Have the Liberal Arts Gone Conservative?

The first thing you notice when walking into the middle-school classrooms at Brilla, a charter-school network in the South Bronx, is the sense of calm. No phones are out. The students are quiet—not in the beaten-down way of those under authoritarian rule but in the way of those who seem genuinely interested in their work.

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

The first thing you notice when walking into the middle-school classrooms at Brilla, a charter-school network in the South Bronx, is the sense of calm. No phones are out. The students are quiet—not in the beaten-down way of those under authoritarian rule but in the way of those who seem genuinely interested in their work. Sixth graders participate in a multiday art project after studying great painters such as Matisse. Seventh graders prepare to debate whether parents should be punished for the crimes of their minor children. Another group of sixth graders, each holding a violin or a cello, read out notes from sheet music. A teacher cues them to play the lines pizzicato, and they pluck their strings in unison.

Brilla is part of the classical-education movement, a fast-growing effort to fundamentally reorient schooling in America. Classical schools offer a traditional liberal-arts education, often focussing on the Western canon and the study of citizenship. The classical approach, which prioritizes some ways of teaching that have been around for more than two thousand years, is radically different from that of public schools, where what kids learn—and how they learn it—varies wildly by district, school, and even classroom.

In many public schools, kids learn to read by guessing words using context clues, rather than by decoding the sounds of letters. In most classical schools, phonics reign, and students learn grammar by diagramming sentences. Some public schools have moved away from techniques like memorization, which education scholars knock as “rote learning” or “drill and kill”—the thing that’s killed being a child’s desire to learn. In contrast, classical schools prize memory work, asking students to internalize math formulas and recite poems. And then there’s literature: one New York City public-high-school reading list includes graphic novels, Michelle Obama’s memoir, and a coming-of-age book about identity featuring characters named Aristotle and Dante. In classical schools, high-school students read Aristotle and Dante.

Classical education has historically been promoted by religious institutions and expensive prep schools. (Many classical schools have adopted the Harkness method, pioneered by Phillips Exeter Academy, in which students and teachers collectively work through material via open discussion.) More recently, powerful investors have seen its potential for cultivating academic excellence in underserved populations: the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, has put millions of dollars into classical schools and networks.

Republican politicians have also smelled opportunity in the movement, billing its traditionalism as an antidote to public-school wokeism. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has railed against “a concerted effort to inject this gender ideology” into public-school classrooms, and has celebrated the influx of classical schools in his state. Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, proposed launching up to a hundred classical charter schools statewide, touting their mission to preserve American liberty. As more conservatives have flocked to classical education, progressive academics have issued warnings about the movement, characterizing it as a fundamentally Christian project that doesn’t include or reflect the many kids in America who aren’t white, or who have roots outside this country. The education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch recently wrote that classical charters “have become weapons of the Right as they seek to destroy democratically governed public schools while turning back the clock of education and social progress by a century.”

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, who co-founded Brilla, acknowledged that “classical education is often seen as a white child’s education.” This is partly because of the curriculum: “You’re talking about teaching the canon and mainly white, male authors,” she said. It’s also because these schools have been embraced by white Republicans who have the resources to keep their children out of the local school system. And yet Brilla is not rich, or white, or discernibly right-wing. Many students are English-language learners and immigrants, from Central America and West Africa. According to Brilla’s leaders, nearly ninety per cent of their students meet the federal requirements for free or reduced-price lunches. Saroki de Garcia purposefully opened the first Brilla school in the poorest neighborhood of the Bronx, which has a large population of Latino Catholics. (Brilla is secular, but it offers a free Catholic after-school program.) The students I met were nerdy and earnest, and far from young reactionaries. Angelina and Fatumata, two eighth graders, told me that they started a book club to read about racism in America; one recent pick was “Passing,” the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, set in the Harlem Renaissance. Brilla’s leaders intentionally take a wide view of the canon, and of which texts are valuable to study. “We try to make that connection for our students, who are mostly Black and Hispanic, with faces they can see themselves in,” Will Scott, the principal of one of Brilla’s middle schools, said.

