Wisdom & Virtue: Classical Christian Schools Against the World

Image of classical literature on a bookshelf

NOTE: This story was written based on publicly-available documents, conversations with some of the people involved, and my own memory. Some names and characteristics have been changed, and some dialogue has been recreated from memory. I acknowledge that memory is imperfect, and some of the people involved may remember things differently.

This story has a companion piece, “Good Man Speaking Well: Classical Christian Schools on the Retreat,” though they can be read independently. This essay was originally published on Interfaith Now.

This is a story about a Christian private school in central Texas, which I will refer to by the name Pericles School, but it is really about much more than that. It is about a system of education and the way of thinking that drives it.

Pericles School is part of what is known as “Classical Education,” and quaint as that may sound, it’s a movement that anyone concerned with education ought to know about. More than being a movement based around pedagogy or educational philosophy, Classical Education is a social movement, and it’s one that, to borrow the subtitle from one of its founding texts, wants to “sweep the nation.”

Classical Education began with three unconnected schools in the 1980s and has grown steadily since then. Amongst other things, Pericles School’s Classical nature meant it was the kind of place that taught systematic phonics to its elementary students and the so-called literary canon (the “Great Books,” as Classical Educators call them) to its high schoolers. The students wore green uniforms, and cell phones were neither to be seen nor heard anywhere on campus.

These aspects were not particularly exciting to me when I discovered the school in August 2012, and had I held the clarity of values and understanding that I have today, I would have skipped over the job application. But it was a strange time in my life; I was twenty-two years old, single, and trying to reconcile a set of wildly divergent values. My early political views had been shaped primarily by my parents’ aversion to George W. Bush and our family viewings of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, while my spiritual and cultural views had been shaped by my upbringing in the Southern Baptist Church, where my dad was a pastor.

Pericles School appealed to me, because it seemed like the perfect place to reconcile the conflicting parts of myself. The school prided itself on prioritizing rigorous study, valuing sharp logic, and fostering fair-minded debate. These were the tools through which we expected our students to reach conclusions about the world. As a religious school, it did not openly push one particular doctrine or political view, but celebrated its inter-denominational value and instead focused on instilling in its students what they referred to as Wisdom and Virtue.

The more I got to know the school, though, the more I saw this wisdom and virtue to be misdirection. The school had a definite viewpoint, a purpose even, but so long as I tried to hold onto the conflicting parts of myself, I wouldn’t see it.

Pericles School was a refuge, a place where white, conservative Evangelicals could retreat from society and pursue their wisdom and virtue, the things that Classical educators refer to as “good, true, and beautiful,” safe from the influences of the world. But the world was everywhere, and our students were not immune to its pull.

I worked at Pericles School for four years, from 2012 through 2016. Halfway through my stint, it seemed like a split began to form in white America. Some of this came slowly, like cracks in a home’s foundation, drawn through years of undetected pressure — these were the years when terms like “microaggression” and “white privilege” entered the mainstream consciousness. Other changes arrived suddenly; August 2014 was the time of both Gamergate and the Ferguson protests.

Soon, teacher’s lounge conversations changed; in addition to talking about curriculum, community gossip, or the latest Marvel film, I began to hear hushed worries over a changing culture. Common culprits included the Black Lives Matter movement, the restriction of conservative speech on college campuses, and the concept of affirmative consent. My colleagues were scared about what was happening out there.

One time, at a school-wide assembly, the headmaster remarked that he would not send his son to Harvard because of the climate on campus, and anyways his son was getting an Ivy League level education at Pericles School.

I began to notice these attitudes not just in my colleagues, but in the students as well. Every year, just before spring break, I taught Animal Farm, George Orwell’s famously un-subtle allegory about the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent rise of Joseph Stalin. Every year, while reading the story but before discussing the allegory, at least one student would light up and exclaim “this is just like Obama!” I would shake my head and try to explain the difference between a democratically-elected leader you don’t like and authoritarianism, all while treading carefully to avoid inciting any calls from parents, but I never felt sure the message got through. The first time this happened, I was so nervous I asked my supervisor what I should do, and he suggested I send a preemptive email to the parents, to explain the conversation we’d had in class. It was important, he told me, to make clear that I had not advocated for any particular political viewpoint.

