The Lesson from Republicans' Embrace of "Classical Education"Breaking News
tags: conservatism, Christianity, charter schools, evangelicals, school privatization, Christian Nationalism
In January, the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee made headlines nationwide with its decision to remove Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, an account of the author’s family’s experience in World War II concentration camps, from the local public school curriculum. As journalists and academics criticized the decision, another transformation to the Tennessee education system was attracting far less attention: The state’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, was negotiating plans to open 50 new “classical education” charter schools. An expansion of an initiative associated with Michigan’s Christian Hillsdale College, the schools will follow an educational philosophy that rests on the sanctity of Western literary and theological traditions; administrators promise to direct students’ “souls such that they become men and women who love the right things”—namely “the true, the good, and the beautiful.” The Hillsdale network isn’t alone in its mission to shape students into “a certain kind of human being,” and Tennessee is far from unique in its embrace of this vision. In fact, classical education charters that espouse “character development” and “stewardship of Western tradition” have lately been popping up all around the country, from Oregon to Florida.
In advertisements for Hillsdale Academy, students smile and scribble in plaid uniforms and American flags wave against azure skies. The word “classical” conjures a fantasy of bygone glory awaiting renewal. “Liberal arts education” does not have quite the same appeal, even as the classical schools rely on a liberal arts sequence, the trivium and quadrivium, that dates back centuries. (The trivium, which consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, acts as the foundation for the quadrivium, which consists of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.) Beyond this commonality with liberal arts, approaches to classical education remix elements in varying proportions. Since 1984, Idaho’s private Logos School, in Moscow, has offered “a Classical and Christ-centered education.” Now it offers a remote option. Hillsdale Academy and its Barney Charter Initiative follow in this mold, though instead of explicit religious instruction, they aim for easy franchising. In Arizona and Texas, the Great Hearts charter network promises “the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” through a signature “Humane Letters” sequence. The for-profit Classical Academic Press supplies materials for homeschoolers and advertises a curriculum “grounded in piety, governed by theology,” involving “the deep study of the seven liberal arts.” All schools and offshoots of the movement balance retreat from the public sphere, Christian humanism, and nationalistic exaltation of “Western civilization.”
To promote classical charters, the GOP is rebranding as the party that nourishes human flourishing and intellectualism, inconsistent as this posture may be with its actual policies. The shift demands scrutiny. Adherents to the movement are building an infrastructure that includes conferences, training, and credentialing programs. At the center of this activity is Jeremy Wayne Tate, a podcast host and the CEO of an organization offering an alternative to the SAT and ACT called the Classic Learning Test, or CLT. The movement’s worship of hierarchy is clear in the CLT’s insistence that “the most important exam” should test the “most important ideas, texts, and subjects.” According to Tate, the problem with the College Board, which offers the SAT and AP exams, is that it tries to “censor the entire Christian intellectual tradition.” This complaint is patently absurd—Martin Luther King Jr., to take just one example, appears frequently in SAT prep. The real danger of the College Board, a $1.3 billion business, is its perverse financial incentive to crush the intellectual vitality of students and teachers alike by insisting on the centrality of multiple-choice standardized exams. Far from redressing this problem, the CLT reproduces and builds on it.
The recent wave of “transparency bills,” which, in PEN America’s words, aim to “stifle teaching and learning about race, sex, gender, and American history in schools, universities, and state agencies,” make plain Republicans’ illiberal vision for what good citizenship entails and how to teach it. South Carolina’s transparency bill demands use of Hillsdale materials. Great books reading lists, which many classical charter schools employ, make for easy compliance with intimidating restrictions, such as West Virginia’s, that limit the presentation of “any political, economic, or political-economic system that is based on ideological concepts rooted in or inspired by Marxism, Marxist-Leninism, Maoism, socialism, communism, or so-called critical political theory or critical economic theory, of any form or intellectual tradition whatsoever.” Some evangelists of the classical education movement may be earnest about creating space “to facilitate students to freely learn for themselves while they develop into the person that God created them to be.” But true believers risk giving cover to the construction of an alternate reality in which the suppression of certain threatening stories masquerades as liberation.