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Classical Education’s Woke Co-Morbidity

Without hierarchy, you cannot have hero-worship.

Latin ancient language and classical education (Black and White)
(Crisfotolux/Getty Images)

The classical education movement has caught the wokeness bug. It is fighting back, at least for the moment, but I fear symptoms will recur until the patient is terminal.

On January 12, Pepperdine’s Jessica Hooten Wilson published an essay with a disconcerting question-as-title: “Is White Supremacy a Bug or a Feature of Classical Christian Education?” The essay touts the overhaul she helped spearhead at the Classical Learning Test—an alternative to the SAT and ACT—to “ensure that there is not only equal inclusion of writers across time periods but also representation from women and writers of color.”

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Hooten Wilson urges her co-laborers in the classical education movement to diversify their reading lists and conferences:

In our textbooks, we should peruse the authors of the works and, if applicable, the editors or introductory writers to ensure an assortment of voices from various nations and cultures, as well as an equality of both sexes… When these groups [classical schools] gather, they should be lifting up more than the white men in their ranks as wonderful speakers and teachers. Side by side with these leaders should be women and writers of color.

Hooten Wilson’s woke outburst is only the first public salvo in a war already underway—a war set to end in the conquest of the classical education movement by liberalism. The left’s long march through the institutions has conquered virtually every aspect of modern life in the West; it is held at bay only in the subcultures conservatives form when they break away from institutions infected with liberalism. Think of the CREC or the SSPX, New Saint Andrews College or Thomas Aquinas College. 

But as soon as one of these subcultures emerges from the woods and comes down from the hills, it always catches the virus. Once a conservative institution attains some power and influence, the symptoms begin. Think now of the long succession of American colleges formed by Christians to educate clergymen, starting with Harvard. Go down the sorry list. Venerable Catholic universities have developed according to the same dismal pattern. Think of evangelical parachurch organizations, like Christianity Today or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. 

Conservatives are in the position of the immunocompromised in lockdown. You are safe—so long as you stay in your house and disinfect the grocery bags dropped off by Instacart. But as soon as you go where people are, you’re toast. You are getting hooked up to the ventilator. That wokeness first presented itself in the classical education movement just as it entered the mainstream should not therefore come as a surprise. 

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Spiritual liberals are attracted to emerging conservative institutions like flies to the milkpail. The primary vector for this particular infiltration is the Classical Learning Test. That might seem surprising. CLT’s CEO, Jeremy Wayne Tate, judging by Twitter, appears to be a conservative Roman Catholic. But the fact that he allowed Hooten Wilson and her friends to establish a beachhead in his organization demonstrates that it hardly matters. Conservatives simply can’t help it—they’re all immunocompromised. 

Does this sound like a counsel of despair? It is not. The locked-down, immunocompromised inmate of our analogy need not die. If you so desire, you can live. Take some zinc. Eat some eggs. Get outside in the sunshine. Embrace the steel of a tool or barbell and rebuild your strength. Soon, the virus will be able only to give you a passing cold—and after that happens, you’ll be naturally immune. 

So, what is your zinc? Your new diet and exercise routine? To know what will work, we have to look at what has already failed.

You must not make the same mistake that academics in classics or other humanistic disciplines make. In classics, the virus is endemic; the patient is already on hospice. Princeton’s Dan-el Padilla Peralta is the final avatar of Marxist resentment of which Hooten Wilson is a mere foreshadowing. He and his colleagues are destroying their discipline—they have announced publicly their intention to do so—because it has racism, patriarchy, and colonialism at its foundation. 

Columbia’s Roosevelt Montas, author of Rescuing Socrates, is at present the most prominent defender of the totally doomed field of Classics. To Padilla’s accusation, he answers:

My point is simple: give the ‘underprivileged’ access to the cultural wealth that has long been the exclusive purview of the elite, and you will have given them the tools with which to subvert the social hierarchies that have kept them down. Beyond equipping them with marketable skills and the means for economic self-advancement, this deeper work of education is the most valuable gift that colleges and universities can give to young people. It is also the most valuable contribution they can make to a democratic society.

Montas assumes the exact same thing about classics that Padilla does: Classics should advance human equality. Padilla recognizes that classics has hierarchy in its bones, and can never serve the purposes of equality, so it must be torn down. Montas agrees that classics ought to serve equality; he only disagrees in that he still thinks that it can: the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house.

The situation is hardly different in the classical education movement. Only the virus is not so advanced. Jessica Hooten Wilson still thinks classical education can be saved—in her thinking, “white supremacy” is only a bug, not a feature; just hire her and her friends to diversify the reading list, and all will be well. (It is fitting that this infiltration happened first at CLT—the idea of a “Classical College Board” is perfectly progressive and completely antithetical to anything actually classical.) But she will evolve into, or if not, be replaced by, someone like Padilla, who wants to “deconstruct” classical education altogether, someone who sees that classical education is too hierarchical to be redeemed. By then, it will be too late. 

