Home/Rod Dreher/Goodbye Christian College, Hello Classical School?

Goodbye Christian College, Hello Classical School?

Socrates, a dead white European male (Angelo Cavalli/GettyImages)

A reader writes, and gives me permission to publish this (with the first graf removed, to protect his identity):

I’ve been a regular reader of your blog now for a number of years, particularly during the period leading up to your publication of The Benedict Option. While I at first found your ‘red flagging’ to be somewhat alarmist — after all, nearly 10 years of matriculation/teaching at an institution named after John Calvin and imbibing its Kuyperian critique of culture and the need to reclaim it in all its iterations does tend to shape one’s views – I have come to find myself more and more peeking over and singing from your hymnal. While in Prague last summer I stopped by a bookstore with a generous collection of volumes in English (just down the street from St. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral) and picked up a copy of Havel’s writings. I of course went right forThePower of the Powerless. It seems now more relevant than ever. And nevermore so than in the university.
I teach at a small Southern school, a poor institution serving some of the poorest college students in the state. It’s a near majority minority school with a good percentage of the students coming from a very poor big city educational background. Our sports programs are legion and its fair to say a larger population than average is there to play one sport or another with little concern for what happens in the classroom. That said, with student demographic that to some would look like a tinderbox for all kinds of racial conflict, none has occurred. Its a generally peaceful campus with no protests, no signs, so sit-ins or other Evergreen State College-like behavior. The odd truck that might drive through campus with a Confederate flag window sticker typically gets ignored or met with a mumbled ‘idiot’ under the breath.  The COVID lockdown has perhaps thankfully saved us from what might have been and since we’re only partially return to normal face-to-face classes in the Fall we might escape the worst possible outcomes.
But probably not completely. The Dean of Arts and Sciences sent an email out a few weeks ago inquiring of the faculty as a whole, what percentage of our courses include race as an element of the overall coursework. This could very well be an innocent inquiry, but my skeptical impulses immediately kicked in. I have this sneaking suspicion that the topic will come up again at the faculty orientation in a couple of weeks and that there will be some concerted effort to ‘institutionalize’ the issue of race and incorporate as a separate university-wide course, include it as a component in an already existing university-wide course, or somehow ‘encourage’ faculty to be more ‘aware’ of the issue and find some way to incorporate it into our curriculums somehow.
In the end, it’s really only the last of a lot of straws currently straining the camel’s back. Its collapse is imminent. This came especially to my mind as I read your blog on “Church, Academia, Diversity.” The letter from an Evangelical professor so totally rings true for more and more of us out there, I suspect. My college is hanging on financially by the skin of its teeth, and while as a denominational school that is still committed to the teaching of Bible, Theology, and Church History courses, my position in the Religion department is probably safe, still, there’s a real sense of “missing the boat” that has begun to emerge in my thinking about where and how I am best able to teach what I believe to be important about how to think about who we are as persons of faith and what the Church is today in this perhaps post-Christian world. I have begun to entertain the thought that it may be worth sacrificing tenure (whatever that means in a cash-strapped school) and the ‘status’ of being a college professor (again, something that’s less and less important to me) for an academic context in which I am more likely to be able to engage what is truly important about thinking ‘christianly’ and to a group of young minds that is likely themselves more engaged by the material.  There are more and more Ph.D.’s venturing into the classical school setting these days than I would have guessed. And now, I may be one of them. As our Evangelical professor friend admitted, there’s something frightening about making so drastic a change. But in truth, the academy is less and less compelling as a location for thinking and teaching critically and christianly.
I wrote back to the professor about this to ask permission to quote it, and to share a couple of thoughts with him. I mentioned that the Christian laity really has to step up and demonstrate that it really cares about educating their kids in a classical way. I’ve been in this world long enough to know that most parents who send their kids to Christian schools aren’t all that interested in their kids being formed intellectually and otherwise as Christians; rather, they are interested in the school performing the role of Christian educators, so they (the parents) can assure themselves that they have provided their kids with a Christian education — even if that education is only superficially Christian. The professor agreed.
He added that, “If ever there was a ‘moment’ for the classical school movement, I would have to think that now is as good as it’s ever going to get.”
If you’re interested in classical Christian education, here are four good places to start searching online:
I would like to ask you readers who are, or who have been, involved in the classical school movement (Christian and otherwise — I don’t think I’ve heard of a classical school that was not Christian, but I’d love to know if there were) to share your advice and insights about these issues. I mean, do you think this is a turning point for classical Christian education? Do you foresee a significant new influx of students? And, do you think it’s wise for Christian professors like my correspondent to leave a failing university to work in classical high schools?
In The Benedict Option, I strongly endorse classical Christian education. Though I don’t talk about education per se in my forthcoming Live Not By Lies, it is very clear in the book that people who are traditional religious believers or other kinds of cultural conservatives are going to be hard pressed by institutions and events in the years to come.  From Live Not By Lies:

Everything about modern society is designed to make memory—historical, social, and cultural—hard to cultivate. Christians must understand this not only to resist soft totalitarianism but also to transmit the faith to the coming generations.

