For the average middle school or high school student, hearing the name Aristotle or Socrates either evokes confusion or a vague recollection of a noteworthy figure from Ancient Greece Day in world history class. Casual mentions of the epic battles between Hector and Achilles at the gates of Troy or the precarious nautical journeys of Aeneas or Odysseus are often met with blank stares, and discussions on Augustine stealing pears from an orchard are confronted with bewilderment.
In contrast, reading the texts that were considered for generations the hallmarks of a “well-rounded” education meant that students would have been well-versed in the rhetorical defense Socrates made before his Athenian jury in the Apologia or the idea of the golden mean from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid informed the imaginations of students as much as the newest fantasy novel.
But the centuries-old works belonging to the so-called “Western canon” eventually fell out of use in most classrooms. School curricula evolved, and new, faddish pedagogies came into vogue, with classrooms and textbooks eventually replacing a wide range of original texts, particularly those belonging to “Dead White Men,” that had once been mandatory reading for most students. The deep study of primary sources has, in general, been greatly diminished in contemporary education in favor of reading “strategies” and learning concepts.
What is now commonly referred to as a “classical” or “liberal arts” education has been relegated to a handful of predominantly religious private schools. But this “old” form of schooling is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. While public schools and many private schools have found themselves embroiled in controversies over critical race and gender theory, coronavirus mandates, and virtual learning, a cohort of so-called classical schools, primarily Catholic or evangelical Christian but even some charter schools, have seen a steady trend of growth dating back to the early 2000s.
Undergirding this classical restoration is a fundamentally different approach to the purpose of education, says Jeremy Tate, the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test and a major power player in the movement to restore classical education. Tate founded the CLT in 2015 as a classically oriented alternative to the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Education properly understood, says Tate, is the formation of the individual in the social conscience.
“[G.K.] Chesterton articulates so well [this vision] of education being the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the next,” Tate told the Washington Examiner. “But suddenly, there was nothing we were passing down. Everything had been dismantled or deconstructed, and there was nothing beautiful or meaningful left to pass down to the next generation ... and so the classical renewal movement is a beautiful movement to recover something precious that was almost lost.”