A modest case for classical education

There’s a classical school opening up close to where I live, just as my eldest child is almost old enough to enter kindergarten. I’m excited about it, and at this point I imagine there’s a good chance I might send my children there. I even gave serious thought to applying to work there this year. But if someone challenged me on it, I might be a little hard-pressed to explain why.

I’m familiar with some of the arguments against classical education, and from what I’ve seen so far, they are largely fallacious or based on premises I don’t hold. However, I’m also more than a little familiar with the arguments used by proponents of classical education, and I find them to be of much the same quality. Rousing rhetoric, perhaps, for the person who wishes to be persuaded, but still riddled with fallacies and questionable assumptions.

Still, caught in this aporia, I lean decidedly in the direction of classical education. Practically speaking, in my own adult life, I have basically chosen to pursue something like a belated classical education: studying Greek and Latin and major modern languages, especially modern European languages, and literature and philosophy from antiquity to the present, with a special emphasis on what might be called the Socratic legacy. Once more I must admit that I generally can’t say precisely why I lean this way, or at least nothing beyond vague impressions.

Let’s set out some of those impressions. An emphasis on virtue is one of the things that’s most attractive to me about classical education. They speak about this quite explicitly, and I believe it is valuable for a young person to learn to think about morality in such terms. That conviction is about as deeply rooted in me as anything that I believe.

The emphasis on learning languages is also attractive to me. My sense is that there is still less of it in the curriculum than I would wish, but nonetheless it is more than children would likely get in any other available model. I think learning languages is really good for a person, and I believe childhood is an ideal time for beginning to gain familiarity with a variety of languages. Even if these first two emphases, on virtue and languages, were all that set classical schooling apart, this would be sufficient to make it my option of choice.

But there are still two more things to say. One is that I really do think there is value in studying ancient and originary pieces of writing, rather than learning primarily about the current state of knowledge as summarized in a textbook. Learning about the discoveries that led to our current situation, and the way they grew out of what came before, gives a much deeper understanding in my experience.

And lastly, the most straightforward, boring, unpoetic consideration. Standardized test scores. Apparently there’s statistical evidence suggesting that students of classical schools have better test scores than equivalent students of, say, public schools. Apologists for classical schools make much too big a deal out of this, because there are many lurking variables muddying how meaningful this fact might be. Still, at the very least we can say that classical schooling does not seem to make it impossible for students to do well in standardized tests. If there was good reason to believe that classical education would seriously disadvantage students on measures that contemporary society judges representative of erudition, then I’d have to weigh that soberly in the balance against the benefits I’ve listed. But if we can say that students perform as well, or possibly even better, on those metrics, it makes it easy to say: let’s give this a try and see how it goes.

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