Classical Education's Aristocracy of Anyone

Micah Meadowcroft

Fall 2023

In grade school, my classmates and I played a game in which the girls were ancient Roman patricians, running imagined villas where trees stood behind the church that housed our school, and the boys got to be themselves — the barbarian tribes of the frontier, harrying the empire. We created — to memory at least — a complicated, foliage-based economy, with markets and "international" trade, and jump-rope chariots, and slave revolts. Latin is a dead language to most Americans, but we were not going to let all the conjugating and declining we had been doing go to waste. Even if we couldn't properly speak her tongue, Rome was alive enough to us; we had read all about her, because we were students at Cedar Tree Classical Christian School.

Regular readers of National Affairs will recall the late Ian Lindquist's Fall 2019 introduction to the classical-school movement, which characterized classical education at the primary and secondary level as an institutionalist response to cultural crisis. These institutions are growing, both in size and in number. The Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS), founded in 1993, now boasts more than 450 member schools. Other representatives of this movement include the Society for Classical Learning, the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, the American Classical League, the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education (or CiRCE Institute), and the Classic Learning Test, along with a host of publishers and other organizations dedicated to the support of private classical religious schools.

The classical model has become a significant part of home schooling and charter schools, too. Great Hearts Academies, whose blueprint school was established in 1996, has more than 30 campuses throughout Arizona and Texas. Since its founding in 2010, Hillsdale College's charter-school initiative has assisted communities across the country in establishing more than 20 member schools, with dozens more being approved to use its curriculum. And Classical Conversations, a home-schooling tutorial company launched in 1997, says it serves more than 125,000 students.

Lindquist argued that despite the incoherence of so many uses of the term "classical," there is something shared and distinctly American about the educational institutions that claim the name — families and communities building schools, starting companies, and forming associations. These are institutions built on institutions, renewing civil society as they both emerge from and form robust, tradition-minded local communities, sharing the task of replenishing America's social and human capital.

Lindquist was right to note the American character of the classical-schools movement. This character extends beyond the entrepreneurial nature of the movement, to the question of what it means to recover or renew something called classical. Much like the way the United States of America was founded both as a modern engineering project incarnating a new political science and as a recollection of ancient political philosophy and the traditional rights of Englishmen, the contemporary classical-education movement is an act of construction — one might say an invented tradition — seeking also to revivify and participate in something once living, now recognized as dead.


The conventional history of the contemporary classical-education movement goes something like this: In 1980, three different groups of parents, in three different states, without knowing one another or even being aware of each other, found themselves deeply unsatisfied with the American public-education system and the other schooling options around them. But unlike many other people in identical circumstances, they did not choose to homeschool; instead, they all set out to build a new sort of school — new because it was going to try to be old, too. First out of the gate was Cair Paravel Latin School in Topeka, Kansas, inspired in part by the legendary Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas. By the fall of 1981, it was joined by the Trinity School at Greenlawn in South Bend, Indiana, and Logos School in Moscow, Idaho.

Most distinctive among their various inspirations was the English writer Dorothy Sayers, who in 1947 delivered a paper at Oxford entitled "The Lost Tools of Learning." Sayers asked her audience — and us today — whether "we are really teaching the right things in the right way." She proposed that, faced with the technicity and pace of life today, in an age of mass literacy and mass communication, where words and information are so much the stuff of life, educating the young well requires us to "turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages." Why? Because from then until now we have taught students an increasing and dizzying array of subjects, and gradually quite failed to teach them how to think, or how to learn, which is the same thing.

Medieval education, in Sayers's account, was defined by the trivium of grammar, logic (or dialectic), and rhetoric, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Sayers sets the quadrivium aside, and though classical schools do not neglect those — ACCS president David Goodwin told me he believes what he would call a "Fourth Generation" of the classical-education revival will focus on the quadrivium — for now it is the trivium and its relationship to learning Latin that most obviously indicates the classical pedagogical approach. The combination of grammar, logic/dialectic, and rhetoric forms the mental habits that can become thinking and learning.