During the middle of each school year, the high school teachers took the entire 8th through 12th grade student body on a one-day retreat. Out in the Texas hill country, we would play games, sing worship songs, and journal about our faith in the way that only evangelical teenagers and their adult leaders do.

During one session, the high school principal, Robert, gathered everyone for a question-and-answer. Robert was in his early 30s, and had the charisma of a hip youth pastor — locks of curly black hair, carefully maintained stubble, and piercing eyes. Earlier in the day, Robert had set up a box where students could anonymously ask a question about the school, and now he was returning with answers. Most of the questions were bureaucratic in nature, asking about late work policies and scheduling issues, and Robert dutifully defended the admin’s decisions. Then one question came that seemed to catch him off guard.

He read “why aren’t there any Hispanic students here?”

It was a good question. Our county was about one-third Hispanic, yet nearly everyone at Pericles School — teachers and students alike — was white. Robert responded with a question — what do you want me to do? He said that the administration had advertised in other communities, but no one was interested. You can make an offer, but you can’t make anyone take it. And there’s not much you can do about that.

Of course this wasn’t true — the school had “advertised” in some sense, which is just about the bare minimum one could do. But I heard no discussion of offering scholarships or doing any real self-reflection on why Hispanic families may not be interested in what Pericles School has to offer. It seemed, to me, that the school was simply not interested in appealing outside its primarily-white community.

One year, the graduating seniors were asked to leave feedback for the administration, recommendations on how they could improve the Pericles School experience for future students. The students listed, amongst their suggestions, “more diverse texts.” I thought this was a great idea and decided to help. I recommended to my department head that she add Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to the 10th grade summer reading list. She was not familiar with the book, so she agreed to read and consider it.

This seemed an easy choice. As a recommendation, it was small, embarrassing even, in its timidity. The students wanted it, summer reading was only tangential to the curriculum, and Chinua Achebe is about as Classical as a non-white author gets. But after reading the book, my department head declined; apparently, she didn’t like the main character and “couldn’t see what truths or virtues it had to teach.” Our students would not, then, be reading Achebe.

(As a side note, it was pointed out to me, shortly before publishing this, that a few years after I left Pericles School, Things Fall Apart did make it on to the summer reading list options. I do not know what happened to make this change — whether the department head changed her mind, or someone with more influence made the request. Regardless, the resistance this small suggestion faced, and the school’s failure to diversify the curriculum in any more significant way, is telling.)

Eventually I accepted that, in the culture war, I fell on a different side than my colleagues and friends. I decided to try and fight back, enact change from the inside.

I began by changing the way I taught. Rather than simply reacting (for example, with my yearly Animal Farm conversations) I could be proactive, use the literature on my syllabus to break down prejudices.

Now, when I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, my focus was not on what a great hero Atticus Finch is, but rather how prejudice and racism pervade every aspect of Maycomb, how Atticus himself insists that some people in town (the Ewells) are inherently worse than others (like the Finches). We talked about how the deep community bonds in Maycomb, which leads Atticus to risk himself saving his neighbor’s belongings from a burning house, cannot be separated from the racial caste system they had created. The things my students loved about Maycomb — that it was a warm, supportive community, much like Pericles School itself — were intimately tied up with the community’s ability to create an in-group and an out-group.

I wasn’t ever sure that the message got through. One thing that did become clear, over time, was that my approach to literature seemed at odds with the school’s administration.

Once, at a faculty meeting, Robert spoke about the difference between classical and modern art. Classical music, he said, celebrated form and harmony. It taught its listener that a right order exists in the universe, and we are most fulfilled when we align ourselves with that order. Modern art, on the other hand, sought nothing more than to shock. Jolt the audience into discomfort, make them question what they innately know to be true. It was not hard to extrapolate this viewpoint from music to literature.

