What is a "Classical Education"?
And why are anti-public school activists so into it?
And yet what greater proof can there be of a bad and disgraceful state of education than this, that not only artisans and the meaner sort of people need the skill of first-rate physicians and judges, but also those who would profess to have had a liberal education? Is it not disgraceful, and a great sign of want of good-breeding, that a man should have to go abroad for his law and physic because he has none of his own at home, and must therefore surrender himself into the hands of other men whom he makes lords and judges over him?
Last week, I wrote about Christopher Rufo and his promise to “lay siege to the institutions”— his telling slogan for a rightwing plan to return fire in a culture war he imagines began in 1968 when former guerrilla fighters and washed-up Marxist radicals became college professors and took over Disney… or something. Part of that campaign is making Florida’s New College— where, thanks to Ron DeSantis, Rufo is now a board member— into what DeSantis has called “the Hillsdale of the South”. DeSantis also appointed Hillsdale’s “vice president of Washington operations,” Matthew Spalding, to New College’s board.
Hillsdale is a private religious college that promotes what it calls a “classical education”. It is also becoming a major player in the K-12 “public classical charter school” game, but it’s not the only organization pushing a “classical education”.
A central claim of the “classical education” campaign— which draws on some of the same rhetoric as the anti-integration “school choice” and “parental rights” movements of the 1960s— is that proponents aren’t trying to ban books, outlaw the acknowledgment that non-straight/ non-cisgender people exist, or promote vouchers as a method to segregate children by race, religion, gender identity, etc. Instead, these folks say, they are trying to “return” to something they call a “classical education”.
Concerns about charter school authorizers and school segregation aren’t just theoretical or rhetorical: in South Carolina, “public” charters have had significant issues with following rules about the racial makeup of their student bodies. In a 2019 Post and Courier article, Paul Bowers wrote,
Under a South Carolina law meant to prevent segregation, charter schools’ enrollment figures may vary from the racial percentages of their school district or “targeted student population” by no more than 20 percent.
Last school year, 44 of the state’s 70 public charter schools — nearly two-thirds — broke that rule when compared with the districts in which they were geographically located.
So what is a “classical education”?
When I was going through my teacher preparation and master’s program, I would have told you a “classical education” was one modeled on the approach of the ancient Greeks and Romans (and I also would might have told you that doing that to the exclusion of other approaches developed in the last several thousand years seems pretty silly). Here’s how many of the providers are selling the idea:
Classical Education curriculum focuses on the Trivium, a three-part process of training the mind that includes the Grammar Stage (Grades K-5), the Logic Stage (Grades 6-8), and the Rhetoric Stage (Grades 9-12). Knowledge, reasoning and self-expression are essential components of all three stages, with character development providing a solid foundation throughout.
This definition comes directly from the “Reason and Republic” website— more on that organization and how it’s connected to South Carolina politics below—but more or less identical language appears all over materials from various “classical” and “Biblical” alternative schools, charter schools, and charter authorizers. (Hillsdale, for example, is also really into the trivium.)
And while the trivium is a thing that the ancient Greeks were interested in, the easiest way to tell how selective these charter schools are being with their history is in those grade-level designations, presented like science but unrelated to the way school worked in the ancient world, where, importantly, there was no universal public education, and where some philosophers, like Plato in his Republic,1 argued that disinformation could or should be used to indoctrinate some classes of people into believing in a fundamental physiological division of humanity into different classes—you know, the kind of literal “divisiveness” according to race and class which most promoters of “classical education” say they are most against. (Socrates’ intellectual enemies the Sophists were perhaps offering something closer to what we might think of as a modern education.) Some critics, like Karl Popper2 argue that the vision of education presented in the Republic is, on the contrary, one intended to create a totalitarian society.
In Plato’s Republic, Book III, “Socrates”3 suggests that in a “just city,” some citizens will need to be told a “fiction” or a “tale” that “God has framed [them] differently”. “Socrates” proposes “fiction” that people are fundamentally made different at birth (through “admixtures” of various “metals”). When one of his interlocuters replies, ““Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons' sons, and posterity after them,” “Socrates” agrees, but says that over time believing this false story will “make them care more for the city and for one another”. (This part does actually sound a lot like refrain of “classical” charters that education should make children patriotic, but the charters probably wouldn’t openly express the idea that they are going to use a disinformation campaign to achieve this goal.)
Similarly, Aristotle— often promoted by “classical education” fans (like Palmetto Promise Institute’s Oran Smith, in his manifesto “Education or Indoctrination")— argued that some people were intrinsically, physically destined for slavery, writing in Book V of his Politics,
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?
There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.