Of course, none of the elements of the trivium or even the broader world of "classics" ever disappeared entirely, and people have grasped how to learn and think despite modernity's narrowing and materialist horizons. But this so-called "medieval" approach recognized that learning is not only a compendium of subjects, but an art, and that there are tools made fit for it. Sayers told her small audience more than 70 years ago that though she did not expect many to listen, she hoped some people would pick up these tools of learning and start building. "If 'the Middle Ages' is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory," she suggested, "there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not 'go back' to it."

This history should be contested, or at least clarified — and there are university programs, preparatory schools, and books that complicate any timeline for contemporary classical education. But let us begin, like Socrates, with the conventional.

Established in 1980, Cair Paravel Latin School (CPLS) is not found a little north of Glasswater near the Isle of Galma in C. S. Lewis's fictional land of Narnia, but rather in another fantasy setting: Kansas. In addition to Sayers, two things lurk behind everything about the Topeka school: Lewis and the Integrated Humanities Program. Lewis, of course, gave Cair Paravel its name, its aesthetics (graduating seniors are reminded "once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia," while departing teachers are teased "once an employee of Narnia, always an employee of Narnia"), and its commitment to mere Christianity.

The IHP was a short-lived but enormously influential school within the University of Kansas, taught by Frank Nelick, Dennis Quinn, and John Senior, and shaped in part by the work of canon-warrior Mortimer Adler. Several of Cair Paravel's founding fathers were alumni of the IHP, and it was by this route that they arrived at the conviction that something was deeply wrong with contemporary education, and that it ought to be fixed not only at the collegiate level, but in primary and secondary schooling, too.

For being among the oldest of the contemporary classical Christian schools, it is striking how small a role Cair Paravel has played in the broader movement. CPLS has been content to be itself, an excellent private Christian school in Topeka, Kansas. It does not publish its curriculum; it makes no clones of itself; it has started no associations and convened no conferences. CPLS came into being, discovered itself, went through good years and bad, found its fellow schools, and has been content to be in its own world while also being a part of the movement's broader world; it is now an accredited member of the ACCS.

The ACCS — the largest, most visible face of classical education today — came out of Logos School in Moscow, Idaho (home of the University of Idaho). In the late 1970s, Pastor Douglas Wilson and his wife Nancy realized they couldn't see handing over their oldest daughter to someone else to educate, so Wilson set out to start a school. "I rashly said, 'don't worry, we'll have a Christian school started by the time she hits kindergarten,'" Wilson told me at the 2022 meeting of the ACCS's annual Repairing the Ruins Conference in Frisco, Texas. (It was the association's biggest ever at the time, with about 1,300 people in attendance.) Wilson followed through, starting Logos in 1981. The school had 19 students in the first year. Forty years in they had 600 — in a town with a population of 26,000.

How did starting a school in 1981 in Moscow, Idaho, of all places, turn into a thousand people packing a convention space in the suburbs of Dallas? There was a book — there usually is. In the spring of 1991, Wilson published Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, a direct reference to Dorothy Sayers's essay "The Lost Tools of Learning," which recounts the early years of building Logos after her blueprint. Wilson had read Turning Point: A Christian Worldview Declaration by Marvin Olasky and Herbert Schlossberg, published in 1987. "It was obviously the first in a series of books, and it was the intro book," he said. "We were 10 years into Logos, and I thought, 'I want to write the one on education.'" So Wilson wrote and visited Olasky — who then visited Moscow and Logos with his wife — and got the contract.

When Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning was published, Wilson said, "we were caught flat-footed, totally surprised" by the discovery that "when you put my book down, you said, 'we have to start a school.'" (It's true; my parents did.) "And when people said 'oh, we have to start a school,' the next thing they do is they call us up." Of course there were too many calls, and too many letters — it was the '90s and people still wrote those — asking too many questions about how Logos did what it does. So Wilson decided to hold a conference in Moscow, and they would record the talks — "cassette tapes were a thing" — which they could give people for frequently asked questions. "There was such a response that I thought, 'we have to start an association, this is going to do something.'" The ACCS was born.