Brilla’s administrators were careful to note that the network isn’t “classical” but, rather, “classically inspired.” This distinction is partly practical. Although teachers invoke Latin root words when they’re teaching kids English, for example, students don’t take Latin as a subject. But it also seemed like the school’s leaders wanted to put some distance between themselves and the broader classical-education movement. “If we say ‘classical school,’ that has a connotation,” Scott said. Still, it’s telling that the schools have found traction by marketing themselves as “classically inspired” in the South Bronx, where voters overwhelmingly prefer Democrats and the college-graduation rate is among the lowest in New York City. During the lead-up to Brilla’s launch, in 2src13, volunteers posted up outside a local McDonald’s to pitch families on enrolling. “We billed it as, This is what the élite get,” Saroki de Garcia told me.

Everyone I met at Brilla seemed aware that their school is an implicit rejection of traditional public schools, but not in the way one might expect. Although America’s public-school wars are often depicted as fights over race and gender ideology, there are also a lot of parents who think their local schools just aren’t very good. Brilla’s two middle schools are in New York City’s School District 7, where, last year, less than a third of sixth graders were proficient in math or in reading and writing. Angelina, a recent immigrant from St. Croix, said that most of her friends “go to a public school, and they talk really poorly about their school.” Fatumata added that “they don’t have what we have,” such as Algebra I classes for middle schoolers. “The schools around us are, frankly, failing,” Scott, the principal, told me.

There are many charter schools that aim to address the problem of low achievement, often through an obsessive focus on test scores and discipline. Brilla cares about both of these things, but what sets it apart is its mission. 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. Brilla students attend a character-education class every morning, where they talk about how to live out the different virtues reflected in the texts they read. As Alexandra Apfel, an assistant superintendent for Brilla’s middle schools, said, “We’re building students that are not just going to be academic robots but moms and dads someday.”

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers, a motorcycle-riding Anglican crime writer, delivered a paper at Oxford titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in which she bemoaned the state of education. “Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves?” Young people do not know how to think, she argued, because they’ve never been taught. They may have been introduced to subjects, but not to what it means to learn.

In the face of this contemporary problem, Sayers proposed an ancient solution: the revival of a medieval teaching format called the trivium, which divided learning into three stages—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. The first stage is about mastering basic skills and facts; the second teaches students to argue and to think critically about those facts. By the third stage, they’re ready to express themselves in essays and oration. This model of education, cultivated by Renaissance thinkers and the Catholic Church alike, was common among European élites for centuries.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

Sayers’s essay built on a long-standing debate about whether this kind of education made sense in a rapidly changing, industrialized world. Classical-education advocates often point to John Dewey, the early-twentieth-century progressive reformer, as the bête noire who marginalized their preferred form of schooling: “There was a war going on between the progressive and the classical educators, and the progressives won in a rout,” Andrew Kern, the founder of the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education, told me. Although this story is perhaps overly simplistic, Johann Neem, a historian at Western Washington University, said, it’s true that Dewey and other progressives thought that the old ways of education were inadequate for modern students. These progressive reformers planted the seeds of two trends. The first was shifting the focus of school toward appealing to the interests of the child, rather than transmitting ancient knowledge and wisdom, which these reformers considered élitist. (“Academic and scholastic, instead of being titles of honor, are becoming terms of reproach,” Dewey wrote.) The second was a utilitarian impulse—some scholars thought that the purpose of education was to train workers. They did not believe that every student needed to read Plato.

