The Institute for Classical Education, a recently established research center based in Arizona, announced its ambitious mission of bringing classical education to an additional 50,000 students by 2025. This is a laudable and timely goal, for classical education’s aims may be offering exactly what prominent conservative education policy scholars have called for—namely, a serious engagement with the substance of education as a means of cultivating moral and civic virtue. Indeed, the institute’s own flagship publication is simply named “Virtue,” and its mission claims that: “classical education takes a unifying approach to intellectual and moral formation by developing the integrity of mind and heart.”
The potential for such robust growth of K–12 classical education seems plausible. Indeed, the institute gathered over 450 classical educators representing eighty-two K–12 classical schools, twenty universities, and ten institutions of research and philanthropy in early March for its second annual National Classical Education Symposium. And there are currently 13,074 students on waiting lists for thirty Great Hearts Academies, the largest public provider of K–12 classical education. Yet if this growth is to match the institute’s projections, it will have to navigate three challenges to classical education’s continued expansion—definition, consistency, and data.
Primary among these difficulties is the term “classical education” itself. It encompasses a variety of different schools of thought, and this fact alone can make it challenging to articulate and agree on a single definition. For the sake of clarity, I offer my own working definition: classical education engages student’s innate wonder through “great books” or the seven liberal arts (the arts of word—grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the arts of number—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) to pursue perennial human questions about truth, virtue, and beauty so as to live virtuously.
This, however, is by no means a comprehensive definition, nor one that is necessarily shared by every classical school. K–12 classical education has largely developed as a grassroots movement, lacking a centralized source that would impress upon schools a standardized meaning to the term “classical.” I’ve heard classical educators articulate the aims of education as any of the following: encountering what is good, true, and beautiful through the mediation of rare artistic genius; preparing the soul for freedom and self-governance; fostering moral and intellectual virtue; cultivating the capacity for leisure or reflection on what is noble; and studying the human person.
The pedagogies and curricula by which these aims are accomplished are likewise varied between and among associations, schools, headmasters, and individual teachers. None of these goals or methods are necessarily at odds. In fact, they could prove to be complementary. Yet the various understandings can make it difficult to articulate classical education’s core, defining features, which could make it difficult to scale this movement and preserve its integrity.
With this in mind, a group of classical leaders representing more than 400 classical schools—both public and private—has been meeting over the past year, most recently at the National Classical Education Symposium. Their definition is simply: “Classical education is the pursuit of wisdom and virtue by means of a rich and ordered course of study grounded in the liberal arts tradition.” This, I think, is a good start, for it clearly defines the telos of classical education, wisdom, and virtue, while leaving plenty of room for debate about supplementary purposes, modes of instruction, and more.
There are, however, risks to going too broad. If classical education grows on pace with the Institute for Classical Education’s expectations, it could become a fashionable term that encompasses so many competing visions that it loses a substantial meaning. And if classical educators wish to receive the support of families and the investment of philanthropists, they’ll need a clear definition so partners know exactly what they’re signing up for.
Although the term is broad, it should be evident from the definitions offered that classical education tends to eschew the idea that education should be geared primarily toward preparing students for “college and career” or offering a particular set of technical skills valued in the workplace. Certainly, success on standardized state tests and college-entrance exams is valuable, as are a job offer and an acceptance letter to an institution of higher education. But these are not, in the minds of the classical educators I interviewed during and after the symposium, the primary ends of education. They see such indicators of educational accomplishment as poor proxies for the actual purposes of education.
Classical education is meant to be gratifying in itself by aiming to inculcate virtue, ground students in a millennia-old tradition of inquiry, and demonstrate the meaning of human excellence. Today’s narrow, though well-intentioned, measures of academic success risk distorting the purposes and methods of classical education because its primary purpose cannot be well captured by tests scores, graduation rates, or employment figures. Yet, to grow, they may need to become comfortable with judiciously using these metrics to persuade newcomers of their concrete success without allowing these to dilute the larger purposes of their endeavors.
Policymakers and philanthropists understandably aim to ground their decisions in a body of evidence and aspire to make “data-driven” decisions. Regardless of the merits of this approach, the fact that very little data exist on classical education’s potential to form character may be an obstacle to realizing the Institute for Classical Education’s plans for expansion. Participants at the symposium acknowledged this and are actively trying to remedy it. In fact, two reports published later this summer as a part of my organization’s case-study series on character-education initiatives will help verbally demonstrate how one’s character is formed in the classical context at Great Hearts Academies and in a new classical teacher-preparation program at the University of Dallas. These are promising accounts of how character formation occurs. But more in-depth, empirically grounded research will be necessary to help verify that the theory of classical character education translates effectively into practice and concrete outcomes.
However, this need for empirical research is in some ways foreign to classical education because of classical education’s distinctive intellectual origins. Classical education tends to take its bearings from an epistemology that is decisively pre-modern. Students generally read works of Aristotle, ancient Greek tragedians, Ovid, Cicero, Aquinas, and Dante. But the data-driven-decision-making mindset is a more modern convention, growing from the philosophy of early modern and Enlightenment eras and accelerating in today’s time of Big Data. Many of the writers who laid the foundations for modern empiricism—the school of thought that maintains empirically verifiable experimentation is the surest (and in some cases, only) means of acquiring knowledge—sought to reject the presuppositions and methods and of pre-modern thinkers, the very figures that classical education primarily look to for guidance.
Admittedly, such a distinction between pre-and post-modern thinking can go too far and lack nuance. And any school that seeks to succeed in the twenty-first century cannot look only to the ancients, but must be engaged with the critiques and refinements offered by the moderns—as every classical educator who I know does.
Nonetheless, these different eras do have distinctive ways of understanding what constitutes knowledge and consequently, education. This difference may make the dialogue between modern, empirical research and classical education awkward at first. But at minimum, dialogue is possible. For example, the University of Dallas’s recently established classical-education teacher-preparation program is launching a partnership with the Jubilee Center for Character and Virtue, a research institute dedicated to character education. Moreover, it has recently established a research institute and lab school. Each of these projects are dedicated to studying the efficacy of classical education as character education.
The establishment of these efforts affirms what I’ve intuited after attending the symposium and interviewing a number of classical-education leaders for R Street’s forthcoming virtue case studies—namely, that the leaders of this budding movement are aware of the challenges ahead and on the right track to resolving them. I certainly hope that they succeed. For if their character education is as promising as they claim, they deserve support.