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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'Liberal arts' education is now 'classical,' which makes it 'right wing'

"Classical" charter schools are a right-wing plot to "destroy democratically governed public schools while turning back the clock of education and social progress by a century," charges a new report by the Network for Public Education. Unlike other charters (which NPE also dislikes), classical schools attract "whiter and wealthier" families who identify as "Christian nationalists." (I don't believe anyone in America identifies as a "Christian nationalist.")


There are 273 classical charters nationwide, and 66 more opening soon, estimates the report. "Waiting lists"are long. Classical curricula have become popular for private, religious and homeschools.

The movement started in the 1980's to offer "a variation on traditional liberal arts education," writes James Hankins, a Harvard history professor, on First Things. "Great Hearts Academies, the largest classical charter network, began in the 1990s."

Typically, students read the "great books" of the Western tradition, even though they're by dead, white men, and discuss virtues such as wisdom, justice, temperance and courage.

It's odd that teaching the liberal arts is now seen as conservative.

Teachers drawn to classical education "want their students to be able to receive the deep humanity of Shakespeare and the glorious music of Milton without having to negotiate political minefields," Hankins writes. "Almost everyone I have met in the movement avoids making political statements and wants to keep contemporary politics out of the classroom."

The past is a foreign country, but no educated person should want it turned into enemy country, the exclusive preserve of “white supremacists” and “right-wingers.” The Western tradition is too valuable for it to become the foster child of one political party. It should be handed down, with all candor and suitable critical rigor, to future generations.

Too many public schools "have alienated families with their aggressive politics and their contempt for the religious beliefs of students and parents," writes Hankins, who comes from a family of public school teachers.

Yes, conservative politicians have embraced classical education in recent years, he writes, but there's no reason that progressives shouldn't too.

William Shakespeare

Classical education provides the kind of "content-rich, knowledge-building curriculum" that students need, writes Natalie Wexler on Minding the Gap.

Many of the ideas students study in a classical curriculum were considered "provocative or even revolutionary," argue Cornel West, a leftist black academic, and Jeremy Wayne Tate, creator of the Classical Learning Test, in a Wall Street Journal commentary, she points out.

“It is impossible to understand great champions of human dignity and freedom such as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. without reading Exodus, Aristotle, Luther and Shakespeare,” wrote Anika Prather, another black scholar, and a co-author in the National Review.

Classical charter schools are attracting all sorts of students, Wexler notes. In Texas, much of the growth in enrollment is coming from Asian-American and Hispanic students. Brilla, a “classically inspired” network in New York City and New Jersey, serves a student population that is 74% Latino, 24% African-American, and 91% low-income. Brilla uses two knowledge-building curricula, Core Knowledge Language Arts and Wit & Wisdom which also are used by non-classical schools, she writes.

Wexler fears the word "classical" has been tainted and may alienate the families who most need a stronger, richer curriculum for their children.


Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith

In One World Education Centre, we teach literary classics (Shakespeare, Genesis, a bit of Aristotle, Milton [whom I'm teaching now]), and so on, including modern classics, to support genuine progress in mathematics & the natural sciences, eschewing transgressive politics for those less divisive, since our vision is unite the world, in part, by sharing the best of civilization with everyone.

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