In the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, classical education reëmerged as a pushback against these trends. A handful of schools built around Sayers’s ideas launched in Idaho, Massachusetts, Kansas, and Indiana, independently of one another. They were all Christian, but of different flavors—two had Catholic roots, one was ecumenical, and one was evangelical. Doug Wilson, the pastor who founded the evangelical school, in Idaho, later started a conference for Christian parents and educators who were interested in creating their own schools. This was the beginning of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, or A.C.C.S., which has since grown into a network of more than five hundred and forty schools, most of which are Protestant and use aspects of the trivium model. Even in Christian circles, Wilson is a polarizing figure—he promotes a theology that prizes strictly traditional gender roles and has made inflammatory comments about race relations. But the classical movement has expanded into something much broader: there are more than two hundred Catholic classical schools, which call their approach “Catholic liberal education,” along with a growing number of classical charter schools with no religious identity. The movement is diverse, in part because classical education has boomed among homeschoolers, who run the gamut from serious athletes to kids with learning differences to conservative Christians. These homeschooling families “like the idea of a traditional, rigorous education that really demands a lot out of a child, and that is also responsive to them,” Susan Wise Bauer, the co-author of “The Well-Trained Mind,” a popular guide to classical homeschooling, told me.

The notion of a standardized curriculum, let alone a shared value system, no longer exists in most American public schools. Proponents of classical education argue that any student can find value in the same timeless texts—Augustine and Austen, Chaucer and Chesterton—regardless of that student’s race, religion, or class. James Baldwin once said that reading Dickens “taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had been alive.” Classical-education advocates want kids to read Dickens and feel that same connection.

Though classical schooling might have once been the education of élites, the modern version has egalitarian potential. In Texas, enrollment in classical charter schools is growing most quickly among Asian and Hispanic students. In Arizona, a charter-school network called Espiritu, which mostly serves immigrants, recently overhauled its curricula to be more classical. And yet, perhaps inevitably, the movement has also felt the gravitational pull of the culture wars. With many classical schools focussed on moral formation and civics—and, incidentally, white male authors—this educational mode is primed to be co-opted into something that’s not just traditional but reactionary. The architects of contemporary classical education believed that, by reaching into the past, they could build a better future for American education. Today, many of the people embracing classical education are more interested in running away from the aspects of progressive schooling they fear.

Pete Hegseth, the perfectly coiffed Fox News host, sits on a stage in Franklin, Tennessee, a small city south of Nashville. To his left is a giant American flag. He is here taping a segment of his Fox Nation special “The MisEducation of America” before a live audience of parents who are disturbed by what they’ve encountered in local public schools. “We are fighting the battle of fires,” Cameron Sexton, the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, tells Hegseth: “You’re talking about C.R.T.”—critical race theory—“you’re talking about books in the library,” which might incorporate ideas about gender or sexuality. Sexton goes on to explain that the only solution is for people to enroll their children in classical schools, like he did with his own daughter, where students won’t be spoon-fed ideology. “There’s nothing more powerful than for an individual to have the ability to think and decide things for themselves,” Sexton says. “That’s how you stop the government from intruding on your life.”

When we spoke, Hegseth acknowledged that his interest in the movement “started as a reaction against” what he saw as progressive indoctrination in typical public schools. He has since reoriented his life around classical Christian education; in 2src22, he and his wife moved outside Nashville to send their kids to such a school. He also understands the appeal of the model to a politically conservative audience. “What our viewers are looking for is a back-to-basics approach,” he said, one in which Christianity is “front and center.”

Hegseth is close with David Goodwin, who became the president of A.C.C.S. in 2src15. Under Goodwin, the number of A.C.C.S. schools has more than doubled. Goodwin and Hegseth recently co-wrote a book called “Battle for the American Mind,” in which they argue that Marxists “have taken full control of America’s education system.” Wokeism, they explain, is driven by a vision of education that prizes “control of your identity, being accepted for who you are, finding adventure, and creating your own path in life.” Arguably, these are contemporary buzzwords with roots in century-old progressive ideas—that knowledge and virtue are not objective and external but, rather, subjective and internal, to be discovered as one develops one’s sense of self. Hegseth and Goodwin believe that, by focussing students’ education on the civilizations that flowed out of “the convergence of Greece, Rome, and Hebrew cultures,” America can recapture the norms it was built on. “We are the new radicals, the new revolutionaries,” they write.

