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

Suspicions intensified after the Revolution. Newly liberated from British rule, Americans associated classical study with “everything that the Revolution had cast off: ancient privilege, tyranny, and the elitism of power and wealth.”41 Thomas Paine spoke for many when he said, “I have no notion of yielding the palm of the United States to any Grecians and Romans that were ever born,”42 and Benjamin Rush classified Greek and Latin “with Negro slavery and spirituous liquor . . . as, though in a less degree, unfriendly to the progress of morals, knowledge, and religion in the United States.”43 Fundamentally, Pearcy notes, “Humanistic classical education depended on the existence of the class it had been designed to serve, and that aristocratic, leisured class . . . had no place in the new nation of Tocqueville’s pioneers.”44 Those who received classical education were regarded by their rugged countrymen as effete, European, elitist, not-quite-American.

As this short discursion into early American history makes plain, today’s classical education is attempting to repudiate not only mid-twentieth-century pedagogical corruptions, but also a long-standing American prejudice in favor of pragmatism. It is too early to tell whether CCE can successfully swim against so broad and deep a cultural current. Ken Myers, for one, has doubts. He sees a direct connection between CCE and partisanship in America’s current Kulturkampf. He notes that CCE emerged at the “same time ‘culture wars’ concerns emerged, when liberalism’s assault on church and family became associated with an assault on the West”; he worries that the movement is governed too much by a concern to “save America” or “save democracy.” Instead of initiating students into a tradition and a conversation, classical education could degenerate into a form of Christianized pragmatism, merely training students to man the battlements of the culture war.


I would argue, however, that classical schools have built-in protections against becoming an arm of the Christian Right. Students of dialectic and rhetoric at Veritas Academy in Lancaster work through an extensive collection of Great Books in their Omnibus curriculum, and at the Logos School American literature students thoroughly discuss Moby-Dick and other novels in class. At its best, CCE combines fervently evangelical Christianity with an appreciation of what Oakeshott, speaking of university education, described as the “gift of the interval,” the “opportunity to put aside the hot allegiances of youth” and to find a “break in the tyrannical course of irreparable human events,” a “moment in which to taste the mystery without the necessity of at once seeking a solution,” a moment when students are “freed . . . from the curse of Adam, the burdensome distinction between work and play.”45

From his home outside tiny Potlatch, Idaho, some twenty miles north of Moscow, Wes Callihan runs Schola Classical Tutorials. On most mornings, Callihan sits in front of his computer in his bathrobe and conducts live classes in the classical languages, Great Books, history, literature, and rhetoric for teenagers all over the United States.46 Every year, he gathers his students from all over the country to Potlatch to meet each other face-to-face and to spend a week reading Augustine’s City of God or the works of Athanasius. Aloud. Together. In a recent essay on “Eating Books,” Callihan talks about the virtues of slow reading, reading for more than the “gist”: “We in the modern world have too little time, and the same pressure that drives us to gobble fast-food meals on the run causes us also to read everything, even our Bibles, much too fast.” Callihan captures the vision of classical education in his Oakeshottian conclusion: “We starve our souls and our minds and wonder why there is so little wisdom in the world.”47

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