life stories of people like Montás will help.

As a kid, he made his way from a small rural town in the Dominican Republic to New York City and later enrolled in Columbia University’s liberal arts program. His study of Augustine, Plato, and other heavy hitters set him on a thrilling course of self-examination that gave him a meaningful direction in life. Now a Columbia professor of American studies, he also directs the Freedom and Citizenship Program for high school students from tough backgrounds much like his own.

In the program, students have their first encounter with the works of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and James Baldwin, Montás says, and it can be transformational.

“They come out of this program seeing themselves in a different way, they feel their voice matters as citizens in shaping our society,” he said. “Then we help them get into competitive colleges.”

This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations and made available via RealClearWire.
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