The 2020 health crisis exposed educational problems in ways no one could have predicted. When students had to study from home, parents saw what was or was not being taught in state schools. My friends would complain that their children only spent ten minutes on their assigned work and that they had hours left. Apparently, the teachers spent more time managing than teaching in the classroom. Even more worrying was the nature and quality of the work. Worksheets, quizzes, textbooks, videos. A friend shared a grammar worksheet on Twitter that began, “We’re all consumers.” It reminded me of a conversation I once heard from Jean Bethke Elshtain. One of their children or grandchildren had brought home a sheet of paper asking them to rate statements as facts or opinions. One statement said, “Murder is wrong.” Is that a fact or an opinion? You can imagine what the supposedly “correct” answer was. Due to the pandemic, parents across the country have faced the truth offered in headlines and statistics about the problems in education. And they were horrified to discover how little their students were learning, how poor the pedagogical methods were, and what subtle immorality lurked in the curriculum.
As a student professor, I knew firsthand how unprepared students were for college, and as a former teacher at a classical school, I saw the possible solution in this movement. With a group of friends, I started an alternative K-6 school that focuses on a coherent and integrated curriculum, prioritizing a global timeline for history, repetition and the process in math, and through stories, grammar, literature and Latin Discussion teaches relationships and mutual learning. During the quarantine, our students met as classes through Zoom. They read stories, shared them with their parents and discussed them with their siblings. Our kindergarten teachers dissected owl pellets with their families at home. Our first graders did shape searches and took photos of themselves when they found cones and cylinders in the real world. We had no parents complaining about the way the school was run over long distances, and we heard nothing but gratitude from parents who realized how much their children had learned and grown at our school over the past few months were. We all learned together that this is one way education can thrive in America.
In “Reforming Educational Authority” Andy Smarick advocates the subsidiarity and decentralization of the participation of the national government in education. Our school is an example of what this can look like. From the end of his play, Smarick encourages individuals to get involved in the educational reform process by setting up a school, finding a seat on the local school board, serving in the PTA, and so on. At the beginning of his argument, he promotes school choice, where the government supports the creation and improvement of charter and private school options, including classic schools. These service suggestions and choices outside of state schools are advancing[s] parental authorization, ”writes Smarick and diversifies the educational offer.
According to Smarick’s reasoning, the federal government should only intervene in matters of national concern, and he gives examples of Brown vs. Board of Education, Title IX opportunities, the Disabilities in Education Act, etc. In place of federal oversight, the state should be the greatest force retained to improve students’ reading and math skills, expand programming for gifted students, create career-oriented high school programs, and re-engage in history and civics. While I agree in theory, the practice of this oversight is much more difficult to implement as the question of how it depends on too many philosophical questions that the big players disagree on.
The definition of education is controversial. I have spoken on panels where someone on my left would argue about helping students train for adulthood and secure jobs. With admirable intent, the professor would focus on making sure that the students could make money and advance beyond their impoverished backgrounds. To my right, another professor would view education as substantive knowledge that needs to be accumulated and disseminated in the minds of students as if pouring from a funnel into a bucket. Neither of them agreed with the definition of education, and I disagreed with both of them. From my perspective, and from thousands of years of Western culture, education referred to Latin upbringing to get the best out of it and avoid mistakes. Or, as Plato puts it, to teach someone what to love. Which of us is right?
There’s a reason Dorothy L. Sayers did not write about the Nazi atrocities or the economic devastation of Europe after World War II, but gave a talk about education, about what was lost and what could be won.
Smarick recognizes the pluralism of responses and political polarization, but does not emphasize philosophical pluralism. In an admirable argument about the means of education in this country and the authority to implement change, the purpose of education has been implied but not explicit. Smarick claims that the government wants citizens who can make money, so proper education is in their best interest. What makes a good citizen? We have to look again at the federal papers – but the problem is that the majority of school principals have never read them. And if the government has a duty to ensure that we “have adults capable of maintaining America’s international competitiveness,” as Smarick points out, they need more creativity and critical thinking than the technical skills and professional training that we have currently offer them. As Betsy De Vos noted, the gaps between Americans and their international counterparts are embarrassing. She complains: “We’re not in the top ten – in nothing.” Whatever the state schools have done over the past few decades, it fails.
In contrast, classical education can look back on two millennia. In its new form in America, classical education may look different than when Roman citizens sat at the feet of their Greek teachers. But even in this century and in this country, the results are undeniable. Smarick denies that our reform efforts in the past have focused too much on student outcomes: standardized test scores, graduation rates, lifetime earnings. I want to argue that these are the wrong results. What if students felt ready for work? Got BA or higher in college? What about lifelong happiness? The Association of Classical and Christian Schools carried out a study with these and other results, in which 24- to 42-year-old alumni from public, secular private and classical schools took part. The results all favored classical education. Not to mention what classic educators have known for decades: Classically trained students outperform students in other types of education in terms of standardized test and career readiness benchmarks.
I appreciate Smarick’s approach to finding a middle ground, turning reformers away from revolutionary ideals at the national level, and empowering parents to participate in the education of future generations. We need to ponder our goals, how we can achieve them, and who should have authority to carry them out. My mother teaches in the public school system and I have friends who continue to do so with great passion and care for their students. I strive to work with anyone who recognizes the problems ahead in training and wishes to make changes. In my view, however, the solution is not vague and undefined. Classical education offers a way back from the cliff we are dangling over. There’s a reason Dorothy L. Sayers did not write about the Nazi atrocities or the economic devastation of Europe after World War II, but gave a talk about education, about what was lost and what could be won. We would do well to read The Lost Tools of Learning and return our attention to those goods that should never be lost.