In his 1989 book, How Societies Remember, the late British social anthropologist Paul Connerton explains that there are different kinds of memory. Historical memory is an objective recollection of past events. Social memory is what a people choose to remember—that is, deciding collectively which facts about past events it believes to be important. Cultural memory constitutes the stories, events, people, and other phenomena that a society chooses to remember as the building blocks of its collective identity. A nation’s gods, its heroes, its villains, its landmarks, its art, its music, its holidays—all these things are part of its cultural memory.

Connerton says that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Memory of the past conditions how they experience the present—that is, how they grasp its meaning, how they are to understand it, and what they are supposed to do in it.

No culture, and no person, can remember everything. A culture’s memory is the result of its collective sifting of facts to produce a story—a story that society tells itself to remember who it is. Without collective memory, you have no culture, and without a culture, you have no identity.

The more totalitarian a regime’s nature, the more it will try to force people to forget their cultural memories. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the role of Winston Smith within the Ministry of Information is to erase all newspaper records of past events to reflect the current political priorities of the Party. This, said the ex-communist Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski, reflects “the great ambition of totalitarianism—the total possession and control of human memory.”

“Let us consider what happens when the ideal has been effectively achieved,” says Kołakowski. “People remember only what they are taught to remember today and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed.”

We know from the history of communist totalitarianism how this can be achieved through a total state monopoly on information, including ideological control of education and media. Laura Nicolae’s experience at Harvard, where the next generation of American and global elites are trained, suggests how this can be accomplished even in free countries: by teaching those who aspire to leadership positions what it is important for them to remember, and what does not matter.

This gets to why it is not enough to send your kids to a “Christian” school (Catholic or Protestant). Many, perhaps even most, of them are well-intentioned, but according to what many dissatisfied parents have told me, there is not a meaningful difference between these schools and standard public or private schools. Maybe chapel or some religion classes, and maybe a slightly more Christian ethos, but not enough to make a meaningful difference in terms of grounding students deeply in the thought and history of our civilization, and in learning how to think and to act as a Christian.

To put it another way, a school may be confessionally religious, and filled with teachers and administrators who are sincere Christians who care about the kids — but that still might not be enough to train young people to be faithful in their thinking and in their acting in this post-Christian world.

Why is it important for Christian kids to be grounded in the basic thought and history of the Greeks and the Romans? Because classical Christian schools take an old-fashioned approach to the humanities. For these schools, the best that has been written or created by humanity is our patrimony. The Greeks and the Romans of the classical age lived before the Christian era, but that does not at all mean that their thought and their works were without value. St. Basil the Great (d. 379), one of the early Church Fathers, explained in a letter why it was important for young Christians to study the classical pagan authors, but with discernment.

If your intellectual formation includes the broad swath of Western history, going back to the Greeks and Romans up to the modern era, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be caught up eventually in contemporary ideological faddishness, but you will have much more within you upon which to build resistance. The cultural revolutionaries now expanding and tightening their grip on education in this country want to destroy consciousness of the past in the minds of students for a reason: so these students will be easier to command. Classical Christian education — not Christian education, but classical Christian education — is vital to the Resistance that we have to build, now.

There is not going to be any middle ground. Either you are firmly and consciously countercultural, or you and your kids are going to be swept along with the broader culture. One of my sources, an immigrant from a Soviet bloc country, told me that his US-born children were educated in well-regarded suburban public schools, and that the woke curriculum there, as well as the progressive ethos among the other students, overcame all his stories and warnings from his youth about where wokeness leads.