If you have heard of Trinity Schools, it might be because of Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett. When California senator Dianne Feinstein told Barrett "the dogma lives loudly in you," she was referring to the Notre Dame Law School professor's belonging to the ecumenical charismatic Christian community People of Praise, which was founded in South Bend, Indiana, in 1971. In 1981, People of Praise started a school, Trinity at Greenlawn, in South Bend. Justice Barrett's children attended that school, and when the family moved to D.C., her children began attending Trinity's third campus, Trinity at Meadowview in northern Virginia. (The second campus was established in Eagan, Minnesota.) Trinity is distinctive, even from other schools in the classical Christian education movement. It seeks to be one school on three campuses. It serves only sixth through 12th grade (seventh in Virginia). The vast majority of classes are divided by sex, so that functionally a boy's school and a girl's school exist in the same building, periodically merging for certain classes.

Trinity Schools got their start in the late '70s, when People of Praise formed an education committee to consider what their schooling options might be if they decided those available in South Bend were unsatisfactory. Soon afterward, the community's leadership asked a committee member, Tom Finke, to visit schools around the region. "We didn't feel like anybody had what we wanted to do," Finke told me when I visited Trinity at Greenlawn in the spring of 2022. "Or to put it another way, we didn't want to start a school that was just going to do what everyone else was doing." Central to this process, and to the life and character of Trinity Schools, was the late Kerry Koller, who died in September 2020 in retirement after having served as president of Trinity Schools for many years. Koller, who had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame, had been exposed to great-books education while attending Saint Mary's College of California, where he had come to know Ronald McArthur, a founder of Thomas Aquinas College. As Finke told me, Koller eventually turned to McArthur for advice, saying something along the lines of: "We see what you're doing, we kind of have some feel for that, we like it," but how would we go about it at the high-school level?

McArthur pointed Koller in the direction of John Schmitt, who had been an early member of the faculty at Thomas Aquinas before moving back east to found a secondary school of his own. "So we invited him to come, this would have been 1980...and he came for a long weekend." They liked what they heard. Finke and Koller went out to see Schmitt's school in action, "and we came back and gave another report." In March of 1981, Finke and People of Praise decided that "it's time to cross the Rubicon" and open in the fall.

John Schmitt and his school are the wrinkle in the conventional, ACCS-predominated timeline of contemporary classical education. He is, like the Baptist of that name, an unexpected forerunner. If Cair Paravel and Logos were a "sort of Leibniz and Newton," as Douglas Wilson described their mutual discovery to me, then the history of mathematics does not provide a suitable analogy for Trivium School in Lancaster, Massachusetts. While John Schmitt died about a decade ago, I spoke to his son, and Trivium's current headmaster, William Schmitt, last summer. "We opened our doors on October 25, 1979," Schmitt told me. "I was a senior, so I was there; I joined the senior class and graduated in 1980, and came back in 2000" to teach and then become headmaster. Much like Wilson and the founders of Cair Paravel, the younger Schmitt's father was influenced by Dorothy Sayers. Indeed, the very name "Trivium School" comes from Sayers's essay. "In January of 1979," Schmitt recalled, "National Review published or republished an essay by Dorothy Sayers called 'The Lost Tools of Learning' and I think that really sparked my dad to...say, 'yes we can do this and put this into practice. I count that as kind of the catalyst for the beginning of the revival of classical education."

Sayers's essay gave the elder Schmitt, who had tried running a secondary school, a framework on which to build something he thought could last. "He started a school called Thomas More School," the younger Schmitt told me, "I think in 1959, up in New Hampshire, and when the '60s and '70s hit he sort of gave up and said, I think, the problem was that model just doesn't work anymore, so he quit and he closed down the school." Indeed, the animating spirit of the Northeast prep schools had died, and its education theory devolved into secular progressivism.

The younger Schmitt continued:

My dad had always wanted to found a school. He studied education at Harvard. He didn't think very much of their program at all; he always made fun of it. But he did read some Renaissance history on education, and he went on and taught at a couple private schools, ones that had a headmaster who had founded the school. He comes from that kind of secular background.

