The Spread of Classical Education and Why It Matters
“The human being is a creature with a built-in desire for God, even though this desire often goes by other names such as the desire for beauty or the pursuit of happiness, and is often not articulated or recognized at all… Human culture is best and most fundamentally understood as an expression of that desire.”
– Michael Hanby, Why Better Catholic Education is Better Education
Sadly, all signs point to the reality that the pandemic was devastating for children, both in terms of educational outcomes and mental health. As data released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in June show, test scores in math and reading for U.S. children have hit their lowest level in decades.
Meanwhile, data released by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) earlier this year, found a catastrophic increase in depression and suicidal ideation among teens, in particular teen girls. According to the CDC survey, three in five teen girls reported feeling persistent sadness in 2021, while one in three reported seriously considering suicide.
However, it is important to note that while recent studies show a sudden worsening of academic performance and mental health among schoolchildren in the wake of the pandemic, trends had been negative for well over a decade. The reasons for this are multifarious, though there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the prominence of social media in the lives of children and teens is a major contributing factor.
Given these sobering realities, you would think that schools would be re-focusing on the tried-and-true approaches to education that are known to improve essential skills in things like reading and math, in conjunction with encouraging character development, healthy living (exercise, outdoor play, limiting digital media), and building strong communities.
Instead, however, what we are seeing is an ongoing push to transform education according to faddish and often outright perverse ideologies. Throughout June, for instance, numerous videos emerged from schools across the West of students being immersed in a sea of rainbow flags and woke propaganda. From these videos, it’s clear that the priority of the administrators of these schools is not to “educate” students in any traditional sense, but rather to indoctrinate them into a very specific set of moral and social values.
However, “Pride Month” celebrations in schools are, by all accounts, merely the tip of the iceberg. The propagation of various faddish theories, such as gender theory, critical race theory, and intersectionality theory, have transformed classrooms from venues for education, into social laboratories in which the lab rats are our children. Rather than teaching children to master the essential elements of education—i.e., reading, writing and math—hours a day are instead devoted to turning children into “woke” culture warriors, whose purpose is to battle a ubiquitous alleged “oppression.”
The results speak for themselves: a generation of children who lag far behind previous generations in basic skills, and who are suffering the worst mental crisis in living memory. As the sociologist Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt argued in their best-selling 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, modern educators are often directly feeding the mental health crisis, by immersing children in profoundly harmful, and ultimately unserious ideas, such as the idea that they should always trust their “feelings,” and that they are essentially “victims” of powerful, oppressive forces beyond their control.
The Classical Renaissance
In the midst of this bleak situation, it’s no wonder that many parents are unplugging from the public education system and looking for something else for their families. Statistics show that millions of parents are withdrawing their children from public schools. In many cases, they are opting for homeschooling. In others, they are turning towards one of the burgeoning number of “charter” schools in the United States, many of which are embracing the so-called “classical” model of education.
Defining precisely what “classical” education means is somewhat difficult, as it is a large movement that takes many forms. However, there are several common features that unite many classical schools.
Firstly is that most of these schools embrace some form of the “Great Books” model, immersing children in (as the poet Matthew Arnold once put it) “the best that has been thought and known.” These schools, in other words, are uninterested in the deluge of new, and often mediocre (or worse) books. Instead, they gladly embrace the “canon” of Western literature, i.e., the unquestionably great writers like Plato and Dante.
Another feature, is that these schools tend to take a more “holistic” approach to education, recognizing that in addition to transmitting information, education should also transmit culture and (even more importantly) virtue. It is by educating the character of students, that schools can produce students that are not only capable, conscientious, and self-less citizens, but also who have been trained to become self-educators, with a life-long passion for the pursuit of knowledge.
Finally, many (though not all) of these schools are faith-based, and thus have a transcendent orientation. That is, they understand that education is oriented not merely towards producing effective citizens or capable workers, but rather towards forming students to desire and seek union with God. Only in this transcendent purpose, does education reach its full dignity and power.
What is unquestionable is that this classical model of education is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance in the United States, and all across the West, right now. Every day, it seems, more classical schools are opening their doors in communities across America and attracting booming student bodies.
Often, this is a direct response to the transformation of mainstream education into propaganda. Children come home from school with reports that they spent yet another day on trendy political issues that are often morally pernicious, and parents realize that things cannot continue as they are. Their children are too precious. It is time to take drastic action. It is time to start a school, and to populate it with teachers who understand the preciousness of their children’s minds and souls.
One organization that is leading this renaissance, is the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS). According to the ACCS, membership increased from 335 schools to 465 between 2021-22. In 2023, that number increased to over 500 schools. That is an extraordinarily rapid increase, which followed years of essentially flat lining.