As part of this revolution, Goodwin and the A.C.C.S. have been promoting classical education overseas. They see Africa, in particular, as fertile ground: over the last twenty-five years, Christian missionaries and pastors have planted classical schools in a dozen countries. This past fall, I went with Goodwin to Nairobi for a conference hosted by the Rafiki network, which runs schools in ten English-speaking African countries and publishes a curriculum used by dozens of other schools. Goodwin lives in Boise—it was his first time in Africa, or south of the equator, for that matter. Wearing a slightly baggy blazer and a yellow tie, he stood in front of roughly two hundred people in a dim auditorium near an Anglican cathedral.

The obvious question of the day was why Goodwin’s version of classical education would be compelling to people living outside the West. “It took me about twenty hours from where I live in the States to get here,” Goodwin said. “Fifteen hours in, I started crossing over the territories that most developed the West. I crossed Macedonia. The plane flew down through Greece and near Alexandria, in Egypt, and then down the Red Sea, with Mt. Sinai on the left.” In Nairobi, he argued, they were far closer to the history of the West than he was back at home. “This is where Christendom grew up,” he said. He noted that the word “Western” is often associated with colonization. Goodwin framed his role not as one of domination and takeover but, instead, as an emissary from a possible future. “We’re in a pitched battle in the United States,” he said, “between the powers of light and the powers of darkness.” His prayer was that the audience wouldn’t let progressive education take root in their country.

After the lecture, Goodwin confessed to me that his earlier argument—that Kenya is closer to the origins of the West than America is—was a bit of a stretch. Despite nearly three-quarters of a century of colonialism in Kenya, he said, “I don’t think it’s dominantly a Western culture, because Greco-Roman philosophy is not deeply ingrained.” In his view, no place on the African continent is currently part of the West. Even Alexandria, which was one of the seedbeds of Western thought and philosophy in the centuries before and after Christ, is now dominated by Islam, which Goodwin does not see as part of the West. Although Christianity might have roots in Africa, it moved westward, toward Europe and the United States, and that’s the intellectual tradition Goodwin is focussed on. It is “existentially evident that Western culture is the most influential in the history of man,” he had told me a few weeks earlier. Goodwin thinks that Kenyans should learn songs and stories from their country and continent, along with the history of Greece and Rome. But, he said, “we don’t buy into the cultural philosophy that all cultures are equally valuable and good.”

The next day, I got in a car with Theodore and Crystal Wilson, the heads of Rafiki Classical Christian, a school on the outskirts of Nairobi that educates kids aged three to eighteen. The Wilsons, a Black, missionary couple, taught at classical schools in America before moving to Kenya, in 2src22. We wove through chaotic traffic on our way out of central Nairobi—speeding minibuses taking men to work, throngs of people crossing the street seemingly at random. Churches were everywhere: Israel New Creation House, Abundant Glory International Ministries. Soon, we arrived at the Rafiki compound, originally the summer home of Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta. Behind a tall rock wall, the campus was a lovely oasis: ibises flew around acacia trees that were scattered among a series of small, squat buildings with red tile roofs, each housing a couple of grades.

Theo Wilson was a Navy chaplain, and his military background showed. When he and his wife arrived in Kenya, they cultivated a morning-assembly tradition—a highly orchestrated performance of students marching along an outdoor basketball blacktop. Wilson, wearing a canvas safari hat, a bow tie, and a sweater vest, stood before the children, who lined up in neat rows with their hands behind their backs. “Why are we in school today?” he asked. “To glorify and enjoy God,” they answered, following a script provided by the A.C.C.S.