Later that day, at lunch, I suggested, just maybe, that people need to be shocked. Maybe they need to question their assumptions, and maybe this is in fact the goal of education. Robert just shook his head. I wasn’t getting it — the purpose of education was to lead students to the truth. Then he spoke gravely and gave a sort of warning against asking pernicious questions:

“I’ve seen this time and time again. People ask one question after the other, whittle their faith down to nothing, so that they can do whatever they want.”

I didn’t ask what exactly these people wanted to do, instead saying, in astonished understatement, “that is not a very generous view of people.” Robert agreed, and admitted to holding a low view of these people who dared to ask questions.

Try as I might to fight back against the racist perspectives I encountered at Pericles School, I could not fully separate myself from it. I am a white man, and at the time my entire social life was built around two institutions: Pericles School, and the church I attended on Sundays (which was almost identical in beliefs, and included several families involved with the school). My viewpoint was limited, and my responses inadequate.

To more fully understand the deep racism and reactionary responses in that community, we need to hear from Mike Yates, the only Black man I ever worked with at Pericles School (Mike graciously agreed to share his story with me).

Mike was, in his own words, the wrong person to work at a Classical school. His resume included being the Education Programs Coordinator for a local branch of the United Way and teaching music and poetry in a last-stop juvenile detention facility. There, he learned to love teaching. He saw the way that art could help people open up and build meaningful connections with one another. It wasn’t about the content, but about people and relationships.

At Pericles School, education was largely about the content, namely fiction, and Mike hated fiction. Growing up, reading fiction was just something teachers made him do, and what they made him read wasn’t relevant. It was the literary canon, the stuff revered at Pericles School. During the time Mike taught at Pericles School, faculty professional development took the form of a book club, led by one of the English teachers. We were required to read passages from The Odyssey, then we met once per month to discuss the reading. Mike was confused. How was this relevant to his job? How was it relevant to his students?

(Mike wasn’t the only teacher to question this — I recall several conversations with frustrated science teachers who couldn’t see how this applied to them, and perhaps were upset at their subject being pushed to the sidelines)

Mike also saw problems with Pericles School’s approach to technology. The school treated technology as something that got in the way of human relationships, going so far as to ban cell phones from any spot on campus other than the student lounge (adults, of course, were free to use their phones whenever they needed to). Mike saw it the other way: technology could free teachers of the things that prevent them from relationship-building. In Mike’s view, any part of teaching that could be replaced with a computer ought to be. Why should teachers grade worksheets by hand, when a computer can do that faster? Why have teachers deliver lectures, when we have video available of world-class speakers on any topic? Automate as much as possible, and leave teachers to do what only they can: act as guides and mentors. 

Still, Mike found things to appreciate at Pericles School. The Classical Education Trivium made sense to him, and as a debate coach, he loved that communicating your knowledge was put at the top priority in education. And while he disagreed with the school on issues of technology and the literary canon, Pericles School did place great emphasis on building relationships and community. Mike knew Robert from church and liked him, and he was happy to take the job.

The image of Pericles School as a beautiful church family did not last long for Mike. Going into the job, he assumed that parents in the community would be more engaged in the religion than the students. The kids would rebel, want to do things their own way, while their parents send them to a Christian school to get them in line, reinforce a particular set of behaviors. For the most part, the opposite was true. Most students were earnest and wholehearted in their faith, but Mike did not encounter the same from the parents.

Mike took on several roles in addition to coaching debate, most notably mediating parent complaints and helping with some hiring. As a mediator, he endured verbal abuse from parents — some of whom were highly involved in the school community — who would berate him and cuss him out. Behind the scenes, parents would pull strings to shape the school. While serving on a hiring committee, Mike saw community members politick to get a mediocre candidate hired over a great one.

This wasn’t what a Christian community was supposed to be like. Halfway through the school year, Mike decided to speak up, try to help make things better. One day in February, he logged in to social media and wrote a short public post, in which he complained that Pericles School did not recognize Black History Month.

Immediately after publishing the post, Mike texted Robert to tell him what he’d written. Mike knew the post would be seen by people in the school community, and that was the point: he wanted to force a conversation.