Will there be enough Christians and others who are willing to make the sacrifices to build and support these schools, and networks of these schools? If the events of 2020 do not make plain to you why these schools are necessary, what is it going to take?
I open the floor for discussion. I would also like to know if there are any classical options for secular people, or Jews, Muslims, or non-Christian religious believers. If not, shouldn’t there be? After all, Islam did not build the West, but it seems important that a Muslim student who will be living in Western culture would do well to know something about the roots of Western civilization.
UPDATE: Good comment by reader Andrew Campbell:

I attended a classical liberal arts school through middle school and high school, one belonging to a network of such schools in Arizona. I graduated in 2016. The schools were founded by faithful Catholics, but, as they opted to found them as charter schools, and so have access to public funds and the ability to offer free tuition, the schools were secular. We all studied Latin, followed our choice of a modern language or ancient Greek; music theory; drama; philosophy ancient, medieval, and modern; classical literature; math through calc II; chemistry, biology, and two years of physics. Academically, the school was very good, and throughout it all was an emphasis on depth of inquiry and sense of wonder, with active class discussions in every course, math and science included. The founders wanted students to seek to understand each subject from the foundation up, and never to be simply handed information without weaving it into a greater, growing body of knowledge. It aimed to teach its students how to think and how to engage with their world in a profound and intelligent way. The unexamined life, after all, is not worth living.

As a school, it was excellent. I am glad for my opportunity to attend, and, if such an option were available for my children, I would send them there in a heartbeat. But even in my last year or two there, I saw things begin to change. One of the remarkable things about high schoolers is that they are both immensely self-confident, and, simultaneously, fragile. This makes them excellent conduits for ideology, in part because they don’t understand the gravity of their actions and they are all too willing to find identity in a movement greater than themselves. Woke ideology, being in a still nascent stage, found foothold in a significant portion of the faculty and the student body. The year after I left, a GSA club was established. Students were seeking help from outside organizations to sue the school over its transgender policy. They complained about the narrow-minded Western focus on the school, complainingly asking why they weren’t taught Eastern religion or didn’t read more authors of color (St. Augustine and Frederick Douglass notwithstanding.) They complained about the schools conservative dress code and the restrictive technology policy, asking why they couldn’t be taught practical things like programming and personal finance, instead of such useless pursuits as the study of poetry.

If there is a moment for classical education, this is it. Never has society had greater need of it, but never too has it been in greater need of defense. Classical schools, being dedicated, as they are to the universality of reason and human nature, and therefore being contra-ideological, are certainly on the Progressive death row, but if my experiences indicate the norm, they will be mauled by their own students first. After orthodox religion, a classical education is the best inoculation I know against political ideology, which today makes it both precious and endangered. I would hope that things are better in more rural areas, but the internet seems to have the effect of making everyone an urbanite, so I am not confident. We plan to homeschool our children according to a classical education curriculum because we don’t know where else to go.

I have also received a couple of long, detailed e-mails from people who were once part of the Classical Conversations program, but who now strongly criticize it. I am going to encourage them to post their critiques in the comments section.

UPDATE.2: Great letter from writer Haroon Moghul:

In your recent post, “Good-bye Christian College, Hello Classical School,” you asked if there are classical options in education for Muslims in the West.
I would recommend looking into Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in the Bay Area which focuses on forming well-educated, deeply grounded Muslim humanists. While their emphasis is on classical Islamic civilization, there is a deep appreciation within their curriculum for the classics more broadly. Take, for example, this description of the Master’s degree program:
The course work includes studies of classical Arabic language and literature; Qur’an and Qur’anic commentaries; Islamic philosophy, theology, and mysticism; Islamic law; and the history of Islam. Furthermore, each of the concentrations has a comparative track that allows students to study texts in the European tradition that parallel the Islamic texts in their ideas and methods. For example, the study of Islamic philosophy can be augmented by the study of Latin scholasticism, or the study of Islamic mysticism can be augmented by readings in Greek Neoplatonism.
I thought this might be of interest to you. The founder of the institution, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, is an intellectual conservative, a convert to Islam, deeply interested in and passionate about Western history, and frequently employs classical texts, ideas, and arguments into his Islamic theology and philosophy. Indeed, as a humanist, he sees the two as overlapping; as an Islamic historian, he also understands that both Islam and the West enjoy significant overlap, such as in their appreciation of and employment of Hellenic philosophy.
If this is a subject that interests you further, I would recommend Richard Bulliett’s fascinating book, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. It also presents a response to your noting that Islam “did not build the West.” Given Islamic contributions to Western civilization, and the shared intellectual roots of these religious traditions, while it would be too much to say Islam built the West, it is enough to say Islam contributed to the West and shares origins with the West, religiously, intellectually, and philosophically.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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