Being a teacher is complicated. There’s no question that helping young people master the arts and sciences is vitally important work, and deeply rewarding work – at least, on a good day.
That being said, there are aspects of teaching that can be deeply frustrating: bureaucratic squabbles, oversized classes, the perpetual battle for funding. Worst of all, curriculum standards are all too often ideologically slanted, materially vapid, or both. Recent efforts to remove books like To Kill a Mockingbird from the classroom or even the library have made headlines, while many teachers are struggling to convey the basics of grammar and spelling to their students as late as high school. In some states, government-mandated curriculum standards threaten to effectively gut history classes of much of their factual content, at a moment in our nation’s history when a clear and nuanced grasp of that history, and of the civic principles that go with it, has scarcely if ever been more important.
But what else is there? Religious and private schools, along with many homeschoolers and some charter schools, often tout the virtues of the classical model; but for many public school teachers, this in itself is cause for hostility, or at least for skepticism. Many professional academics have critiqued classical education, not merely in terms of what content it teaches but as a problematic model, formed by and steeped in imperialist and supremacist values on several axes—Eurocentric, patriarchal, etc. The nickname “Dead White Guys” for the “Western canon” is not entirely fair, but it is not exactly unfair either! And the broadly conservative leanings (or in some cases, hardline right-wing beliefs) of many people involved in these forms of education does nothing to soften most public educators’ reservations.
And yet—does it have to be this way?
Cornel West, arguably one of the most prominent left-wing theorists in the US academy today, is a devotee of ancient philosophy and has a special fondness for Plato. The late Toni Morrison, whom only a very bold person would accuse of excessively conservative views, had a degree in Classics and wove many allusions to Greek mythology into the themes and characters of her novels. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set forth sophisticated arguments in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail to defend the tactics of the civil rights movement, rooted in a centuries-old philosophy of the law that explicitly cited Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. Frederick Douglass famously recounted in his memoirs that he mastered the arts of reading and composition largely thanks to Cicero, and it is probably no coincidence that his rhetoric remains some of the most elegant and compelling in American history.
Neither white people nor men can seriously claim the Western canon as their personal property; it is the property of humanity. It was not in spite of, but precisely in, the canon that these men and women found the language to express and demand acknowledgment of their human dignity in the face of the injustices and hypocrisies of their oppressors. And this was true not because it displaced what they salvaged or recovered from their forebears in Africa—it clearly did no such thing—but because it empowered them to meet the world they lived in on its own terms, and in so doing to challenge it on their terms.
We have here but scratched the surface of the possibilities latent in a classical curriculum: we have pointed out classicists only of the Black American tradition in particular, and not very many of them! Time would fail to discuss more individuals and more traditions that have found the classics to be fathomless wells of intellectual, artistic, political, and spiritual power. Nor have we addressed all the criticisms that classical education has garnered, whether as a theory or in practical settings (which of course rarely live up to ideals). Nonetheless, this may give some small suggestion of what classical learning could be, why its appeal is something far more than political theater, and how it might even serve as a point of contact between opposing groups in our society who so often seem divided beyond all hope.
Please join us for a Zoom webinar at 8:30 p.m. (EST) on Thursday, October 6th, hosted by the Chalkboard Review and the Classic Learning Test, to learn more about classical education and the possibilities it holds for our future. This webinar will feature: Keith Nix, head of the Veritas School, a classical K-12 school in Richmond, Virginia; Dr. Matthew Post, Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Dallas; Dr. Anika Prather, the founder The Living Water School in southern Maryland, a professor of English at Howard University, and co-author of the recently released The Black Intellectual Tradition; and Dr. Brian Williams, dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, where he also serves as Associate Professor of Ethics and Liberal Studies, and a former lecturer at Oxford University.