In the classrooms, the trivium was everywhere. Preschoolers were memorizing a verse from I Samuel. Third graders took turns reciting lines from “The Fisherman and His Wife,” a fairy tale published by the Brothers Grimm. Some aspects of Kenyan culture were present: on the wall of a second-grade classroom, the Kiswahili alphabet was written out next to the English one. “We go to great lengths to feature their art, their music, but also historical figures of the African diaspora,” Theo Wilson said. Still, there was a jarring emphasis on Western civilization. In one classroom, the history of music was laid out according to European eras—Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic—and the walls were decorated with portraits of white European composers. Later, we visited the library inside Rafiki’s teacher-training college. One wall was covered by a twenty-three-foot-long time line of world history first published in 1871, starting from Adam and Eve. It featured a sketched map of the world that portrayed Europe and the Middle East in colorful detail, whereas the whole of the African continent south of Carthage was a giant black mass. Each civilization had its own line, tracing its evolution through the centuries. By the time of the birth of Jesus, any reference to African history had disappeared.

At the conference, I met a Kenyan woman named Melissa Wakhu, who wore large, geometric earrings and styled her hair in shoulder-length locs. She had worked as a consultant for Deloitte before choosing to homeschool her four children full time using Classical Conversations, a classical-homeschooling curriculum that’s popular in America. Her kids have received the full classical experience, from learning literature and Latin to memorizing the names of Greek and Roman gods. “I’ve watched what it’s done to my children, in terms of opening up their minds, their vocabulary, their thinking, their empathy,” she said. She even works for Classical Conversations part time, as its representative for East Africa.

And yet, as time went on, she started feeling unsettled. Her children would listen to classical music, “but then my kids started asking, ‘Are there no African musicians and composers?’ ” she said. One lesson suggested that children go outside and collect maple leaves, which are nowhere to be found in Nairobi. Her tenth grader was working through a unit on the American government and economy. “They have to memorize a well-written speech and present it, and what they were memorizing was the preamble to the Constitution,” she said. “So I have these African, Kenyan children standing and reading out to me, ‘We the People of the United States . . . ’ For me, that was a conflict.” Wakhu has now written and published more than a dozen kids’ books featuring Kenyan scenes and African heroes, to fill what she saw as a gaping hole in the classical resources available to her family.

Throughout the conference, American speakers kept bringing up Augustine, who lived and wrote in what is now Algeria. “He’s northern Africa, which has a completely different experience than the rest of us,” Wakhu told me. The implication, in suggesting that Augustine is the closest thing to an African thinker that the classical tradition has to offer, is that “there was no philosophical thinking” in places like Kenya, Wakhu said. “It’s a challenge for this group of foreigners to try and come and convince us of something that is beautiful, but is also Western.”

Plenty of Americans are also skeptical of the classical-education movement’s narrow emphasis on the West. In 2src21, Angel Adams Parham, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, became the board chair of the Classic Learning Test, or CLT—an SAT alternative often taken by classical-school students and homeschoolers. Parham came to classical education by the same path as many others: when her oldest daughter was getting ready for school, Parham looked at the available options and wasn’t satisfied, so she started homeschooling. Just like Wakhu, Parham found Classical Conversations, which set her on her own intellectual journey. “As I’m reading the Republic for the first time—I must have been in my forties—I’m thinking, Why have I never read this?” She had an undergraduate degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and yet, she told me, she had never been exposed to these foundational texts.

Parham, who is Black and studies the history of race, came to believe that the Western canon is deeply intertwined with the Black intellectual tradition—after all, Malcolm X read the classics in prison. Black figures have also fundamentally shaped the Western tradition. Parham recently led a reassessment of which authors appear on the CLT; one figure who got added was Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave who was part of the movement to end the slave trade in Britain and wrote an influential autobiography. For the most part, though, Parham has found that “the mainstream of the movement” is hesitant about efforts to widen the aperture of classical education: “Their sense is, There’s a list of texts, and these people are not on the list.” The result tends to be a Eurocentric notion of the West. “You have to take a very sharp scalpel to the world to carve out Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in order to get the version that they want to call ‘Western’ and ‘classical,’ ” Parham argued. Homer talks about Ethiopians. Herodotus tells tales from Asia and Africa. Aquinas engaged with Islamic scholarship. But “we’re not educated in that tradition,” Parham said.