It may already be. Why? Look at the response that David Goodwin, the president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, wrote for the Federalist. Like Montas, he has already accepted the liberal assumption of his opponent—the liberal assumption that equality is the highest good. If this continues uncorrected, it will rot the classical education movement from the inside out:

Classical education was created to, and has, liberated the minds of countless people groups in history, and it is capable of doing the same in America today — and beyond. It has been at the forefront of the march for freedom and education; for individual rights apart from race or class or sex. If we let the very toxin that infects progressive education get into our classrooms, we’re doomed. This toxin was created and propagated by those who hate our tradition. Should we voluntarily drink it?

As in the Montas-Padilla case, Goodwin already agrees with Hooten Wilson that classical education should be anti-racist; he disagrees with her only in that he thinks it already is anti-racist—she thinks it will be once there are a few more DEI consultants.

Goodwin wants to blame Hooten Wilson’s attack on “the Frankfurt School.” But neither she nor Theodor Adorno forced him to write that classical education exists for liberating the minds of people groups, marching for freedom, and giving them rights. This is how the Whig view of history, itself a product of liberal Protestantism, defends classics: the seeds sown in the soil of Hellas blossom over a long period of historical development into the fruit of the Civil Rights Movement. This liberal Protestant view of history is, incidentally enough, also the main ingredient in wokeness. 

If even the conservative leaders of the classical education movement think that anti-racism is the whole point of the classical tradition, is there any saving the movement? How can we articulate a defense of the tradition that doesn’t try to turn it into a freedom march?

Classical educators love to talk of "virtue." This is a good starting point. In fact, virtue is the center, the focal point, of the classical tradition. But do classical educators have any idea what virtue really is? I don’t think they do. If they bring modern ideas about virtue, like egalitarianism, to classical texts, they are incapable of actually hearing from ancient authors. It is possible to read every book Plato and Aristotle wrote and still to never understand a single thing they said. 

Understanding virtue is essential for understanding the classical tradition because the unalterable lesson the tradition teaches is hero-worship. The classical tradition is a long meditation on exemplary human types. Loving ἀρετή means loving him in whom it appears: the hero.

The poem from whose shadow the classical tradition can never escape is The Iliad. Is The Iliad the story of the liberation of a people group? Dueling Achaean and Trojan accounts of individual rights? A manifesto on the value of education and freedom for all? Or perhaps it is Montas’s “subversion of social hierarchies”? No. It is a hymn to the excellence—the virtue—of a hero whose power surpassed that of a whole generation of heroes. The Iliad paints in language of power the bloody result of one army of heroes clashing with another, and does so with a reverence bordering on the erotic:

When the two sides closed with each other
They slammed together shields and spears,
Rawhide ovals pressed close, bronze thoraxes
Grinding against each other amid the groans
And exultations of men being slain
And of those slaying, as the earth ran with blood.

Greek philosophy is similarly erotic, and departed not at all from the hero-worship into which Homer inducts us. Achilles and Odysseus alike—the two epic heroes, found no way to live as heroes worthy of worship while avoiding death. Both are offered the opportunity; both reject it. The philosopher, however, finds himself in the living death of democratic Athens. Dare he descend back into the cave? War, as it turned out, was less dangerous for Socrates than the pursuit of wisdom—a fatal endeavor. And yet by killing him, Athens helped translate into immortality the philosophic hero from whom no one can escape. No matter how badly you butcher Plato, or how subtly you read him, you can never dispense with his Socrates.

This is because Socrates holds out—or at the very least seems to hold out—wisdom worth the price even of death. Knowledge of the whole would be worth more than life itself. Imagine, then, an entire city ruled by wisdom. Even if a man could not live forever, perhaps a city could?

The one, Romulus,
reveling in the tawny pelt of a wolf that nursed him,
will inherit the line and build the walls of Mars
and after his own name, call his people Romans.
On them I set no limits, space or time:
I have granted them power, empire with no end.

The tribe of farmers and soldiers that spread from Latium, up and down Italy, and across the Mediterranean certainly did not see itself as fulfilling some Platonic missionary project, certainly not in the years of its most rapid expansion. Nevertheless, its vision of universal and eternal rule, the ruthless rationalization of its empire, and even—at its peak—its clan of philosopher-warriors who wore the imperial purple, Rome on a global scale embodied the virtue, the hero-worship, of the Greeks. 

Here, at last, is a people worthy of Aristotle’s μεγαλοψυχία, greatness of soul, or simply, pride: “The great-souled [or proud] man, then, is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, but a mean in respect of the rightness of them… Greatness of soul [or pride], then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them.” The Romans were indeed extreme in their claims. But were they not moderate with respect to the rightness of them?

