In part one of this two-part essay, published last week, I reflected on Clare Basil’s “definitional” challenge to the growth of classical schools—schools that take “a unifying approach to intellectual and moral formation by developing the integrity of mind and heart,” as she puts it. Basil had cited three challenges to that expansion: “definition” (must all classical schools enact the same precise mission and objectives?) “consistency,” (must classical schools share the same protocols for evaluating success?), and “data” (must we gather more and better empirical data about the efficacy of classical schools?). The overarching purpose of her inquiry concerns the potential for classical schools to promote “moral and civic virtue” in their students.
Addressing the “definition” challenge, I concluded that one clear definition may not actually be necessary to productive growth if classical educators can continue to “cross-pollinate” and agree on a few essential, defining characteristics.
In this second and final part, I explain how the challenges of “consistency” and “data” can be overcome.
Basil recounts from her discussions with classical educators that they are not first and foremost about “preparing students for ‘college or career’ or offering a particular set of technical skills valued in the workplace.” Nor are these schools fixated on SAT and ACT scores, admission to Ivy League schools, or particular types of job offers. “They see such indicators of accomplishment as poor proxies for the actual purposes of education,” Basil notes, but also suggests that classical schools “may need to become more comfortable with judiciously using these metrics to persuade newcomers of their concrete success without allowing them to dilute the actual purposes of education.” Does she mean to say that the purposes of classical education must be more consistent with other K–12 schools in order to grow? Why, I wonder?
As a classical school parent, I don’t care much about those proxies. I care that my daughter is learning real history and enjoying a rigorous and free exchange of evidence-based opinions about great texts full of transcendent ideas (discussed in part one). Last week, for example, my fifth grader had to defend in an essay her choice of who the hero is of Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar. In fact, the first back-to-school night that I attended at my daughter’s classical school was my first back-to-school night ever as a parent at which the headmaster talked about the purpose of education rather than about the carpool line or fundraising. He spoke eloquently, noting that the original purposes of a liberal arts education were intellectual, moral, and spiritual. Period. Only in modern times, he asserted, have folks assigned an “economic” purpose to education.
A recent ACCS survey compares the responses of Christian classical alumni to those of students from public, private secular, Catholic, evangelical Christian, and religious homeschooling on topics related to “life choices, (academic) preparation, attitudes, values, opinions, and practices.” ACCS Alumni scored the highest on every single “Life Outcome Profile.” While survey data may not be the most compelling to policymakers, it is nonetheless significant that ACCS alumni report that they are thriving in the very ways that their families and classical educators intended.
“Rather than being narrow-minded and isolated,” observes Ron Hoch, headmaster at Redeemer Classical School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, “ACCS alumni are open to divergent views, are more tolerant, listen to others, stand up for what is right, and are involved in the public square.”
“These qualities are ideal for citizens of a pluralistic society,” Hoch adds, “which should affirm for Ms. Basil and others the ability of Christian classical schools—and other classical schools, presumably—to cultivate that moral civic and virtue of which she spoke.”
Finally, Basil reminds us that “policymakers and philanthropists” do aim to make data-driven decisions about which schools to support, and that the dearth of empirical data on classical education’s potential to form character may be an obstacle to their expansion. If that were true, how do we explain the organic success of the classical school movement so far? Maggie Edson earnestly remarked in her lovely commencement address at Smith College in 2008, “I did not become a teacher to produce a bar graph.” Teachers and families at classical schools understand that, but we do have more than “very little data” on classical education’s potential to form character than Basil suggests.
For one thing, we have the Classical Learning Test (CLT), an examination launched in 2015 and now accepted by hundreds of U.S. colleges and administered to tens of thousands of students. Unlike the SAT and ACT, which have been watered down to align to the utilitarian and skills-based Common Core State Standards, the CLT focuses instead on measuring students’ ability to wrestle with transcendent ideas. It consists of sections on actual grammar, literary comprehension, and mathematical and logical reasoning. Its passages are not the bland and boring content we see on the SAT and ACT, now so neutralized for perceived bias that they can’t possibly engender a passionate yet critically objective response.
Instead, CLT passages are taken literally A to Z from Thomas à Kempis to Mary Wollstonecraft, and include both literary and literary “informational” works from novelists, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and more. By testing students’ ability to analyze texts that deal with transcendent ideas, the CLT aims to elicit students’ ability to flourish in the free exchange of ideas that is meant to occur in college, for sure—and, we hope—throughout our lives. It takes less time than the SAT or ACT, is taken online, proctored remotely using a strict protocol, generates results within twenty-four hours, and incurs no fee for having scores sent to colleges. “At a time when schooling is geared mainly toward outcomes—skills, knowledge, career readiness, success,” notes Ashley Thorne in the Wall Street Journal, “the CLT hopes to guide us back to education as soulcraft.”
Ms. Basil’s concerns about the scaling of classical education, while nontrivial, are also not insuperable. Classical schools may actually benefit from more diversity of definition than from cramming them into one defined model, and they may yet be able agree on important common principles. Measures of success that respect the common principles and purposes of classical education may not be that elusive, as both the CLT and ACCS survey data suggest. Could we always use more research? Sure, but we should think carefully about how we quantify success, especially if our shared purpose is to nurture moral and civic virtue.
One important potential obstacle unmentioned in Basil’s essay is the challenge of human capital. How can we find enough well-educated teachers who understand and celebrate classical education in ways that will make them successful in classical schools? Enough administrators to lead them—administrators who not only understand the academic but also the moral and civic purposes that characterize classical schools?
I am heartened that the growth of classical schools seems actually to have sparked a related growth in teacher preparation programs for would-be classical educators. The University of Dallas, Eastern University, and Houston Baptist University all offer some form of a master’s degree in liberal arts education. St. John’s College in Annapolis also now offers a Liberal Arts Education Certification, due to growing demand from K–12 teachers.
The apparent interest in scaling classical schools—and in training more classical school teachers and administrators—should give us the confidence to face gladly the challenges that Basil and I have discussed. A critical mass of classical schools will surely continue to thrive—and grow—if we stay fixed on the “intellectual, moral, and spiritual” purposes of education, rather than on its “practical” or “economic” purposes. Focusing on the transcendent rather than on the relativistic can only help improve our students’ moral and civic virtue, as Basil and I both seem to hope.