Classical Education is Not at the Heart of the Culture Wars
This is an Altum essay.
Emma Green, a staff writer at The New Yorker focused on education and academia, wrote a story entitled “The Christian Liberal-Arts School at the Heart of the Culture Wars” that appeared online yesterday. Classical Christian educators should take note because this story contains a brief definition of classical education endorse by Ron DeSantis, a potential candidate for United States President. It sounds to me like Americans could be hearing descriptions of classical education being shared during prime time in coming months, and Hillsdale College is clearly a focal point for DeSantis and his understanding of classical education.
Although most of Green’s article focuses on the history and culture of the college as well as the political connections of its current president, Green notes that Hillsdale is “part of a larger movement to restore ‘classical education’—a liberal-arts curriculum designed to cultivate wisdom and teach children to pursue the ancient ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness” and reports that DeSantis is looking to Hillsdale College when it comes to the articulation and implementation of what is meant by a classical education. Green’s byline indicates the extent to which classical education might become more and more of a household term in the United States over coming years if DeSantis is successful: “Conservatives like Ron DeSantis see Hillsdale College as a model for education nationwide.”
Without analyzing Green’s reporting or her account of Hillsdale College, I want to clarify that classical education itself obviously cannot be “at the heart of the Culture Wars.” While it is difficult for Americans to think about anything outside of a culture war framework, I suggest that the classical tradition of human formation is something irreducible to such categories. I understand the question that Green is asking in her article, certainly, and it is a valid one when it comes to any one organization or any single implementation of a classical approach to education. I grew up as the oldest of nine homeschooled children being told by traditionalist Presbyterian missionary parents that America needed a godly president to save us from our apostasy and to return us to God. My father is the last remaining full-time faculty member to have started teaching at Patrick Henry College in the first year that they opened their doors. Although a brand new college, Patrick Henry shares many points in common with Hillsdale. It is easy for me to relate to much of the enthusiasm and the mission that animates organizations such as Hillsdale College, and I share this enthusiasm and mission at a deep level. At the same time, I’ve become convinced that the classical Christian tradition of education is far older and more deeply concerned with perennial human questions than any particular set of political ideas or “culture war” talking points that might be a concern for any one nation.
For my own part—thinking back to the worries that I was raised with about the apostasy of our once Christian nation and having studied the history of the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland with a focus on how the Reformation shaped the political founding of America in the wake of the invention of the secular nation state at the Peace of Westphalia (1648)—it seems clear to me that America has no special claim to having been founded as a specifically Christian nation. Obviously, there are many varieties of Christian polities across the history of Christianity, and the Christian faith has shown up in a wide variety of human societies across its history. Likewise, all of the voices within the classics and great books articulate a wide range of ideas about topics such as justice and the ideal polity. It is therefore no surprise to me that Green found in her interviews on the campus of Hillsdale that the political thinking among students “manifests in different ways” to a substantial extent, with student proponents to be found of “the Austrian school of economics” as well as “a moral economic system” that would be a self-conscious “alternative to ‘woke capitalism and neocolonialism’” (although the conservative political positioning is clear enough on both of these sides). When it is done well, a classical liberal arts education will enrich and mature students with a wide variety of ideas about political, economic, and religious topics (representing several competing theories, traditions, stories, and organizational models).
It would be a fool’s errand to conscript deep reflection on what it means to be human, how to pursue justice, or what constitutes the good life under one part of the American political system or even under any one camp in the American culture wars. I first learned about the author James Davidson Hunter many years ago at a conference for classical educators. I purchased and read a copy of his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World as a result of the conversations at this gathering about how classical Christian education can transcend our culture wars and our political polarization. Hunter’s work is among the most respected scholarship in America today regarding the nature of our culture wars, and his 2010 book was a great help to me as the academic dean and then principal during seven years at Logos Academy, a classical Christian school in York, Pennsylvania that was majority African American and Hispanic. It was such a beautiful community that my own children have still not forgiven me for taking a job that had us move a little too far away to continue allowing them to attend.
Hunter’s vision of overcoming our nation’s continual return to a culture war mentality is not the only one in classical education circles. Wendell Berry’s lovely essay “In Distrust of Movements” articulates a vision that is profoundly classical, and Berry was most deservingly the winner of the 2012 Paideia Prize from the Circe Institute whose mission is “to support teachers and parents who want to cultivate wisdom and virtue in their students through the truths of Christian classical education.” As another example, I would point to The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature by Drs. Anika T. Prather and Angel Adams Parham (and published by my own employer, Classical Academic Press). [Update: see their April 5 article “As Black educators, we endorse classical studies” in The Washington Post.] I could go on with many resources, but I will end with a book that I highly recommend (and that I have reviewed for Principia: A Journal of Classical Education and for ClassicalEd Review). If you have not read Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz—who is a tutor at Saint John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland—her book powerfully demonstrates how the classical tradition of education is truly untamable and life-giving.
That classical education is not at the heart of the culture wars and that it can never be reduced to such a relative triviality is, I am sure, an obvious point. However, within the world of American political discourse, the obvious sometimes needs to be clearly stated and restated for the benefit of all involved.
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