Schmitt described Trivium as "kind of an amalgamation" of the preparatory-school tradition with Sayers's essay and the great-books lessons of Thomas Aquinas College. As he put it, "we always imagine ourselves as a weird sort of mixture of an old-fashioned prep school with some Catholic ideas, together."


The history of classical schools is complicated, yet at its core, it still comes back to Dorothy Sayers and her version of the trivium. In 1979, it was a vision driven by men ready to build things needed. Now, more than 40 years into the project, Sayers's paradigm has become something to be acknowledged gratefully, yes, but questioned and perhaps surpassed. Whatever makes classical education "classical," Sayers did point to it, but her "Lost Tools" cannot capture it. She was too much a thinker in her moment, too honest about constructing something, too engaged in a kind of literary creation, to provide the tradition itself. Recall that Sayers used the Middle Ages as a mere "picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory." Nevertheless, to understand the classical-education movement today, we must know what its leaders were and are responding to — the reference point from which there is movement toward or away.

A student in the Middle Ages, Sayers suggested, learned language with all its vocabulary and structure (grammar); learned how language works for communication and argument, for saying true things and fallacious things about the world (dialectic); and learned how language can be used well, beautifully and persuasively, with eloquence (rhetoric). Since it is by language that we share thought, this long and careful familiarization with language becomes an education in thinking, learning, and teaching.

Additionally, in Sayers's presentation, the components of the trivium match basic observations about childhood development. As she put it, there are three frames of mind a normal child goes through: the Poll-parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic. These states of psychological development, Sayers argued, can be paired with grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. An educational sequence can thus work with the student's natural growth. The Poll-parrot memorizes. Little children have brains like sponges; they absorb all without scruple or difficulty. When it comes to learning the basics, the grammar, of language — Latin is the one Sayers advises us to start with, and most have listened — and dates and dead people and poetry and all the rest, that sponginess is a great advantage and resource. But of course it does end, and children grow Pert. They start asking pertinent questions and impertinent questions alike. "Why?" is a popular one. Adults are always reminded how complicated "why" can be, how essential some things are and how contingent others, when the Pert stage rolls around.

Sayers wanted to harness that hunger for the workings of things with careful training in formal logic. The child becoming aware of the world is becoming capable of dialogue; back talk can be turned into argument. Finally, there comes the Poetic age. Kids begin to realize that they are individuals in a community, that they have identities with boundaries that are partly in their hands. Everyone remembers his years of desperate self-expression and moody misunderstanding; rhetoric might give the passionate bright young thing a voice and vocabulary to convey his feelings to peers and parents. The aim, then, is to use grammar to lay out material that can be built with logic and adorned and finished in rhetoric, producing in the end a young person who has learned how to learn.

Logos School — and to a certain extent Cair Paravel — adapted this plan directly to American K-12 education, with a return to a grammar school rather than an elementary school, the replacement of middle school with logic grades, and a recasting of high school as the rhetoric stage. This remains common among ACCS member schools, but interpretations and adjustments have been necessary. In the case of Trivium School in Massachusetts, John Schmitt set out to serve only the seventh through 12th grades. "In Sayers's essay the focus is not really so much the classes that you have, but the application of grammar, logic, rhetoric to any class," his son told me. "We highlight that." They group grades by stages of the trivium, but it's just "an emphasis." For Schmitt and Trivium School, Sayers's pedagogical insight is more basic than her psychological theory. She "took the way that you learn Latin and she applied it to every the Middle Ages, you learned Latin grammar, and then you learned the ordering in the grammar itself but also how to think, and then how to express yourself in rhetoric."

An overreliance on the trivium as a structure for learning threatens to make "classical education" a method among others — a description of means rather than ends. For some, the right response is to focus instead on content — on the transmission of a cultural canon. To the team at Memoria Press and Highlands Latin School in Louisville, Kentucky, "classical education" is very nearly as simple as Latin, Greek mythology, and Roman history — namely, the classics. The late Cheryl Lowe founded Memoria Press in 1994. While homeschooling her two boys, Lowe failed to find a Latin textbook suitable for their age, so she created Latina Christiana, an introductory Latin text that has been used by many classical Christian schools (including the one I attended). "We feel like studying Latin is the thing that defines classical education," her daughter-in-law Leigh Lowe told me, because it is the language at the heart of Western culture. In Lowe's mind there's nothing anachronistic about the project; it is a genuine recovery. "This worked for generations and we're going to have the humility to accept that."