Little did the Athenian philosophers know, at the time, that from the stump of Troy a branch was shooting forth among some barbarians in Latium. These Romans would conquer them, and the world. Similarly, after Greece’s star had sunk beneath the rim of the sea and the star of Rome had risen to its zenith, Emperor Antoninus Pius and his philosopher-son and heir apparent, Marcus Aurelius, received a long letter from an impertinent Greek provincial named Justin. They could not have known that the man this Justin was going on about had already unleashed a new cult of hero-worship that would transform the empire and spread itself with a ferocity to make all previous revolutions resemble a gentle breeze. 

About a century before Justin’s letter, that great-souled man—the subject of Justin’s letter—had stood up at a meeting in a tiny town in a far eastern province of the empire, read aloud ancient poetry about a coming hero, and announced, “Today, this writing is fulfilled in your hearing.” Then he sat down. And when he sat, Rome may very well have fallen.

“Behold the man,” the local Roman prefect told a jeering crowd, and despite himself, invested the proud man properly: Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews. 

“What I have written, I have written.”

Like Achilles, Jesus could die. Unlike him, he could rise.

A proud man, speaking to proud men: “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” This is the strong man’s nemesis, who entered his house, tied him up, and carried off his possessions. As Athanasius wrote:

And as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not choose opponents for himself, lest he cause suspicion that he is fearful of some, but leaves it to the choice of the spectators, especially if they are hostile, so that when he has overthrown the one they have chosen, he may be believed to be superior to all, so also, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself believed to be Life, and the power of death completely annihilated.

And this noble wrestler, this hero, sent his worshippers out to the far reaches of the empire and beyond it, carrying the philosopher’s staff, and they “persuaded whole churches full of human beings to despise death but to think rather of things immortal.” These hero-worshippers were not just philosophers. They were warriors, too, and went down in battle, including even that impertinent Justin, devoured by wild beasts or skewered in the arena, crucified, beheaded, burned, until the empire had so gorged herself on their blood that—pricked like a balloon—she burst. 

“In this sign you shall conquer.” And conquer Constantine did, and in so doing, created Europe as we know her still: Greek, Roman, and Christian.

For 2,500 years, Europeans and their descendants have read these books and taught them to their young people in academies and monasteries and universities. From Homer till now, Western Civilization has meant hero-worship; but not just hero-worship in general, or as a principle. It means Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Romulus, Alexander, Caesar, and Jesus Christ. But Jesus hardly entailed the end of it: The Christians of medieval Europe adored the Nine Worthies, argued over which pagans to send to Heaven, and wrote massive chronicles of saints’ lives. The Legenda Aurea was among the most widely read books in the Middle Ages, at times possibly even more than the Bible. 

When David Goodwin, Roosevelt Montas, and other well-meaning defenders of the classical tradition insist “No, we’re not racist—in fact, our books are anti-racist!” they are guaranteed to lose, because they are not defending the actual tradition. They are defending a pale caricature of it that their enemies slopped together, and they have, incredibly, adopted. 

Whether or not “traditionally excluded groups” embrace the tradition is a matter of indifference. The tradition is there to show us heroes for our veneration, and thereby, when we are lucky, to produce new ones. This is yet another case of the left being more correct than the right: When Padilla denounces his own discipline because human hierarchy is the foundation stone of the classical tradition, there is no point arguing with him. He is right! The difference between him and me is that I think that that is a good thing. The existence of the hero presupposes the excellence of the few and the inferiority of the many. That is hierarchy. Without hierarchy, you cannot have hero-worship, and without hero-worship, you cannot have the classical tradition.

Plutarch remains, perhaps, the greatest chronicler of great men. He tells this story:

In Spain, when Julius Caesar was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. "Do you not think," said he, "it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?"

Have you, who are so much less than Julius Caesar, ever wept at the gulf that separates your life from that of a hero worthy of your worship?

The power of our heroes, foremost among whom is Jesus Christ, commands universal worship. It won’t hurt Jesus if people reject him; in the end every knee shall bow. Even Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s.

The classical education movement must wake up to the actual virtue of the tradition it claims to be handing on. Are you social workers, or teachers? Using the tradition as a tool for some egalitarian project of social uplift will cause the tool to swing back and strike the workman himself. The moment you agree to play the left’s game, they secure the victory. The only question then will be how much time you will take to lose.

No doubt the tradition leads us to ask about things like liberty, rights, and freedom. The history of Western Civilization displays the long, interminable argument about how and whether such things can fit together. But the moment that any one of those things—or anything else—usurps the throne belonging to virtue, once we give ourselves over to anything other than hero-worship, we will lose the tradition entirely.