I first encountered Parham in September, when the CLT’s board of advisers held a summit in Annapolis, Maryland, at St. John’s College. Men and women in brightly colored preppy dress milled around before the first activity of the day: croquet lessons. The scene, complete with a nearby lemonade table, felt like the most extreme possible caricature of what people who venerate the classics would do for fun. (Then again, the next day’s activity was sailing.) The impresario of the croquet field was Jeremy Tate, the C.E.O. of the CLT. He schmoozed his way through the small pack of players in a blue summer suit, his blond bangs carefully tousled with gel. He was riding a high: last fall, Florida’s board of governors agreed to let students use the CLT to apply to state universities and scholarship programs, significantly increasing its number of test-takers. (That number is still minuscule compared to those who take the SAT.)

As one might expect, the CLT is heavy on classic texts—one practice exam uses excerpts from the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Federalist Papers to test reading comprehension. But, despite the exam being promoted by conservatives like DeSantis, the sharpest critique that the CLT’s founders make is not about politics but about high-stakes testing—a critique typically associated with progressives. Tate told me that the College Board, which makes the SAT, is cynical and career-focussed. “The point of education was always the preservation of civilization,” Tate said. “It was the cultivation of virtue.” To Tate, this includes the kind of learning that can never be fully measured by a test, such as an appreciation for poetry or theatre. According to Tate, policymakers in other red states are interested in following Florida’s lead by offering the CLT. But when Republicans ask if he wants them to promote the exam, he told me, “we’re trying to say, ‘Not really,’ because your being a champion of this would further politically hijack it.”

Tate represents a common figure in the classical-education world: a dispositionally conservative guy who is also adamant that classical education is not right-wing. He acknowledged that the movement has a natural constituency on the right, among parents who are panicked about wokeism. But “it’s not enough to get some of the ideas out that you consider toxic,” Tate said. “You need a bigger vision for education.” Besides, the G.O.P. has its own utilitarian tendencies when it comes to schooling, which are out of step with classical education. “It wasn’t long ago that you had Marco Rubio on national television making fun of philosophy majors,” he said. “It’s a weird moment, where this kind of education would be championed on the right.”

The right’s suspicion of identity politics has also made conversations about diversity difficult. One of the questions that Parham and the other CLT board members considered during their reassessment of the authors on the test was whether more nonwhite or non-male thinkers should be included, prompting one board member to complain that “the CLT was going woke.” Parham expressed frustration with this kind of attitude. “There are people who really love classical education, but they are really hungry for ‘How do we weave together a more diverse tapestry?’ Does it all have to be Greece and Rome and European authors?” she said. “That is very different than saying, ‘We just want diversity for diversity’s sake.’ ” Parham thinks that kids, and especially kids who are not white, would benefit from learning about the crossroads of the Mediterranean back before modern notions of racial hierarchy existed. But it’s challenging to find an audience for this argument in America’s polarized culture. “Left academia is not helping us,” she said. “People are pushing back against some of the extremes of that. They are fleeing to classical education, unfortunately, thinking it’s going to be a safe space. But it’s all very wrongheaded.”

The tricky thing about truth, beauty, and goodness is that, for all their supposed timelessness and objectivity, not everyone agrees on what is actually true, beautiful, and good. As the classical-education movement grows, it must contend with the fundamental question of pluralism: Does the movement’s notion of truth keep out not only certain texts but certain children?

“He’s a shelter dog. We don’t know much about his past.”