Martin Cothran — longtime business partner of Cheryl Lowe — is director of the Classical Latin School Association. "Passing on Western Civilization is the project," he told me. Cothran said he used to think that his and Lowe's emphasis on content and transmission put him at odds with the rest of the movement. "Classical education is not a method," he said — nor is it three stages of learning. At an ACCS conference some years ago, he suggested that "Dorothy Sayers is thinking and speaking post-psychology," and is thus providing a necessarily modern taxonomy of learning. "I was looking for a fight and I couldn't get one," he admitted. "People didn't think that way; they were interested in what children should know, period." Since then, the movement has gotten past the early commitment to the Sayers formula and speculations about how "little Johnny" develops.

David Goodwin, the president of the ACCS and co-author of The Battle for the American Mind with Pete Hegseth, separates the development of the classical-education movement into three generations. "There were the First Generation schools, which were largely based on the Logos model, because they were the ones with the loudest voice. And then eventually schools were formed upon the Second Generation, which was kind of a great-books, ad fontes approach." The Third Generation took off in the late 2000s. "The question that keeps coming up," says Goodwin, is: "If our mission isn't academic but rather the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in Christ, are we achieving that?"

Confident in the positive academic outcomes of the approach, classical-school educators now ask whether the schools are rightly shaping students' affections to desire the right things. "A lot of schools realized our work lacked soul. You can teach logic, you can teach rhetoric, you can teach grammar," Goodwin said, but you also shape the character of the students. As the progressive instructors so many classical educators reacted against knew well, education is not only informational but formative. "Gen Three," Goodwin observed, "[is] not really a subject, it's really a posture of how you deal with students. Your job is to inspire and to cultivate the paideia of God in the students."


Here lies a potential point of tension in the movement: First, are schools outposts of godly culture, a recovery of Christendom? Or are they transmitting a civilizational inheritance older than the Christian Church? And if some schools are Christian or religious, and consider that element essential to the project, while others are charter and thus secular, are they doing the same thing? Can they be brought into conversation?

The Barney Charter Schools initiative represents the secular classical-education movement's own venture into Goodwin's "Third Generation." Hillsdale's curriculum and teacher training seek to offer "an education for the mind and the heart," as Kathleen O'Toole, assistant provost for K-12 education at Hillsdale, told me. "Going to school doesn't just mean learning a bunch of information, it's also as influential or more in some cases as your family in forming who you become." The goal of the civics and history focus of a Barney-affiliated school is the moral formation of the child. "We recognize that any formation toward virtue has got to take account of the fact that we are not just isolated individuals; we are political animals or social animals," O'Toole said.

To Andrew Kern of the aforementioned CiRCE Institute, none of these perspectives are radical enough. "I have become a thorn in the flesh of every classical educator everywhere," Kern told me. After starting multiple classical schools, he founded CiRCE in 1996 to answer these questions: "How should we teach? What should we teach? How should we assess? How should we cultivate wisdom and virtue in these kids?" In Kern's own assessment, the problem is that the classical-education movement hasn't fully abandoned (and maybe isn't prepared to abandon) modern assumptions about knowledge and the cosmos. It is not yet sufficiently classical.

Kern thinks he has found the fundamental difference between a truly classical perspective and the assumptions that define our world today: "Prior to 1600, unless you were a sophist, pretty well every educator believed that what you needed to know the truth was virtue, and not just moral virtues, intellectual virtues as well, physical virtues. Virtue enables you to see the truth; without virtue you can't see the truth." But, he says, "we've replaced virtue with method," so that for the last 400 years, "what education has been is a fight over methods." Therefore, for Kern, the essential question for classical education today is the following: "To what extent is the classical renewal going back to virtue and to what extent is it participating in the methods?" Even as classical schools focus on spiritual development or cultural transmission in subject divisions, grading styles, and testing, "to a large extent the classical renewal is still functioning within the methodological structure, the meta-method." Kern believes that is the crux issue facing the movement, because "what your method can reveal determines what you see, or the virtues you attained can determine what you see."