He and Robert met to discuss not only Black History Month, but the broader need for Pericles School to recognize and celebrate diversity. Robert was not supportive. Unbeknownst to Mike, Robert had recently gotten into an argument about this exact issue with his sister, who also worked at Pericles School. She told him that if he wanted Pericles School to become more diverse, to enroll more black students and people of color, he would have to make some kind of proactive effort. Maybe give students Martin Luther King Jr Day off, instead of scheduling mandatory service projects for that day. Or maybe recognize Black History Month, or perhaps make room for more diverse authors in the English curriculum. It wasn’t enough to say “we offered, what else can we do?” Because there were, in fact, still things he could do. Robert had disagreed with his sister, and may have still felt sore about this when Mike reached out to him.

But Mike kept trying. He kept talking about diversity, and was told things like “our school doesn’t prioritize diversity. It doesn’t have to, because the Gospel covers everything.” They deemed their message not only universal, but all-encompassing. People at Pericles School simply didn’t think it was their responsibility to change anything in order to make people of color more comfortable in their community, and they reacted defensively to the suggestion.

One day, I entered the teacher’s lounge to find a few of my colleagues complaining about Mike’s social media post. They were astounded that Mike would speak badly about the school — his employer! — in such a public forum. It was unprofessional. One proclaimed, adamantly, that he should have brought his concerns to her first. “I would have told him that we don’t relegate it to one month. We study Black history all year, because we study all history.” Their concern was with how Mike was treating the institution, not with how the institution was treating Mike.

Mike’s final effort was to try and form a “Pericles School Diversity Council,” but the headmaster didn’t allow it. Eventually, Mike realized he could not return for a second year.

After he had gone, I heard several teachers express more of their frustrations. “He always insisted on being seen as a Black man,” one said. “I didn’t see him that way before, just as a person.” His insistence on being known as a Black man, it seemed, troubled their interactions with him. They did not know how to treat a Black man as part of their community, without pretending that he wasn’t Black. 

The summer before my final year at Pericles School, the school hosted a conference, a week-long event diving deep into Classical Education. Most sessions were run by Pericles School faculty and staff (I gave a talk on the role of science fiction in a classical education, and many of my colleagues gave positive feedback — though one colleague made a point of attending and informing me that she “did not approve” of science fiction). The school also invited an outside speaker to give a keynote each day of the conference, and this year they had booked a man named Jack Lion.

Lion was an entertaining speaker. He was a large man with head shaven bald and a dark grey, lumberjack-sized beard. He wore a tweed jacket (with patches on the elbows) and a yellow bow tie. Lion had written a book on C.S. Lewis, and was speaking on the philosophy of Lewis’ writing. Jack Lion believed that modern philosophy had strayed far from the truth, and by studying Lewis’ writing, we could bring our minds and thoughts closer to the way they were meant to be. We could restore what he called “wisdom and virtue” to society.

During one lecture, he was expounding on Lewis’ moral argument from Mere Christianity, in which Lewis seeks to prove the existence of some kind of god using the Law of Nature, the sense of right and wrong that people knew “by nature and did not need to be taught.” Lewis believed that, while you might find an “odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune,” by and large all people across all cultures agree on the basic tenets of morality. If they did not, then we would have no ability to accuse any action of being in the wrong. The world would be taken over by moral relativism.

This innate sense of right and wrong, Lewis argues, cannot be explained by evolution, sociology, or any other human science. Someone, or something, must have given it to us, and that something must be a god. Prior to the introduction of postmodernism, Lion told us, this Law of Nature argument was commonly accepted. As Christians our job was to return to the old ways. As Christian educators, our job was to spare our students from postmodern thought and prepare them to fight for the truth.

I hadn’t read Mere Christianity since I was in high school myself. This day, my brain began pushing back, asking questions. If morality is indeed an inherent aspect of reality, then why shouldn’t it be explained by disciplines of study? And what about cultures that differ from mine in various aspects of their morality? Am I simply to say that they are wrong, while I am right?