Cartoon by Victoria Roberts

Doug Wilson, the A.C.C.S. founder, who is often credited with repopularizing classical education, is a difficult figurehead for a movement that wishes to be inclusive. He maintains a “Controversy Library” on his blog, which includes an account of the outrage over his now retracted pamphlet “Southern Slavery as It Was,” in which he described slavery as “producing in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.” (Wilson says the pamphlet was retracted because of citation problems.) He believes that it is not possible to have a truly classical education without Christianity. This is a common view, even among leaders of the Society for Classical Learning, a more moderate alternative to the A.C.C.S. that deëmphasizes “culture war” in favor of “culture care”—inviting people into the movement, rather than policing its borders.

For people like Susan Wise Bauer, the co-author of “The Well-Trained Mind,” the idea that there’s something fundamentally conservative or Christian about classical education is ahistorical and myopic. A specific type of person tends to dominate the classical speaker circuit, she told me: the “theo bro,” which she defined as a “conservative Protestant-theology fan who likes to smoke cigars, drink whiskey, talk theology, and has a beard.” She sees herself as speaking for a much broader, more diverse constituency, including Jews, Muslims, atheists, and “liberal, pinko, Marxists” who love classical education. If she and Doug Wilson were discussing the classical approach, she added, “we’d probably both agree on the importance of teaching grammar, but I don’t know that we’d have much in common, other than that.” Kevin Hall, the C.E.O. of the Charter School Growth Fund, told me that he sees a particular hunger for classical education among parents who are not religious, and who may find comfort in a public charter school that can partner with them in developing their kids’ character.

By law, classical charter schools are secular, because they are publicly funded. The largest network is Great Hearts, which has twenty-eight thousand students across its schools in Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana, with fifteen thousand more students on its waiting lists. Daniel Scoggin, one of the Great Hearts co-founders, told me that it wasn’t hard to arrive at a version of classical education that was appropriate for a public charter school. “You take out the theology,” he said. “You keep a focus on the Greeks, keep a focus on the classics, the great American tradition as the capstone to the classical story.” Doug Ducey, the former governor of Arizona, who helped push through a significant expansion of charter-school funding, told me that he sent his sons to Catholic school, “but if Jack, Joe, and Sam Ducey were in kindergarten today I would be trying to enroll them in Great Hearts.”

Although networks like Great Hearts and Brilla have attracted many families, some parents find the ideas associated with the movement alienating. The Archdiocese of Portland is one of many Catholic dioceses that is slowly incorporating elements of classical education into its schools. But this transition has become mixed up with sensitive issues of identity, including the place of gay and trans kids and families in the Church. The archbishop, Alexander Sample, recently released guidelines on “dealing with gender issues,” instructing Catholic institutions, including schools, not to support gender transitions in any way. At least one group of parents protested, but they say their concerns were ignored.

“When I look at those who are promoting the classical-education model, there have been a lot of red flags,” Charlene Hannibal, one of the parents, explained. “The main thing that concerns me is the lack of acceptance for trans youth and L.G.B.T.Q. families and children.” Elias Moo, the Archdiocese’s new superintendent, told me, “It does no one any favors if we try to sugarcoat or water down what the Church teaches.” This includes the faith’s understanding that humans are created as male or female. “We will honor the primacy of parents to such an extent that we’re willing to recognize when a parent says, ‘This isn’t the best environment for our child,’ ” he said. In classical schools, inclusion isn’t necessarily the highest virtue.

There can be a sense of urgency in the classical-education world—a feeling that whole generations have been lost, and that the next must be saved. In January, I visited a new classical school on the Upper East Side where that feeling was acute. The school is called Emet Classical Academy; emet means “truth” in Hebrew. Plans for Emet had been in the works for over a year, but after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th Emet’s leaders decided to open the school on an accelerated timeline. Two mothers—both well-dressed, professional-class women—took me on a tour of the Conservative synagogue where, beginning this fall, students will learn about their place in the Western tradition. It will be a contained world of study; classroom windows look out onto a brick wall.