I am emphatically not pointing this out to “cancel” Plato and Aristotle the way some “classical education” proponents have set out to cancel Ibram X. Kendi, the 1619 Project, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others; far from it, I think students can read these texts and have fascinating discussions about justice, hierarchy, the classical world and its influence— good, bad, or neutral— on contemporary Western thought, and about the rhetoric used. Engaging with various arguments through skepticism and questioning is literally the Socratic method, and something you’d think “classical education” would promote through engagement with diverse texts, rather than through obsession with a specific “canon” of Western European and and American works. But this process is destined to make students pretty uncomfortable once they actually read and discuss influential works on their own terms. It’s hard, for example, finding out the guy who helped invent the classification system for animals might think that you, personally, were born to be a slave because of the part of the world your ancestors came from, or that the guy who wrote “all men are created equal” owned some men as his slaves. (To its credit, the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum does at least touch on the fact that Jefferson owned slaves, though it seems to emphasize more his belief that “slaves were men in full possession of the natural rights of all men” and then immediately emphasizes the “individual”— presumably as in, not systemic—nature of racism and slavery.
When I taught Greek tragedy, I would often have students read Aristotle’s Poetics, but I would also tell them about Aristotle’s contributions outside of that work, for context— from his classification of animals to his “classification” of humans. This made for a richer discussion, and it allowed them to start to evaluate Aristotle’s credibility and claims in context. (I hope it goes without saying that the conceit that public schools no longer teach “canonical” texts or “classical” ideas is patently ridiculous.)
A modern Socratic method might ask students to engage fully with these troubling complexities to develop their own ideas about the country, as “Socrates” spends most of Plato’s dialogues engaged in questioning, discussion, and debate with others in order to reach a philosophical conclusion. But that would risk the possibility that some students might not come away with the conservative, “patriotic” view “classical” schools often promote.
The point is that “classical education” is often just rightwing market-speak for “conservative stuff we like,” under the banner of something that sounds a lot grander (because dead Greek philosophers few really care to read seem vaguely impressive on your website). Are “classical charters” and their boosters— like Chris Rufo— sincere when they say they’re rejecting “woke indoctrination” for “classical liberal education”? Some of them probably are; most are probably just using terms that don’t really mean anything in furtherance of the same old anti-school stuff.
“Classical education” rhetoric in practice
I think I first encountered the modern rightwing narrative of “classical education” when reading about Adam Mahdavi, the self-proclaimed “whistleblower” who secretly recorded a conversation with an employee of a consulting company hired by Lexington 1 School District. His recording became the basis for a frivolous SC Freedom Caucus lawsuit that the district ended up settling out of court in order to avoid a costly legal battle (which was probably the intention of the “Freedom Caucus” all along). Mahdavi, who evidently enrolled in the University of South Carolina College of Education teacher preparation and did not graduate. As I wrote at the time,
“Freedom Caucus” has released an interview with Mahdavi on Facebook. In it, he suggests he was silenced by the University of South Carolina and not allowed to be a teacher in the district because of his brave stand against CRT, and expresses a desire to promote a “classical education”…
This was the first of many times I saw “classical education” juxtaposed artificially with concepts like “CRT” or “gender ideology”. Of course, this vision of “classical” is extremely selective, embracing a reductive version of Greek and Roman philosophers and American Founding Fathers that ignores all the complications which arguably make those figures useful and interesting today, and which ignores many other influential historical figures, thinkers, and writers who contributed to the debates that led us to prevailing ideas about civics and history and truth and ethics.
Mahdavi has his own alternative education program called “New Light Academy,” which he seems to have been promoting at the time of the recording becoming public, and which he describes on the USPIE4 blog in typically conflict-oriented and emotionally-loaded terms:
Since America offers a great amount of freedom to her citizens, our citizenry needs to stand on the shoulders of Western Civilization, not misrepresent it through a racial consciousness or labels of oppression. An honest history of America is a history of liberty as it happened. That is not saying America is perfect or has been without fault. However, acknowledging social progress gives hope for more progress… Otherwise those that cannot think for themselves will have others thinking for them, making decisions for them that the ignorant would not otherwise make. To prevent this kind of slavery, students at New Light Academy are molded to become responsible for the liberty they have been entrusted to uphold and to cherish their right to obtain their American heritage of progress.
Here, as we’ll see, Mahdavi repeats many of the general claims of organizations like Hillsdale— history of liberty as it happened, American heritage of progress— though he does so with a slightly less neutral surface tone.
Who is promoting this “classical education” stuff?
Hillsdale’s president Larry Arnn also chaired the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, a transparently reactionary effort to discredit, specifically, the New York Times’ 1619 Project. The 1776 Commission Report was widely denounced by critics and historians for containing pretty much what Hillsdale charters’ own curriculum contains: revisionist, selective “history” that claims to be based on “facts alone,” but puts the emphasis of American history squarely on white, European (“classical”) stuff— mainly the stuff that makes America (specifically white Americans) look good, and which frames racism and other forms of oppression as individual anomalies rather than problems to be addressed by society as a whole.
