JEREMY TATE: "Classic" Education and the Postliberal Project
The qualities of classic education are also essential to the postliberal project.
Jeremy Wayne Tate is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test (CLT), a humanities-focused alternative to the SAT and ACT tests.
G. K. Chesterton opens his book What’s Wrong With the World by discussing the problem with political debate. Most of us agree that certain aspects of the society we live in are bad; however, we disagree on what the alternative good would be. This is true not just in the sense that we disagree about what means of improvement will be effective, or which are morally acceptable. It is more drastic than that. Our very ideas of an ideal society are in conflict. The way to solve this is through education, instilling a common framework of learning and belief across the nation. Not only does this system of education fit the postliberal project—in a certain sense it was built with it in mind. Before can we ask what is wrong with the world, we must learn what the world ought to look like. As Chesterton writes,
The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and seeks only to restore it. But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. … We all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health. … I have called this book “What Is Wrong With the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.
I hardly know what modern example to choose; there are so many! Disputes over how to teach our nation’s history have escalated into everything from defacing statues to banning books. There is no general agreement about sexual morality or family life. And as for religion—well, America was never a specifically Reformed or Catholic or Lutheran nation, the way most European countries were; but there was a broad consensus that Jewish and Christian ideas lay “at the center,” even for those who left them behind. That’s gone now too. Even someone who can’t stand apple pie or white picket fences might be dismayed by this disintegration of public standards, and worried for our future. It’s not really possible to have a society if it is united by nothing.
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But this is an old problem. Centuries old, in fact. The original Thirteen Colonies were founded by different people with different goals, and this disunity is reflected in our founding fathers. Some were Christians, others were Deists; some opposed slavery, some promoted it; some promptly endorsed unity under the Constitution, others would rather have had a useless government to maximize individual liberty. Yet they did have something in common: their education.
This education was built around language, logic, and great literature from throughout history. This education was what’s now called classical education, which includes Latin and a few other subjects, but the exact curriculum isn’t the point. There are a few distinct kinds or methods of education that all do what I’m talking about here, with classical education as just one of them. I refer to the broader category as “classic education.” Even when the founding fathers disagreed, they had a common frame of reference in which to discuss their disagreement, and common notions of the good, the true, and the beautiful to pursue. Moreover, covering the material it did—taken from the Bible, classical Greek and Roman thought, and over a thousand years of Christian philosophy—it was suffused with principles of moral formation and wisdom (principles that remained largely intact even when, as with men like Thomas Jefferson, Christian faith did not).
After a few frustrating years teaching in the public school system, I grew fascinated with this older model of education and the great men and women it produced. The more I looked at it, the more convinced I became that the material they studied was a treasury of wisdom that had withstood the test of time, and which we were foolish ever to give up. Since college is the gateway to the workplace, and standardized tests are the gateway to college, I decided a standardized test drawn from these great books was the best way to promote this kind of education. In 2015, the Classic Learning Test launched; eight years later, we have a thriving presence all across the nation, and even some international recognition.
Which all, no doubt, sounds nice—but what has any of it got to do with postliberalism? Being that classic education is itself a preliberal tradition, I believe the qualities of classic education are also essential to the postliberal project. Three ways spring to mind:
1. A shared education offers the possibility of a national common ground. Any country that has a lot of really different groups can only approach deeper unity by degrees. Education is a necessary part of this approach for the simple reason that we cannot talk until we have been taught what words mean and how they work.
Having a common frame of reference (historical “scenes,” stock characters, folktales and proverbs, celebrated poems, sculptures, and paintings) is a huge step toward mutual comprehension in a society. These referends are, for better or worse, the medium in which most of our thoughts and feelings operate, most of the time. Making sure this shared frame of reference is full of wholesome, beautiful figures and stories ought to be of interest to postliberalism.
2. This education in particular has a record of reinforcing moral and religious principles. While it is not a perfect record by any means, it is a record spanning many centuries (which is more than can be said about its rivals). Moreover, we are discussing a book-centered tradition that thrives on figures like Aristotle, Plutarch, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Dante. The material of such an education specifically seeks to get students—that is, every reader—thinking about profound things. Why do we care so much about beauty? How do we know things, and what sort of confidence can we have in what we think we know? Does life have a purpose, and what comes after it? These ideas do not magically compel good behavior, and people give them extremely different answers. Nevertheless, they are not a mere “lowest common denominator” either; the material of classic education has a positive character, and the books that comprise it offer people (particularly young people) an opportunity to confront these issues directly. The connection here to postliberalism, or for that matter to any political theory with a strong moral dimension, is presumably clear: if we want a shared moral and spiritual vision for society, it has to start with us all looking in the same direction.
3. This kind of education strengthens Catholic identity. Whether or not a harmonious and majority-Catholic society lies in America’s future or not, it doesn’t exist right now. We live in a highly pluralist country, in which Catholics have always been a minority. Accordingly, if we are going to influence that country for the good and for our faith, we and our children need to be armed with a strong sense of Catholic identity and with the tools of character, manners, and thought that serve and preserve that identity. Besides prayer, I can think of no better way of forming Catholic identity in our children than to give them access to the wealth of the Church’s history, from Tertullian to Tolkien.
The goal should be to make all students grapple with the fundamental questions of our world, much like the ones Chesterton asked. The most important thing, however, is showing them where the answers lie in this great tradition of classic education. Taking these three qualities, we can not only build up the postliberal project, but rebuild and reinforce a system of classic education that seeks to remedy the problems of this world.