The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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

In the end, however, classical education is more radical than reactionary—radical, that is, in its original sense, describing something that goes to the roots. Classical educators advocate not a reversion to the imagined certainties and calm of the 1950s but a root-and-branch reform of American education that finds inspiration in medieval, Renaissance, and early American education. At times, the radicalism is overt. Wilson rejects vouchers, charter schools, secular classicism, and similar reform proposals as just so many efforts to “heal the wound lightly.”32 Veith and Kern for their part warn that a mere change of educational technique will not solve the crisis of American education: what is needed “is a different philosophy of education,” since “the real issue is the purpose of education.”33

Inevitably, CCE’s radicalism reaches beyond the realm of pedagogy. Every debate about education, after all, is about much more than education. Questions of education are questions about the relation of a culture to its past and to its future. CCE represents, more or less overtly, a protest against contemporary society, as well as contemporary education.

Most obviously, CCE, like other movements in Christian education, protests the secularization of public education that began in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Early in its history, the National Education Association (then known as the National Teacher’s Association) supported the use of public schools to inculcate religious, and hence moral, prescriptions. During the 1870s and 1880s, however, a number of outspoken leaders in the NEA challenged this religious consensus and pressed for a deliberate secularization of the schools.34 Secularization of schools was bound up with several other shifts in American education, as well as with large changes in American society and culture. For the Progressives of the early twentieth century, the goal of educational reform was to substitute a scientific, professional, standardized, bureaucratized system for the religiously and morally oriented education of the past. Progressives worked through superintendents in larger American cities to organize an educational system for a new scientific age.35 In protesting the secularization of the schools and insisting on the moral dimension of education, classical educators take aim at a range of contemporary values: professionalization, bureaucratization, standardization, deference to “expert” authority, the whole Weberian apparatus of rationalization. Despite the evident conservatism of the movement, CCE is not about maintaining the cultural status quo.

The classical educators’ critique of American education cuts more deeply still. While American education has not always been dominated by professional educationists, it has always tended toward pragmatism. Ralph Waldo Emerson arguably invented the American intellectual tradition, and there is discernible continuity between his transcendentalism and Dewey’s pragmatism.36 For all its faith in education, America has always been ambivalent, at best, about the apparent uselessness of classical education.

During the century following 1640, the study of Greece and Rome “constituted the basis of the curriculum for all colleges and elite secondary schools” throughout the American “Old College” system of Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Williams, etc. The College of William and Mary proposed grammar schools where Latin and Greek, along with “Classick Authors of each tongue” would be taught, and this vision of placing Greek and Latin language and literature at the center of a college curriculum persisted as late as the Yale Report of 1828.37 But these schools trained only “a small, largely clerical minority of Americans.”38 As Lee Pearcy writes, by the eighteenth century

a classical curriculum based on the study of Latin and Greek and reading of ancient authors according to the familiar English pattern had been firmly established as the foundation and core of education for the relatively small number of young American men who hoped to become clergymen, statesmen, public servants, or teachers. It is important to remember how few ever reached the point of studying classical languages and their attendant subjects in a colonial college. . . . Between 1642 and 1689, Harvard produced 388 graduates, nearly half of whom became clergymen. Massachusetts in 1689 had more than 48,000 inhabitants. Classical studies in this country began as the education of an elite minority.39

Many Americans echoed John Locke’s suspicions about the utility of classical education, which seemed unsuited to the harsh wilderness of the new world. William Livingston reported to his bishop in 1768 that in America clerical training could not follow the English model:

We want hands, my lord, more than heads. The most intimate acquaintance with the classics, will not remove our oaks; nor a taste for the Georgics cultivate our lands. Many of our young people are knocking their heads against the Iliad, who should employ their hands in clearing our swamps and draining our marshes. Others are musing, in cogitation profound, on the arrangement of a syllogism, while they ought to be guiding the tail of a plow.40

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