Confusing Classical Education with Conservative Education

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Since the 1990s, Christians–Catholic and non-Catholic–have been promoting “classical education”. I have demonstrated ad nauseam that what these Christians are doing in their schools has nothing at all to do with classical education. What they are promoting is American conservative education and, for some bizarre reason, they are calling it “classical education”. They dress up their books, websites and marketing materials with images of saints and ancient philosophers, but their curriculum and methods have nothing to do with either. They are not offering anything like the Catholic education that has been known throughout Church history.

It’s not “classical” education that they’re seeking. They are not returning to any real, historical educational system taught by wise men and saints in the past. What they are doing is withdrawing from the modern academic culture, which they consider to be “liberal”, and trying to establish an alternative that is “conservative”. In their opinion, colleges and universities are “liberal”, modern schools are “liberal”, modern churches as “liberal”, cities are “liberal”, the media is “liberal”, etc. All of these institutions, they argue, are leading people to support “the left” and vote for Democrat politicians, which is evil. The solution to this problem is to withdraw from these “liberal” institutions and find or establish “conservative” alternatives.

Unfortunately, for some reason, they choose to label this modern conservative culture “classical”.

The conservative culture they are promoting has a few defining characteristics:

  • it wishes to preserve “Western Civilization”
  • it seeks to maintain America’s “Christian” foundation
  • it promotes “America first” foreign policy
  • it defends “traditional” marriage and family life
  • it seeks to maintain “traditional gender roles”
  • it seeks to criminalize abortion
  • it seeks to maintain the civilian right to bear arms
  • it argues for capitalism rather than socialism
  • it votes for Republican political candidates

Now, if you’re a conservative Christian, you may look at that list and say, “Yes, exactly that’s what I want in a school for my children.” That’s perfectly fine, but this has nothing to do with a classical education. It’s an American conservative political platform, and these characteristics can be found in many schools that are not Catholic. In fact, I would argue that these characteristics are really Protestant ideals, which is why we find Catholics interested in this conservative culture ready to oppose the Pope and clergy of the Catholic Church which doesn’t run with them into this culture.

What, however, is the end of this cultural vision? It is not wisdom or virtue. It is not holiness or eternity. It is not equivalent to Catholic culture. It is political and short-sighted, temporal and materialistic. It is timid and self-preserving. It is shallow and confused.

The sources of this conservative education are not the sources of classical education. The students do not study the seven liberal arts. They do not study, or prepare to study, Scholastic philosophy. The curriculum challenges them to read widely but not to study, to dabble in many different subjects but to master none. The curriculum is that which was criticized and warned of by men like St. John Henry Newman in the 19th century. It was that which Socrates warned of in ancient Greece–an education that gives an appearance of learning, but no real wisdom. It will not inspire students to pursue religious vocations or to continue their school studies for the rest of their lives, because their school studies aren’t the kind of studies that wise men pursue throughout life. They may talk about Tolkien or Chesterton, but they are not learning Aristotle or Aquinas.

In this culture, education is a means to temporal pursuits, which are the real aim, and the curriculum is limited to such studies as a necessary for diplomas, college admission and employment. These were the original goals of the modern public schools, not classical education. The goals of classical Catholic schools were very different.

We don’t find popes or bishops embracing conservative American politics because they do not represent the Catholic faith or social teaching of the Church. They may be found within the Church’s social teaching, but that teaching expands much more broadly, into areas where the conservatives are not willing to go. There is no place for the contemplative life in the conservative worldview, because it is Protestant-ish in its idea of religion. It really has nothing to do with the concerns of the wise men and saints of history and, consequently, nothing to do with classical Catholic education.

Honestly, I can’t understand why they have chosen to call their schools “classical” rather than “conservative”.

Maybe they’re afraid to do so. It is, after all, a movement characterized by timidity.

William C. Michael
Classical Liberal Arts Academy