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE) is one of the organizations that is leading this renaissance from the Catholic perspective. The ICLE found in a recent survey that schools that reject the new woke ideology, or the “factory” model of education, and instead remake themselves along classical lines, experience far better student engagement and teacher satisfaction.
“There was little surprise to us in our recent survey that one of the most common words to come back to us, when leaders were describing their schools since the adoption of this ‘ever ancient, ever new’ philosophy of education, was ‘joy,’” ICLE President Michael Van Hecke told First Things recently. “It is no wonder it is starting to spread by word of mouth, across the nation, and, increasingly, around the world.”
Chesterton Schools Network
The word “joy” is critical here. So much of modern education is dreary, uninspired, depressing, and shallow. However, things are very different in the schools within the rapidly burgeoning Chesterton Schools Network (CSN).
One of the most powerful signs of the resurgence of Catholic classical education, not just in the United States but around the world, is the success of this network. CSN was founded just over ten years ago by the American Chesterton Society. The project emerged from the success of the Society’s flagship school, the Chesterton Academy of the Twin Cities. From just one school ten years ago, the network has expanded to well over fifty schools. CSN expects that number to grow to over seventy schools in the coming year, a truly explosive level of growth, and one that shows no signs of slowing down.
Students at Chesterton Academy (as schools within the network are called) follow a historically progressive education, beginning with the history and writings of ancient Greece and Rome in grade 9, moving through the medieval and renaissance periods, up to the modern period. By the time they graduate, students at Chesterton Academies will have read significant portions of writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Milton, Dostoyevsky, and (of course) G.K. Chesterton.
Importantly, however, the Catholic faith is woven throughout the curriculum. A heavy emphasis is placed on beginning every day with Holy Mass. Most schools incorporate moments of prayer throughout the school day. Chesterton Academies also offer intensive training in Catholic theology, including reading significant portions of Holy Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They also focus on character development as based upon the traditional understanding of the virtues.
As suggested above, however, one of the unique and most important features of the Chesterton Academies, is their focus on the values of joy and beauty. G.K. Chesterton himself was renowned for his focus on the virtues of gratitude and joy. And throughout his writings, Chesterton affirmed that life is fundamentally good. It is an adventure to be embraced, in the recognition that life is a gift given by God. Indeed, the motto of the Chesterton schools is “cultura vitae”, i.e., the “culture of life.”
At Chesterton Academies, students typically receive intensive training in choral singing, so that they can perform the gorgeous polyphonic music and Gregorian chant that once resounded to the ceilings of our great cathedrals. They also learn how to sketch and paint, in imitation of the great masters of old, and to produce the rich plays of Shakespeare and other masters. Dancing, singing, and poetry recitals are common.
Restoring Sanity and Joy
It is hard to overstate how powerful this model of education is, in a world awash in bleak “woke” propaganda, that even in the very act of arguing that human beings are “free” to become god-like in their self-determination, in fact debase human beings, making them slaves to dehumanizing ideologies.
Starting a school is an act of enormous bravery, since the challenges are myriad, especially since most of these schools are not funded by the government, but rather by tuition fees. However, more and more parents are showing a willingness not just to pay tuition, but to take upon themselves the enormous burden of starting schools from scratch, because they recognize the enormous stakes at play.
We cannot afford to have a generation of children that are not only incapable when it comes to essential, core skills that schools are supposed to (but are failing to) transmit, but who are deeply depressed, lacking any sense of transcendent purpose in their lives. It is essential that we train our students in the immense richness of the past, much of which was profoundly formed by the Catholic Church.
Indeed, as Christopher Perrin, one of the thinkers leading the classical renaissance, notes in his writings, while the “classical” approach to education has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, for much of history it was the Church that promoted this model of education. Thus, much of classical education is inescapably Christian (and indeed Catholic), being rooted in the conviction that human beings have a dignity unlike any other material creature, having been made in the “image and likeness of God,” with the capacity to contemplate and become like God.
This vision is radically different from the predominant educational philosophy of our age, which seems hellbent on co-opting the minds and souls of our children for short-sighted and profoundly misguided political purposes. The classical schools are charting another course.
Thank God for this renaissance of a form of education that is predicated fundamentally on human dignity. If you are a parent looking for a school to send your children, I encourage you to research what the classical schools in your area might be. And if there aren’t any, perhaps it’s time to consider banding together with other Catholic parents in your area and starting your own school. It will be difficult. But there are more and more resources and support available. And your children’s souls might depend upon it.
As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.