Perhaps unexpectedly, it is in the Trinity Schools founded by People of Praise that classical education appears most comfortable with confronting its relationship to modernity. The original John Schmitt-inspired and trivium-conscious great-books curriculum is less front and center at Trinity than in 1985, when Koller distilled the Trinity vision in an essay for Center Journal, a scholarly quarterly he started through People of Praise. But from the beginning Trinity has sought to be a kind of "terminal education," as Jon Balsbaugh, former president of Trinity Schools, puts it: sufficient to be the end of formal schooling and the beginning of lifelong learning. As Koller wrote:

This foundation needs to be broad enough to take up concerns of the human spirit in general and not merely in some of its manifestations....Most importantly, this kind of education serves as a foundation for the lifelong task of searching for the truth and appropriating it into our lives. Adler makes this point well: "Education is a lifelong process of which schooling is only a small but necessary part. The various stages of schooling reach terminal points. Each can be completed in a definite term of years. But learning never reaches a terminal point."

That still holds true in aspiration. Everyone I spoke to at Trinity in South Bend reiterated that the guiding principle is answering the question: What should an educated human adult know?

According to Balsbaugh, "there were some critical texts that we would read at certain points or think about collectively," resulting under Koller's direction in an effort to reacquaint themselves with modernity. Multiple times, longtime Trinity teachers mentioned what they called a Newtonian paradigm shift. "The shift from Newtonian mechanics and a mechanical universe to post-Newtonian physics should be accompanied by a philosophical shift in what the world is and how it works," Balsbaugh explained. Like the Copernican revolution, the replacement of Newtonian physics with contemporary quantum mechanics is a key part of philosophical history and of the West's attempts to wrestle with certainty and change. This ongoing conversation and reconciliation with parts of modernity extends to other parts of the curriculum. Trinity requires courses in linear algebra and MATLAB computer programming, and it's no ploy for college prep. "The world runs on mathematical modeling and computer data," said Balsbaugh. "Our students whatever they do will understand how to program a computer, or how air traffic control works, or if not understand it, at least be able to wonder at it."

Wonder, virtue, habit, character formation — for William Schmitt of the Trivium School, these gestures at holism contra the modern reign of quantity form the soul of the movement to which his father played forerunner. "To my mind that unity is really at the heart of what the revival of classical education is all about....It's not simply a reaction against progressive education or a reaction where we want to go back to the 1950s," Schmitt explained. "It has a positive character to it." The personal formation that used to be so important to the prep schools of the old American aristocracy "is integral to what we're doing," Schmitt said.

That tradition sickened and eventually died around 1970, by John Schmitt's reckoning. "All those schools, at least the ones that I know about, have lost a lot of what I'm talking about," his son told me. "It's all about scores, and portfolios, and it costs a whole lot more and they're interested in getting into the upper class, and the SATs matter." What Trivium School (and the classical-education movement more broadly) represents is a throwback to the Renaissance humanists and scholastics. "What you have here is the same ideas as you had at the beginning of the Renaissance," Schmitt said. That vision inspired his father, and he's gratified to see other people recognize it.


Revival, rebirth, Renaissance: The new is interesting because it is in some ways old. The classical-education movement seeks to revive not only scholastic modes of thought, but humanist education. Especially in grammar and rhetoric — the poems, speeches, history, and literature, the emphasis on virtue and service to God and country — teachers across America consciously or unconsciously channel the thought of humanists like Pier Paolo Vergerio and Battista Guarino. These men understood their task to be the revival and preservation of older knowledge, of Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch. They believed, with Bernard of Chartres as cited by John of Salisbury, that originality and independence are not necessarily virtues, especially when one is a spiritual or intellectual dwarf and there are giants available with shoulders to stand on.