“For me, this is really about antisemitism,” one of the moms, who asked not to be named, told me. “After October 7th, it became abundantly clear that unless my child is in a safe space, like a Jewish school, there is opportunity for antisemitic rhetoric.” The other mom said that she worries about sending her kids to college unprepared for an onslaught of criticism of Jews, and of Israel: “Whatever the antisemitism du jour is in five years, I realized over the last few months that it’s my responsibility as a Jewish parent to make sure they’re prepared to respond to it.” So much of New York City schooling is about helping students understand their identity, she added, “and that’s all excellent. But most schools don’t include Judaism or Zionism in those aspects that they seek to develop in the kids.”

This is the pitch that Emet is making: through a classical education, students can become confident in themselves as Jews, and as Americans. As much as the project is intended to be countercultural—a fix for what’s wrong with modern schooling—it also mirrors modern schooling’s obsession with developing kids’ sense of identity. Both moms were eager to point out that the school will be Jewish but not religious, which they see as a plus. Abraham Unger, the head of the school, told me that every morning the students will say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, but there will be no mandatory prayers, and kids will not be expected to learn how to participate in synagogue services. Most of the families who have expressed interest in Emet are not from traditionally observant backgrounds, and their kids are not coming out of religious Jewish day schools. They’re parents like the two moms I met. This moment in history has shaken something in them. They’re looking for roots.

Emet is a project of the Tikvah Fund, a prominent Jewish foundation chaired by Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative fixture who served in the Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump Administrations. Eric Cohen, Tikvah’s C.E.O., told me that he hopes Emet will eventually be a model for dozens of schools around the country, including existing Jewish day schools. He also wants to start a Jewish classical-education version of Teach for America.

“The Jews were summoned in history to have a kind of purpose,” Cohen said. “Jews brought certain ideas and ways of understanding reality into the world: that humans are both created and commanded. That we’re covenantal beings that have a responsibility in shaping history. That there’s a moral vision of life that’s articulated in the Jewish tradition that has wisdom and relevance for all human beings.” To him, the story of Jewish civilization is fundamentally Western, and the story of Western civilization is fundamentally Jewish. “The West is Greco-Roman culture recast through a Jewish lens,” he said. The goal of Emet is to cultivate students “who can enter the world with that civilizational vision—those habits of mind and heart and leadership and character that classical learning at its best can shape—for deeply Jewish purposes.”

So far, Cohen said, the school has been welcomed into the Christian-dominated classical-education movement. The movement’s leaders don’t necessarily agree with Cohen’s interpretation of history or his high view of Jewish texts, though. I asked David Goodwin why students in A.C.C.S. schools don’t learn Hebrew—the language of the Old Testament, and the lingua franca of the rabbis who, according to Cohen, helped shape the West. “The Hebrew tradition is one of authority and law, which we study,” Goodwin said. “But the emphasis is on the Greek and Roman tradition, which is one of persuasion and logic. There’s more there to study—in the Greek, it’s a deeper pool.” Plus, he added, Hebrew is too hard for most high schoolers to learn.

Nothing is more classical than Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is really a story about education: how human beings emerge from ignorance and discover truth. In the story, humans are prisoners chained up in a dark chamber, facing a wall. They believe that the shadows on the wall represent the world. Then one day a prisoner makes his way out into the light. He is blinded by the sun, but eventually his eyes adjust. He goes back into the cave to persuade the others to come out. But his eyes no longer work in the darkness; all the prisoners see is a blind man, and they assume that leaving the cave is pointless.

There’s a sly tension in the allegory. Plato clearly believes that it’s better to live in the light and know the truth. But he also acknowledges that a person can be blinded in two ways, both as they’re emerging from the cave and again as they’re returning to it. It can be difficult to know which direction leads to the truth. Even Plato’s fanboys might get lost on their way. ♦

Read More