Why Classical Education?

At the K-12 level, studying the classics means something slightly different than it does at the secondary level. Typically, we’re discussing neo-classical education, which is both very old and very new at the same time.

If you’re a regular public school teacher, odds are that you were taught to facilitate students’ construction of meaning from the world around them. Possibly you were taught that students should find joy in learning, because any distress would cause them to be unable to learn.

More subtly, you were probably also taught not to rock the boat–make sure your lesson plans met the standards, differentiate your instruction for different learners, and so on.  What you were to teach was not as important as how you were to teach it.

Classical education works the other way around.  What you teach is the most important part. How you teach it flows from your choice of subject.

This is anathema to most public schools because they’re one of the last places where people from all social classes and political parties mix. One thing schools do not want to do–and teachers are legally forbidden from doing–is promulgate a firm opinion on anything that isn’t objectively verifiable, such as 2 + 2 = 4 and C-A-T spells “cat”.  History sparks national controversies. A controversial book like The Hate U Give is definitely out. Even science is under the sway of inoffensiveness. Over half of high school science teachers quietly skip evolution, geologic time, the age of the universe, and so on.

Unfortunately, this leads to watering down education until it’s a thin gruel of busywork. Only 17% of assignments are even on grade level. This is especially pervasive and damaging to students of color. The so-called “achievement gap” (what Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings so memorably identified as an “education debt”) can be at least partially attributed to a failure to teach what is sometimes called “cultural literacy” but in education circles is often referred to as a knowledge-rich curriculum. This is, in essence, a classical education.

A classical curriculum, or knowledge-rich education helps students pass tests, so much so that it’s considered cheating to test students on the topics they studySignificant research bears this out.

Many progressive educators find the idea of dictating what, how, and when students learn abhorrent–I’ve seen comparisons of “traditional” education to Stalinist propaganda. Jasmine Lane has a succinct answer:

“Only those that have never had to worry about passing standardized exams have the privilege to say that tests don’t matter.”

If progressives believe in equality, and are committed to working towards a society in which social, political, educational, and economic activities are available for all, we must also be committed to a classical education.

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