The Hillsdale education has several hallmarks: a devotion to the Western canon, an emphasis on primary sources over academic theory, and a focus on equipping students to be able, virtuous citizens. There is no department of women’s and gender studies, no concentrations on race and ethnicity. It’s a model of education that some scholars consider dangerously incomplete. It’s also a model that communities across the country are looking to adopt…
The faculty includes Michael Anton, the former Trump Administration official known for his essay “The Flight 93 Election,” in which he wrote that voting for Donald Trump was the only way to save America from doom, and David Azerrad, a former Heritage Foundation director who has described America as being run on a system of “Black privilege.”
…Last November, Arnn gave a speech in which he described education as a cultural battleground, arguing that public schools have recently “adopted the purpose of supplanting the family and controlling parents.” To address this concern, Hillsdale has ventured outside of higher education, helping to launch K-12 charter schools nationwide…
The Hillsdale Charter K-12 curriculum, which is called the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum5, starts with an introduction from Arnn where he seems to be setting up the document, like the 1776 Commission Report, in opposition to the 1619 Project:
The nation suffers deep divisions, divisions especially about the meaning and the goodness of that founding. Because that founding begins in the Declaration of Independence, which states that human equality is grounded in the nature of things, in the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” a controversy about the founding is a controversy about our understanding of ourselves and nature and therefore of everything. This is a serious matter.6
In its contrast to the 1619 Project, Hillsdale’s curriculum claims up front to focus on facts, instead of feelings. In the introduction, Arnn writes, “controversies about everything, can only be resolved by looking at the facts. The historical facts are available for us to see.” But then the curriculum constantly pushes opinions— history and civics education should be colorblind, education should inspire “patriotism”— that undermine the claim.
The Hillsdale curriculum goes far beyond simply arguing for a different premise than the 1619 Project: it created some major controversy in Tennessee when, according to the local news,
the colleges' own teaching materials reveal why critics say its approach is anything but informed. For example, Hillsdale falsely claims that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not favor using the "force of law" to achieve civil rights victories.
Remember, a central argument of the anti-“woke” movement to censor schools and promote privatization is that racism is an individual evil, so systemic solutions— like the Voting Rights Act, which King championed, or “antiracism”— are unnecessary at best and tyrannical government overreach at worst; in other words, a lot of this is boilerplate neo-Confederate/ Lost Cause rhetoric. This is also what is probably so attractive to this movement about “classical education” and Hillsdale, in particular.
The American Historical Association has accused the [Hillsdale] 1776 Curriculum of downplaying racism, the Great Migration and the power of the Ku Klux Klan. (Hillsdale says its curriculum “comprehensively” covers “points of shame” in America’s history, mentioning slavery more than 3,300 times.)
Of course, none of this is unique to Hillsdale: neo-Confederates like Oran Smith, who will likely be appointed to South Carolina’s Higher Education Commission in the upcoming session, have been pushing these ideas for decades.
But Hillsdale does seem to be influential in the current wave. In South Carolina, for example, James Galyean, who ran for state Senate a few years ago, seems to be a major player in promoting a “classical education”. Galyean was house attorney for the statewide charter authorizer Charter Institute at Erskine7 (whose parent college is a “biblical worldview” college). Erskine, in turn, authorized Galyean’s “public charter,” Belton Preparatory Academy. Belton is a “classical education” charter and a “reason and republic school,” and Galyean is the CEO of Reason and Republic. And Mahdavi’s New Light Academy is, unsurprisingly, affiliated with “classical” “online public charter school” South Carolina Preparatory Academy, which shares essentially the same “reason and republic” approach of Galyean’s school, probably because Galyean is also SC Prep’s founder. Summit Classical in Clinton, SC is a also “reason and republic” school. Galyean, and an LLC with which he is associated, each donated $3,500 from the same address to current Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver’s campaign.
In other words, the “whistleblower” attacking Lexington 1, the political operative opening up “classical charters” across the state, and the Superintendent of Education who ran on a platform of “anti-wokeness” all stand to benefit materially from a binary narrative of “classical education” versus “Leftist woke-ism”.
Why does it matter?
Aside from the obvious threats to intellectual freedom represented by a movement to whitewash the past and exclude contemporary authors— who are more likely to represent diversity and marginalized communities— whether we open our doors to more “public” charter schools is also important for substantive legal and financial reasons. For example, one of SC’s largest “public” charter schools, Bridges Prep, has been accused of unconstitutionally promoting a “Biblical worldview” while receiving state funds, which demonstrates how truly weak oversight over charter schools using public money can be. Similarly, the Superintendent of Florence School District 1 has accused another formerly “public” charter, Palmetto Youth Academy, of continuing to use millions of dollars in public cash and assets despite losing its authorization to operate. (The charter school’s website does say it is registering students for the current school year.)
