Rising Trend of Classical Education Offers Hope for Civic Renewal

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“Let reverence for the laws … be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges,” Abraham Lincoln

As we celebrate [d] our independence on the Fourth of July, Americans would do well to reflect upon what’s necessary for a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, to long endure.

A free people requires an education in the civic knowledge and virtues necessary to preserve liberty.

In his 1838 Lyceum Address, a young Abraham Lincoln—then a state legislator in Illinois—reflected on “the perpetuation of our political institutions” in the wake of the killing of Elijah Lovejoy, an outspoken abolitionist who ran an anti-slavery newspaper, at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob.

Lincoln warned that although no foreign power could conquer us, destruction could come from within if the rule of law were to be replaced by the rule of the mob.

Lawlessness begets anarchy, he noted. If “the vicious portion of [the] population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity … this Government cannot last.”

The solution, Lincoln argued, is a commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law. Fostering that commitment would be the high duty of every citizen in a position to influence others, including parents, pedagogues, preachers, and politicians:

Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap. Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges. Let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs. Let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.

Unfortunately, America’s education system is currently failing in this duty. But there is hope.

1) Americans Are Failing Civics

Public schools are supposed to prepare students for the responsibilities of democratic self-government. At minimum, that requires knowing how our system of government works and understanding the principles that animate it.

Sadly, civic knowledge in America is abysmal.

According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual survey, one-third of American adults cannot name the three branches of government—and 17% can’t name any branch at all. Likewise, only 5% of Americans could name all five freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment. Twenty percent couldn’t name any.

It gets worse.

A survey earlier this year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that more than 70% of Americans failed a basic test of civic literacy on “basic functions of our democracy.” Only half correctly identified the branch where bills become laws. A third didn’t even know that there are three branches of government.

America’s schools bear much of the blame. On the most recent National Assessment for Educational Progress, American students’ history scores hit an all-time low. Only 13% scored at or above proficient in history, while two-fifths of eighth grade students performed below basic proficiency—meaning, they “likely cannot identify simple historical concepts in primary or secondary sources.”

American students also fared poorly on the NAEP’s civics exam, with only 22% of American eighth graders scoring at or above the proficiency. Nearly a third “cannot describe the structure or function of government.”

2) Schools Aren’t Teaching Ideas of the Founding

Students can’t learn what they’re not taught.

Unfortunately, as Dan Currell and Elle Rogers detailed in National Affairs, the “ideas at the heart of the American founding—equality, natural rights, the consent of the governed—have gone missing from U.S. history textbooks.”

‘America’s History’ ranks among the leading textbooks for Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH), a rite of passage taken by half a million young Americans each year. ‘America’s History’ is 1,035 pages long, but its treatment of the Declaration of Independence runs to a total of 344 words. …

Aside from a few scattered mentions, that ends the student’s encounter with our nation’s—and perhaps the world’s—most consequential political document until it appears in an appendix 858 pages later.

‘America’s History’ is not unusual. The most widely adopted APUSH textbook is ‘The American Pageant’—another thousand-page doorstop co-authored by historians from Stanford and Harvard. It, too, subordinates ideas in favor of a story of identity groups and factions fighting for power and economic advantage. Its ‘Road to Revolution’ chapter, to take one example, includes 16 review questions, nine of which concern trade, taxes, and budgets; five concern military jockeying; one addresses republican and Whig ideologies; and one asks about the material conditions that led to revolutionary ideas.

The latter textbook also gives short shrift to the U.S. Constitution, which receives “just a bit more space than [‘The American Pageant’] allocates to transcendentalism.” The textbook dedicates about twice as much space to Charles Beard’s 1913 “Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” a “discredited conspiracy theory about the Founders’ financial motivations for writing the Constitution,” than it does to the Federalist Papers, in which prominent Founders laid out their case for the Constitution.

But if American students aren’t learning about the principles of the American Revolution, what are they learning?

3) Schools Are Indoctrinating Left-Wing Activists

The vacuum left by the failure to teach the ideas and ideals of the American Founding is being filled with a push toward left-wing activism.

Instead of traditional civics, which focuses on the knowledge and virtues necessary for self-government, too many American schools are now pushing “action civics.”

What’s the difference? As David Randall of the National Association of Scholars explains:

[I]n ‘action civics’ history and government classes, students spend class time and receive class credit for work with ‘nongovernmental community organizations.’ This substitution degrades teachers’ and students’ esteem for classroom instruction, which is deemed not to have sufficient civic purpose in itself. It reduces the scarce time available for students actually to learn about the history of their country and the nature of their republic.

Most importantly, it introduces a pedagogy that facilitates teachers’ ability to impose their personal predilections on their students, by influencing the process by which students choose ‘community partners’ with which to work. It also facilitates the ability of peer pressure to impose group predilections on individual, dissenting students. We may note that the advocates of “action civics” explicitly distinguish this activity from volunteering: action civics is meant to change the political system, not to support civil society.

In other words, “action civics” focuses less on understanding how our system of government works or the principles upon which it is built, and more on training activists for left-wing causes.

In action civics courses, students get class credit for attending protests or supporting progressive organizations. For example, the “Educator Resources” on the website for Educating for American Democracy, a group that promotes action civics, includes links to resources from left-wing organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose “Learning for Justice” curriculum provides lessons on the “concepts of intersectionality, privilege, and oppression.”

It’s no wonder then that college campuses today are awash in anti-American protests, where students are more likely to desecrate the American flag than defend it.

4) Hope for Renewal: Classical Education Is on Rise

But there is yet hope for the nation Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.”

American parents are in the midst of a great educational reawakening, in which they are rediscovering the form of education—classical education—so treasured by our Founding Fathers.

 

A classical education focuses on cultivating the minds and hearts of students through the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty. It takes seriously the formation of the human person morally, intellectually, and aesthetically.

Schools in the classical model have children engage with the Great Books—the best that has been thought and said—in order to develop a deep appreciation of the foundations of our civilization.

The classical approach to civics entails a heavy emphasis on primary sources, such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. Classical education emphasizes the importance of civic life, but before students are encouraged to act, they are taught to understand.

Parents are flocking to classical schools. According to a recent analysis by Arcadia Education, more than 677,500 students attended 1,551 classical schools during the 2023-2024 school year.

Classical schools are growing at about 5% annually. In the past four years alone, more than 260 new classical schools opened. Arcadia projects that by 2035, more than 1.4 million students will be enrolled in classical schools or receiving a classical education at home.

“Classical education gives us the chance to rekindle the flame of the West before it goes out,” observed Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts and Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters. “To have a future, we need to start learning from our past.”

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This article was published by the Daily Signal and is reproduced with permission.

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