The classical-education movement of the last four decades comes out of a peculiarly American combination of close-to-earth dwarfish realism and confident aspirations to gianthood. Where else but in America would it be conceivable to start these schools from scratch, in church basements and mobile buildings and roller rinks? (True story: Logos is located in a former roller rink.) For all their efforts to build schools and associations and initiatives and curricula on the giants of the past, on Augustine and Plato and Homer and Moses, the founders of the contemporary classical-school movement were themselves giants of good old-fashioned American civil society. The products of these schools — people like me — are dwarves with access to two sets of giant shoulders. If we can look any farther, it's because of the vistas of history we have been given, and because of the long labors of parents, teachers, and administrators to repair civilizational ruins.

The United States is the only place this could have happened, not just because it is where the pioneer spirit found and still finds its fullest expression. Of all the nations, only America fully embraces in its foundations what French intellectual Rémi Brague calls secondarity. Walk around D.C., read the pseudonymous authors of the "Federalist" and the "Anti-Federalist" papers, look at a map of the Midwest or South, scattered with cities with names like Cincinnati and Athens and Memphis. That is Roman secondarity all over. The Romans took what they wanted from the cultures they encountered, robbed the past to build their present. They did it out of a sense of awe and respect for the less martial but more wise, more beautiful, more holy civilizations that came before their greatness. The fathers of this country did much the same, seeing their endeavor in explicitly Roman and classical terms. It was a founding for a new age, born of ages prior. Continuity with English rights and privileges justified their revolution, but division from the Old World created an opportunity for something fresh.

Classical education in America is an expression of this same spirit. In aesthetics and superficial subject matter, these new schools often resemble the old elite Northeastern WASP or British prep schools. Many hope to recapture for the children of suburban America the same standards of learning that the education movements of the 19th century wanted for farmers' sons, and built Midwestern colleges to ensure. The unapologetic identities of the religious schools (who remain a majority) express the pluralism of the American experiment. But they also look back in time, much further. They make the same virtue of anachronism that scholars in the Middle Ages did; like scribes in monasteries, they may not understand what the words they copy meant to those who first spoke them, but they value them for the present, for what those words can mean for them now. Amid the anomie of contemporary life, with its technicity, speed, and endless information, to be part of a story — yes, a story of the West, as problematic as it may be to some — that stretches back millennia, is to possess a foundation on which to build a life. It is, in its own way, a post-modern escape from the groundlessness of post-modernity into a community of both the dead and living.

The humanist educators that classical schooling emulates understood their task as training the nobility, sons of kings and lords and important men, to live lives worthy of their status. While the scholastics taught the logic chopping necessary for a career in the Church or law or medicine, the humanists taught their students stories of great deeds, of virtue and magnanimity, of martial glory and the strategies of court. They would grow up, it was hoped, to be nobler nobles, to do great deeds themselves, and be great-souled to all. In America, a free republic for free people, a country for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, classical schooling cannot but shoulder that humanist task: giving an education worthy of free people, an education for a nobility. The young United States aspired to become a nation without a titled aristocracy; classical schools aspire to give an aristocratic education to anyone.

Of course in the most literal sense, an aristocracy of everyone cannot exist. The aristoi of an aristocracy, the best who will rule, is a relative description. We cannot escape inequalities of ability in a world of limits, a fallen world. But classical schooling suggests that we need not teach to the lowest common denominator of civic life. We need not teach with the goal of producing only semi-socialized citizens who can navigate — with expert assistance, of course — their way through the bureaucratic maze of government services, regulations, and elections, or become a resigned cog in the great machine of a global economy. Declining expectations for compulsory education have made college attendance an unsustainably extended requirement for many; universities have become domains of remedial education and ideological conditioning. Classical schools suggest we can teach to a higher goal of human excellence. We can provide, long before a college freshman survey course, a context for a life of learning, which does not need a paper degree to prove its worth, but is instead displayed in a person's virtues.

Micah Meadowcroft is research director for the Center for Renewing America and a contributing editor of The American Conservative. He did the research for this essay as a 2021-22 Robert Novak journalism fellow, supported by the Fund for American Studies.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.