The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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The New Classical Schooling
Peter J. Leithart - 01/29/08

For all this success, classical educators are quick to point out that they are a long way from achieving their ultimate aims. This is particularly evident when it comes to classical languages. At the Veritas School in Lancaster, students take Latin for six years before switching to Greek for two years, but Headmaster Ty Fischer admits that his students do not yet learn the languages as well as they should. Veritas initially taught Latin with the real aim of achieving “English mastery,” but Fischer says they are now “moving in the direction of mastering Latin for the sake of mastering Latin.” Asked if the students ever speak Latin, Fischer replies that they do so only “when they don’t want the teachers to know what they are saying.”25 Tim Griffith, who taught at Logos after earning an M.A. in classics at the University of Kentucky and now teaches Latin at New Saint Andrews College, estimates that “about a third of my high school students achieved a level of Latin that will stick with them for a very long time,” but he has only “two or three” students who have “been motivated enough to read entire works in Latin on their own.”26 From his vantage point at CiRCE, Andrew Kern points to some language success stories, including the American Academy in Philadelphia and St. Peter’s in Dallas. Yet he laments that many classical schools have “concluded that ‘classical’ means three stages and a lot of books.” Few schools teach Greek, and few “see mastery as the goal.” Instead, classical schools teach Latin to help with English grammar, to raise SAT scores, or to increase vocabulary. But classical schools are rarely daunted by these and other shortcomings. Classical educators see their work as a multigenerational effort at recovery.

The Sayers version of classical education is only one of several available. A number of public schools have integrated classical learning through the use of Mortimer Adler’s “Paideia Proposal” (1982), which aims to reform public education by emphasizing virtue and pointing students toward the classical goal of happiness, defined as a “life enriched by the possession of every kind of good.”27 In 1981, David Hicks published his Norms and Nobility, which laid out a program for what has been called “moral classicism.” Several years earlier, in 1975, Marva Collins founded the Westside Prep with a curriculum centered on the liberal arts. Collins’s goal is overtly one of liberation, as she emphasizes that “to educate” means “to lead out.” Home schooling has also taken a classical turn, encouraged by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s 1999 book, The Well-Trained Mind.28 These varieties of classical education are not, however, hermetically sealed off from each other. Veritas Academy, an ACCS school, follows the Trivium, but older students work through a Great Books program known as the Omnibus in a format that resembles Adler’s approach.

In 2006, 62 million students were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in the United States, 6.8 million of them in private schools.29 Even by the wildest estimates, there are only several hundred classical schools in the country, many of them quite small. It is therefore no wonder that CCE has largely escaped the notice of the academy, educational professionals, sociologists, and journalists. Yet within certain sectors of American Protestantism, CCE has an important presence. Veritas Press, associated with Veritas Academy in Lancaster, sells editions of classic texts, produces its own curricular materials including a three-volume guide to the Omnibus, publishes substantive articles on classical education in its catalogue, and links home school students to a collection of online teachers. Similar offers are available from Memoria Press in Kentucky. In the mid-1990s, Robert Littlejohn founded the Society for Classical Learning (SCL) to “facilitate and encourage thinking and discussion among professionals associated with Christ-centered education in the liberal arts tradition.”30 SCL publishes a quarterly journal on classical learning, and sponsors conferences. Director Leslie Moeller describes SCL as a “learned society, similar, perhaps, to the American Psychological Association . . . offering to individual members forums for the exchange of ideas, research and best practices related to classical learning.”31 For home schooling families, there is also Classical Christian Home Educators (CCHE), which assists parents in developing a classical education at home.


Though classical educators are careful to say they are not reactionary, there is no doubt that the movement is a reaction to the educational failures of the last century. Teachers and parents involved in classical education were schooled during the experimental decades of the mid-twentieth century, and they came away from that experience feeling cheated. Books and articles on classical education regularly begin where Sayers began, with a lament over the sorry state of education. To the educational lapses Sayers recorded in 1947, they add a litany of complaints familiar to any reader of the Intercollegiate Review: postmodernism, relativism, and multiculturalism, not to mention crime, drugs, and condoms in the schools. Kern describes the philosophical foundations of classical education with a brash litany of deliberately anti-PC formulae: “logocentrism, foundationalism, and a teleology that sees the perfection of a thing’s nature as its purpose.”

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