The marketing of ‘public” charters often focuses on the fact that they don’t have to adhere to the same red tape as traditional public schools (red tape often created by the same officials pushing for charters), but some of that red tape was there to keep schools from violating student civil rights, flouting state and federal constitutions, and stealing taxpayer money.
If people want to send their children to a school that focuses on “classical” literature, or that promote patriotism, that’s their prerogative. I wouldn’t recommend it, because I’ve spent my career learning that diversity of thought and healthy skepticism are good for student learning, but to each their own.
What bothers me is that “classical education” often seems to be presented as a product that fills a demand created largely by politicians and the political activists who support them, and elected officials in my state and others are generally hellbent, at the moment, on defunding public schools to subsidize this product, either by making it a “public charter” (with or without oversight and constitutionally appropriate approaches to religious instruction) or by sending voucher money to private schools offering the same.
The intellectual shallowness of the “classical education” platform is that many of its proponents believe everyone should read, say, Homer’s Odyssey, while no one (at least, no student) should pursue gender studies as a major or read How to Be an Antiracist. This argument will be made on the basis that the “classical education” folks find specific words— like a single, out-of-context passage about affirmative action from Kendi— offensive. Yet if we asked if they believed the depictions of murder, religious impiety, sexuality, adultery, and other vices in The Odyssey, or the explicit promotion of slavery in Aristotle’s Politics, or the depiction of incest and fratricide in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, or the theoretical promotion of disinformation and indoctrination in Plato’s Republic, disqualified these pillars of the “classical” canon from being read by children, many of the same folks would scoff and say that these things must be read in context of the text, that we don’t have to agree with everything Homer or Plato writes in order to gain academic skills or wisdom from his writing.
What we’re left with is objectively viewpoint discrimination, and when it’s carried out by state officials, or promoted using state funds, that is a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment, state constitutional provisions against funding religious instruction, and the principles that underline democratic systems. And it’s hard to guess why these folks want to promote this particular viewpoint, other than to preserve power and privilege for some groups at the expense of others. Luckily for them, they and their political allies have been pretty good at making it illegal to talk about those things in an increasing number of schools and workplaces, as well.
Here’s my version of a teacher supply list:
I’m currently looking for my next full-time job, and supplementing my income through writing, including this newsletter. If you found this useful or interesting, please help me continue this work through a paid subscription, if you’re able.
From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Republic entails elements of socialism as when Socrates expresses the desire to achieve happiness for the whole city not for any particular group of it (420b) and when he argues against inequalities in wealth (421d). There are also elements of fascism or totalitarianism. Among others, there is extreme censorship of poetry, lying to maintain good behavior and political stability, restriction of power to a small elite group, eugenic techniques, centralized control of the citizen’s lives, a strong military group that enforces the laws, and suppression of freedom of expression and choice.”
From The Open Society and Its Enemies (Popper): “Summing up, we can say that Plato’s theory of justice, as presented in the Republic and later works, is a conscious attempt to get the better of equalitarian, individualistic, and protectionist tendencies of his time, and to re-establish the claims of tribalism by developing a totalitarian moral theory. At the same time, he was strongly impressed by the new humanitarian morality; but instead of combating equalitarianism with arguments, he avoided even discussing it. And he successfully enlisted humanitarian sentiments, whose strength he knew so well, in the cause of the totalitarian class rule of a naturally superior master race.”
The quotes around “Socrates” indicate that it’s unclear how much the historical Socrates’ (who left behind none of his own written works) words and ideas are represented in Plato’s writings; while Hillsdale and others like to pretend that history is a series of “facts,” Plato demonstrates that even people who lived through historical events filter them through their own perspectives and agendas.
USPIE is the national chapter of Parents Involved in Education; the local chapter, SCPIE, has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with Moms for Liberty as an antigovernment organization.
In the embedded links, I’ve provided a downloaded PDF as well as a link to Hillsdale’s website, because it seems like the curriculum has already been changed at least once in response to controversies like the one about King and the “power of law”.
Emphasis mine; the premise of the 1619 Project is that the advent of slavery is a central part of the the founding of the nation; placing “the founding” with the Declaration in 1776 serves a clear political purpose here.
In South Carolina and other states, charter authorizers are organizations— such as the one at Erskine College—supposedly take responsibility for making sure public charters adhere to their charters. In reality, if schools fail to meet the criteria, or get dropped by an authorizer for any reason, they can often simply find another authorizer. For example, Limestone College— which also describes itself as a “faith based institution”— has reauthorized a number of charter schools which Erskine rejected in its authorizer capacity. Perhaps this is why some “public” chart schools feel comfortable violating prohibitions against religious instruction or requirements to more fully racially integrate: they know if they lose their authorization with one private college, any other private college in the state which wants to be a charter authorizer can step up and re-authorize them.