Classical Schools Cut Through the Culture Wars | Opinion

It's back-to-school season, but the country never got a summer vacation from the culture wars over K-12 education. The U.S. has become bitterly divided over whether its schoolchildren should be taught critical race theory, how they should learn history and whether "patriotic education" is a problem or a solution.

While education-reform movements of the past few decades featured a narrow-minded focus on raising proficiency scores and closing the "achievement gap" along racial and class lines, these new debates are a reminder that there's more to education than standardized tests. Schools have a profound effect on the values instilled in children.

Of course, in a country divided over what those values should be, an education in San Francisco is bound to differ from one in deep-red Texas. But ideally, schools would not be in the business of incubating baby social activists or molding conservative firebrands. Instead, they would cut through partisan battles, ensuring some set of consistent values and focusing on the goal of advancing truth.

Classical education, a pedagogical paradigm based on the lasting traditions of Western learning, does just that. Classical schools have demonstrated the ability to inculcate sound values while providing academically rigorous instruction. On top of that, they often address the proficiency questions that dominated the last few decades, too.

Classical learning draws on the Greek and Roman societies of millennia past. While its exact structure and content have evolved from ancient to medieval to modern times, its core tenets have endured. Classical education is primarily language- and logic-focused. Educators emphasize mastery over the written and spoken word, in order that students might be able to both eloquently advance their own ideas and accurately digest the ideas of others. This objective is the motivation behind teaching a canon of enduring texts and debating fundamental claims through Socratic dialogue.

While structured, classical education is not rigid in its approach to learning. Classical schools come in numerous forms: charter, private, homeschool and micro-schools. They consist of both secular and religious options. Within schools, students receive ample opportunity for self-expression through both academic discussions and through the visual and performing arts. Because classical instruction imparts to its students fundamental knowledge of the world, it allows for students to properly develop their own interests.

While traditional, classical education is not blind to historical ailments. In fact, a quality classical education will offer lessons in history that are both comprehensive and provocative. A liberal arts education introduces a wide range of civilizations and languages, past and present. Students will often face challenges to their own perspectives—not to tear them down, but to build them up. As students master the subject, they will be able to identify historical forces that brought us to the current moment, contextualize humanity's successes and failures and analyze what they may mean for our future.

Los Angeles students
Students walk to their classrooms at a public middle school in Los Angeles, California, September 10, 2021. - Children aged 12 or over who attend public schools in Los Angeles will have to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by the start of next year, city education chiefs said September 9, 2021, the first such requirement by a major education board in the United States. Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images

What type of academic results can parents expect from a classical school? In a new issue brief for the Manhattan Institute, I profiled three classical charter schools—each teaching majority-minority student bodies in different urban locales. Each school meets, and typically greatly exceeds, local and state proficiency averages on academic assessments. For example, students at Nashville Classical Charter Schools have roughly double the proficiency rates in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Math compared to local district school students.

My review found that classical schools can provide especially valuable opportunities for black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students in struggling communities. South Bronx Classical, for example, has near-universal proficiency in both ELA and Math for all three of those groups, while proficiency rates among students from similar backgrounds in nearby district schools hover around 30 percent.

Given these outcomes, it's no surprise that seats in those schools are perennially in high demand. And while the three schools are not representative of all forms of classical learning, their data suggest that classical education can successfully reach students of all backgrounds. After all, there's a reason W.E.B. Du Bois expounded in The Souls of Black Folk on the virtues of studying Shakespeare and Aristotle. He wrote that "there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it"—a defense of the liberal arts as timeless and beautiful as any.

In today's divided age, producing graduates who love knowledge and relish discourse between different perspectives is more urgent than ever. Adults today are uninterested in continued learning past school, increasingly isolated from perspectives that diverge from their own and bitterly divided into ideological camps that see their opponents as detached from reality.

But classical education offers a pedagogical mode that could powerfully reverse these trends.

Students educated in classical schools today will have the skill sets and outlooks to enter society with a new openness to divergent viewpoints, a willingness to abandon ideological lenses and a commitment to seeing the world as it is. Maybe, with the age-old traditions they learn today, they will be the ones to mend a social fabric that is actively tearing itself apart and repair a culture that has turned schools into political battlegrounds. Parents would be wise to keep that in mind as they choose which values should be at the heart of their children's education.

Brandon A. McCoy is author of the recent Manhattan Institute issue brief Classical Education: An Attractive School Choice for Parents.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.