Back to school, and back to basics

The benefits of a classical education. Photo credit: Capstone Classical Academy


As students return to school, the growing number of issues in public education mount. In Canada and the United States, students, parents, and teachers face challenges that previous generations never anticipated. The introduction of technology, the ideological battles, and the changing nature of the family have all contributed to these shifts. School closures during COVID, however, may have been the catalyst for accelerating a movement that Alexandra DeSanctis recently chronicled in her article “Old School” in a recent edition of National Review. 

For over 30 years, I taught and administered in schools in Ontario. Education and delivering content to students always seemed paramount, but as my career lengthened, so did the push to deal with children more holistically. That meant as teachers, we had a responsibility to understand the whole child, not just fill their heads with information. The intent seemed innocent enough, perhaps kind. 

Unfortunately, as my colleagues and I learned, caring for a child beyond his academic, athletic, or social needs is like peeling an onion. The layers are numerous, and each one brings you into contact with more of the person. Soon, a teacher becomes a social worker, an advocate, a psychologist, a therapist, and a counselor. What started as an effort to support a child more fulsomely becomes overwhelming and all too consuming when 20 or more other children in the classroom need your attention, guidance, and support. 

DeSanctis researched and wrote about a topic that interested me as a teacher, a parent, and now as a superannuated member of the profession. The idea goes back centuries to the time of Plato and Aristotle. Enjoying a renaissance of late, classical education finds its roots in liberal arts, the reading of classics, and the study of Western civilization. Like Plato, in his famous work, The Republic, a classical education pursues the idea of truth, goodness, and beauty.

DeSanctis says the three pillars of classical education include teaching moral virtue, forming character, and helping students understand the person and world in which we live. She also explains the three stages of the pedagogy, known as the “trivium.” In stage one, students study grammar, reading, and math from kindergarten through grade 6. The remnants of this exist in the curriculum today in most boards of education. The problem becomes the crowding of other initiatives into the teaching day, diluting the focus and addressing the layered needs earlier discussed. Not all students learn in the same manner, nor do they learn at the same rate. Many students would benefit from a more structured and demanding curriculum but must accept a more integrated setting. 

Parents concerned about the watering down of learning standards are finding classical education networks. Since public schools do not offer this option, parents remove their kids from public schools and enroll them in these more traditional systems. Placing them in these schools at a young age reaps the best results. This could explain why the idea is gaining steam. 

The second stage encourages the student to develop logic. They explore “why” questions and use reason to seek truth or determine facts. For example, the climate change curriculum, rather than introduced as a fact with a list of remedies, might be studied as something that should be widely researched, discussed, and debated before grand conclusions are drawn that reflect an ideology or movement. 

Finally, in the last three years of high school, students practice rhetoric, using the information gathered, the skills developed, and the ideas stirred to conduct independent projects that reflect critical thinking skills and persuasion in debate or essay form. The rigorous nature of this kind of learning appeals to parents who want their children to succeed, not only academically, but face life, not dependent on the various agencies governments offer, able to problem solve, think, and come up with solutions. For a nanny state, convinced that everyone needs a little government (if not a lot), this shakes the foundation of their existence and threatens their authority. 

Promising independent thinkers, public education has become the opposite, spawning groupthink, where equity outshines excellence, diversity surpasses competency, and inclusivity means every contribution holds equivalent value. In effect, competition gets downplayed. Thinking is exchanged or confused with feeling. 

The movement to classical education finds a warmer reception in different parts of the population. Those religiously devoted like the idea of routine, order, and discipline that a classical education elevates. One of the more successful systems has been the Chesterton Academy in Minnesota, a Catholic network with 40 schools in the United States and Canada sharing a curriculum. 

The Acton Institute, a Catholic organization committed to promoting a free and virtuous society, has supported promoting classical studies in Catholic schools. Located in Michigan, the Institute provides an outlet for encouraging a traditional and ethical lifestyle based on Christian principles and Catholic teaching. Coming alongside Sacred Heart of Jesus School, the Institute’s Father Robert Sirico has helped a once thriving school (peak enrollment of 900 students in 1925 had fallen to 68 by 2012) repurpose its mission and adopt a classical curriculum. The school now serves 400 students, proving, as DeSanctis suggests, that word-of-mouth advertising can pay big dividends. 

Beyond Chesterton, other networks are burgeoning that “…help to establish classical charter schools, educating students within the Western tradition and teaching moral virtue without an explicit religious connection.” Hillsdale College, located in Michigan, provides an online venue for schools to receive training and resources through its generous endowment program. Another association offering courses is Great Heart Academies. Operating in Arizona and Texas, looking to expand to Louisiana and Florida, this association hopes to eventually provide online courses fully accredited and at no cost for grades K through 9 in Arizona and Texas, then gradually expand through grade 12. 

Classical training requires a different mindset and different measurements for success. The traditional SAT or ACTs that college entrants take do not accurately reflect the classical model. In response, a CLT (Classic Learning Test) was designed as an alternative. Since the SAT and ACT now include a more progressive stream of thinking, the CLT, as co-founder Jeremy Wayne Tate puts it, “goes back thousands of years, to Plato and Aristotle, and includes the most influential thinkers that have driven the development of thought and culture.” Numerous private colleges accept these results, and Florida may be the first state to accredit these tests for their state university system. 

DeSanctis closed her article by quoting Dorothy Sayers, a twentieth-century crime writer and poet who was also a student of classical and modern languages. Sayers, in a speech delivered at Oxford University in 1947 entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” spoke these prescient words: 

A tradition, however firmly rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies. And today a great number — perhaps the majority — of the men and women who handle our affairs, write our books and our newspapers, carry out research, present our plays and our films, speak from our platforms and pulpits — yes, and who educate our young people — have never, even in a lingering traditional memory, undergone the scholastic discipline. Less and less do the children who come to be educated bring any of that tradition with them.

In Canadian public schools, especially in Ontario, the harnessing of time and energy to ensure education serves everyone misses the point. Education not only serves, it demands. If we don’t create expectations for our students in public education, more parents will look for ways to safeguard their children’s learning experiences. Classical education never goes out of style. In contrast with today’s differentiated learning theories and commitment to modern ideology, the Classics again appear substantial, innovative, and practical.   

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