What is the Future of Classical Education? – Josh Herring


In That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis makes an argument about time and organizational development through Professor Dimble. Dimble says,

If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family—anything you like—at a given point in its history you always find that there was time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better, and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.

Families, schools, and churches have, Lewis suggests, a cycle of initial freedom narrowing into purpose as time forces definition in response to circumstances. In this process, the ability to avoid defining oneself, to maintain an “apparent neutrality,” ceases. 

Lewis’s argument explains a current dust-up in the classical renewal education. The sides of the dustup are clear: Jessica Hooten Wilson praises an increase in diversity of representation in reading lists, and Jeremy Tate, president of the Classical Learning Test (CLT), includes Wilson’s view of diversity as belonging to the big tent of classical education. On the other side, Matthew Freeman has accused the CLT of going woke because it supports representation rather than “hero-worship” as a primary goal. Clifford Humphrey and Ben Merkle have both supported Freeman’s argument, suggesting classical education focuses on excellence rather than representation. This debate is a result of the growth of the classical renewal movement, and illustrates Lewis’s argument. As the classical renewal movement grows, the importance of defining the movement, and ensuring that the movement does not become the thing it was founded to oppose, increases.

The terms of the argument are clear, yet both sides misunderstand the nature of our contemporary moment. Tate’s response to Freeman’s article was unsatisfying because he misunderstands the threat of mission drift. Tate cites the diversity of views on the CLT’s Board of Academic Advisors, but the presence of multiple views is not sufficient. Tate proposes a purpose for classical education: “The whole point of traditional education is to arm a new generation with the tools they need to think critically for themselves, and that mission requires a selection of works diverse in subject and author covering the period from antiquity to the modern era.” Teaching students to think well articulates an important part of the classical vision, but is insufficient to define the whole.

Classical education is on the cusp of going mainstream, but in that growth lies a danger. Wilson wants a conservative version of identity politics, arguing that reading lists should include minority voices, primarily women and black authors. She writes, “When choosing reading lists for students, do we ignore the works by Middle Eastern writers or Native American and African folktales? Or do we include them, as well as highlight the Ethiopians in Herodotus, read the Epic of Gilgamesh, and include the Egyptian Book of the Dead?” Wilson’s questions detract from the universality of the great books, focusing instead on representational factors. By opening the term “classical education” to include diversity of representation as a goal, which Wilson and Anika Prather both do (for Prather, see here, here, and here), Tate includes people advocating for the same principles that led to acceptance of woke ideology in education.

For the classical renewal movement to remain a renewal, it must resist the siren call of representation in literature. Instead of seeking to see themselves in the Great Books, students should be trained to look for what is universally human: the good, the bad, the mundane, the tragic. Whether or not a female student sees herself in the caricatures that make up David Copperfield is irrelevant; she should see what a life well lived looks like, and the many ways life can run awry. The goal of a classical education is not to help each student see himself, but rather to perceive in himself a representation of the whole. We read the Great Books to submit ourselves to the authors whose messages have stood the test of time, and whose wisdom can help us perceive a path amidst a chaotic world. If schools follow Wilson’s advice, they can easily substitute different criteria by which to choose what students should engage. Such substitution is the early stages of educational mission drift.

To criticize Tate and Wilson’s position, though, is not to agree with Freeman. Freeman suggests that the goal of classical education is “hero-worship” and the enshrinement of hierarchy. He writes, “The existence of the hero presupposes the excellence of the few and the inferiority of the many. That is hierarchy. Without hierarchy, you cannot have hero-worship, and without hero-worship, you cannot have the classical tradition.” Both hierarchy and heroic figures are part of classical education. Normative values are inherently hierarchical; they proclaim certain truths right, and others wrong; such values are best seen in heroic demonstration in epic poetry. However, Freeman’s exaltation of the Greek hero ignores the way Christianity shapes the classical tradition and the ways modernity forms the nature of classical education today.

For classical education to succeed as a mainstream movement, the lessons of classical Greece must be tempered by both Christianity and modernity.

Christianity posits that Christ redeems the classical masculinity of the Greek hero alongside all other parts of creation, and is himself the greatest picture of a human. Humility, love, strength, prudence, wisdom, grace, leadership, teaching, service, and suffering replace Achilles’ rage, Odysseus’ wiles, and Aeneas’ piety as the highest vision of a man. Both “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength” and “A new commandment I give unto you: love one another as I have loved you” were unknown principles in classical Greece. Freeman misunderstands the extent to which the present is shaped by Christianity.

If the classical renewal movement is truly a renewal of education for the modern world, it must undertake its work with an eye to how Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome have been shaped by London and Philadelphia. Modern knowledge of physics, biology, and chemistry, alongside the developments of classical liberalism and a heightened view of human reason, all belong to the tradition. Classical education seeks not just to train the leaders of society, but rather to give the education that once belonged only to elites to everyone. It is not just a revival of Greek paideia. After all, no one involved in modern classical education endorses nude wrestling or perverted teacher-student relationships. What comes later in time filters what we draw forward from the classical world. Freeman’s excessive dependence on pure classicism is not representative of the movement writ large.

Classical education is good in as much as it points students towards the good and calls them to conform themselves to the truth. Neither truth nor goodness, much less beauty, were known in their fullness in the classical world. The classical world requires the grace of Christianity and the reality of modernity to become a source of wisdom for living.

Both sides of the debate, therefore, can benefit by asking “What time is it?” Tate, Wilson, Prather, and others sensitive to the nuances of representation on reading lists, should recognize that the classical renewal movement is not in danger of being too exclusionary, but rather of opening the movement to the forces that derailed mainstream education a century ago. For Freeman, the danger lies in glorifying a classical past and failing to nuance the tradition.

Classical education has the potential to renew education on a global scale, but if Lewis is right about the pattern of organizational leadership then a broad tent welcoming to all views cannot hold. As time goes on, Tate and his compatriots at the CLT will need to draw lines. Which visions of classical education are beyond the pale? How far does a concern for representation extend? Does having enough female authors from enough countries suffice? Or should a reading list include representative selections from various religions, ideologies, or sexual orientations?

Tate intends none of these scenarios, but the views articulated by Jessica Hooten Wilson open a pathway leading to the reductio ad absurdum. In our current moment, that absurdum is the greater danger, and explains why Freeman’s argument resonates. At the same time, Freeman’s concept of “hero-worship” and adulation of the Greeks’ smarts of the kind of neo-Nietzschean machismo found in dark corners of the New Right.

For classical education to succeed as a mainstream movement, the lessons of classical Greece must be tempered by both Christianity and modernity.


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