Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Trouble With Classical Education

Classical education, despite the fact that most people who use the term appear to know exactly what they mean, is a wide, messy category. A recent Emma Green piece in the New Yorker captures much of that, from the original concept of Dorothy Sayers to the controversial stances of Doug Wilson, granddaddy of the Association of Classical Christian Schools to Jeremy Tate's relentless pitching of the Classic Learning Test, the supposed alternative to the SAT and ACT. 

Classical schools have been commandeered by a variety of folks, from far right conservatives to the christianist nationalists of places like Hillsdale to others who, well, are not in tune with those ideologies. But they all give me a hinky feeling. I would never put my child in a classical academy of any sort. The reason boils down to this quote from the Green piece:
Classical education is premised on the idea that there is objective truth, and that the purpose of school is to set kids on a path toward understanding it. This principle is often framed in philosophical shorthand—classical educators love talking about “truth, beauty, and goodness,” which can sound like a woo-woo catchphrase to the uninitiated—and it’s paired with an emphasis on morality and ethics.

Sure, there is truth, beauty and goodness--but only one version.

That's an attractive approach for anyone whose belief system is centered on One Truth, whether that's a secular truth or a religious one, so we shouldn't be surprised by the sorts of folks who are attracted to the classical school approach.

Any why not, some folks are going to argue. 2 + 2 = 4. If you jump off the top of a building, you will fall to the ground. There are absolute and objectively true things in the world, so why not make our foundation solid by resting upon them?

Here's my problem. That statement of premise (as Green acknowledges elsewhere in her piece) is only half complete.

The real premise in classical schooling (and fundamentalist religion and hard line culture politics and other One Objective Truth world views) is this:

There is an objective truth-- and I know exactly what it is.

It's the "I know exactly what it is part" that is the major hitch. It's that part, that "Trust me because I am right about everything 100% of the time" part, that I simply don't believe.

If you're going with, "Well, if you don't believe in an objective Truth, then you must just believe in some sort of relativistic, higgledy-piggledy, situational ethics, spinning moral compass view of the world," well, that's not it either. I believe that the universe is a solid, real thing, that history happened, that words mean things, but I also believe that the universe is a big, complicated, possibly-infinite, quantum-fueled creation beyond human comprehension. We humans have as much chance of Understanding It All as the chipmunks in my back yard have of grasping differential calculus. 

We are limited creatures, and our ability to perceive is seriously limited and influenced by what we can see from where and when we stand. On top of that, we humans like to make all sorts of stuff up, sometimes in an attempt to reduce Vast Confusing Reality to a manageable symbolic representation, and sometimes in attempt to create an illusion of power and safety for ourselves.

The One Truth view can be a refuge for frightened folks, folks who want desperately to believe that the One Truth is graspable and, when grasped, will yield a set of rules that will keep us safe if we just follow them. It also appeals to people whose insular, self-important view of the world is threatened, in hopes that they can nurse their special little flower safely, waiting to get back to their imaginary position of deserved domination. That despite a rich human history that shows no such thing is true. 

We wrestle with all of this regularly. Ralph Waldo Emerson became a dean of US letters and philosophy with his essay "Self-reliance," which helped set the argument that we weren't going to find the One Truth by studying classical dead white guys, and that what truth we could find would have to be rediscovered anew in each new day (including, it should be noted, truths about ourselves). 

These are scary times (maybe not objectively scary, maybe not as scary as the world-falling-apart 1930s or the nuclear Armageddon any day now 1970s, but with fear as a major political currency, we regular convince ourselves the times are scary) and in scary times, folks like something solid and reassuring, like a belief system that says the One Objective Truth can not only be known, but has already been pretty much mapped out by a bunch of ancient guys, so if we just study that, we'll be safe.

Plus in an education system, the One Objective Truth makes organizing education is so much easier. "Critical thinking" just means "thinking that leads you to the One Correct Answer." All tests are objective tests (easy to score). And you can foster the belief that those who know the One Right Answer are better than those Others. Congratulations, young meritocrat.

Are there classical schools that avoid the One Objective Truth trap. Probably. Certainly there have been people who used their classical education training as a tool to bust out of their classical education training (Emerson and many of his buddies would be examples). 

Any education system based on the notion that there is only One True Answer for any of life's complex and complicated and eternally shifting vantage points is not a system that I'm interested in. Too much of life is looking for One Better Answer or One Answer That Works Reasonably Well or One Answer I Can Cobble Together With The Tools At Hand, not to mention One New Revised Answer Now That I've Had A Chance To Think Abou What I Said Yesterday. It's not all higgledy-piggledy land of do as you please; most of the time some answers are definitely better than others.

But to attempt to build a fortress out of One True Answer is folly. It's a small, brittle fortress that confines more than it protects, and doesn't even protect particularly well. 

Let me try one more explanation. You could, for example, enter into a marriage saying, "Here's a list of rules. This is what you're supposed to, and here's what I'm supposed to do, and here are the rules for how we'll interact, and we'll just follow those rules for the rest of our lives, so we don't really ever have to talk about this again." But that's not much of a marriage, not really a relationship between two living, breathing humans.

Some folks want to try that same sort of thing with their God or their understanding of the universe. "Just give me a list of rules, and I'll follow them carefully every day, mostly, and we don't ever have to talk again." But that's not a living, breathing relationship. 

I don't know how you have a static relationship with your spouse, your friends, your God, your universe, your understanding of yourself. But that's what One Truth promises-- a static relationship where, once you Know the Truth, nothing ever changes. This is not my idea of a functional relationship with the world, and it strikes me as particularly ineffective to try enforcing this relationship on children and youths, for whom change is constant and unavoidable. When you're young, your perspective on yourself and how to be fully human in the world is constantly changing.

Maybe that's meant to be the appeal of classical schooling-- in a world that seems to be constantly changing, here are some eternal Truths to latch on to. But only I know them, and you will have to trust that my One Truth is the correct one ignore all the other truths floating around, and I promise, if you just stay in this tiny little bubble, everything will be okay. Good luck with that. 

1 comment:

  1. Up until recently, a classical school was a school with a strong liberal arts curriculum aimed at strong students. The Chicago Public School system has five of them, and they are considered (along with the Regional Gifted Centers) to be approriate for students who achieve at or above the average level for their age. They do not make claims about fostering moral character or identifying "truth." The Christain right (and some Catholic schools) seem to have adopted this moniker for their tradition-oriented schools that do purport to treach "truth." Very different.