Like any good public speaker, Lion anticipated my objections. He said “now, you may be thinking — but isn’t morality just a product of someone’s culture?” He paused, smiled, and answered himself. “Well, you’re only thinking that because that’s what the anthropologists say.

I was stopped in my tracks, not at his logic but his audacity. This was a conference for teachers, at an institution that prided itself on valuing rigorous study and open-minded inquiry into truth. Perhaps, when looking for an opinion on human cultures, we ought to listen to those who make it their business to study human cultures. Anthropology, like all academic disciplines, is not without its faults, but this was not a good-faith attempt to wrestle with that. Rather, Lion was dismissing the field outright, because its insights contradicted his personal theology.

Later in the speech, Lion similarly dismissed the work of clinical and research psychologists.

One evening that week, Robert decided to send myself and three other teachers to wine and dine Lion. We took him, on the school’s dime, to a southern comfort food style restaurant. We spoke about his talks, what we do at Pericles School, and his experience in the Classical Education world. Then the conversation turned, in hushed tones, to the dire state of American public schools.

“They’ve removed virtue from education,” Lion said, “and they’ve quietly replaced it with two values: tolerance and diversity.” These last words, tolerance and diversity, he said with a quiet derision, the way you might talk about a revolting ingredient that keeps finding its way into your food.

But hope was not lost, Lion told us. People from the Classical Education movement, with experience teaching in private institutions like Pericles School, were beginning to open publicly-funded charter schools. These schools were built on the classical education philosophy and curriculum and staffed primarily by evangelicals, but with the overtly-religious aspects carefully excised. One of these schools was already operating in a nearby city. “Shrewd as snakes, innocent as doves,” he said, alluding to the Gospel of Matthew.

My friends nodded along thoughtfully. I sunk uncomfortably into my chair. While I enjoyed teaching my students at Pericles School, I harbored no ill-will towards public education; in fact, I appreciated it, and thought that replacing it with Pericles-light schools sounded not only unhelpful, but illiberal. And so I attempted to mount a defense. I insisted that public schools are not virtue-less places, and that tolerance and diversity are, in fact, worthy virtues.

Lion seemed confused — perhaps he hadn’t expected a classical educator and de-facto representative of Pericles School to defend the tolerance of public education. One of my friends leaned over to Lion, said “Thomas is our resident public school apologist,” and the conversation moved on to a new topic.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood that the rift which grew between 2012 and 2016 was not a new fracturing of the classical education body, or even the white Evangelical body, but rather a shedding of skin, a molting by which the old veneer fell away and the thing became seen for what it always was.

In the mid-1990s, more than 15 years before I began work at Pericles School, three separate nonprofit organizations were created to help grow the Classical Christian Education movement from its start, as several disconnected schools across different states, to a nationwide movement with at least 500 schools. First, there’s the Society for Classical Learning (SCL), which focuses on a quarterly publication and yearly conference. Second, there’s the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS) which ties Classical schools together in a database and provides professional development. Finally, there’s the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education, or CiRCE Institute, which seeks to promote the growth of the Classical Education movement. Each organization has been important to the movement’s growth, and the leadership frequently work together.

The CiRCE Institute was founded by Andrew Kern, and while launching the organization, Kern wrote a book titled Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America, in which he lays out the philosophical rationale behind the nascent classical Christian education movement.

For Kern, the goal was about ideology, not pedagogy. Classical education was meant to restore what he saw as the true liberal arts and rescue an academia that had become “the citadels of relativism and political correctness.” These two principles were eroding society, and the only cure was to return education to a focus on classic works of literature and art, with a comprehensive study of traditional “western” history.

In short, Classical Education contained every one of Jack Lion’s talking points and Pericles School’s teacher-lounge whispers. Every villain — from racial justice to gender inclusion — finds its way into the pages, but chief among them is “moral relativism.”

Kern describes this perspective as “Truth is relative. What is true for you may not be true for me. Morality is also relative.” The danger, Kern believes, is that moral relativism could render common knowledge and morality obsolete, leaving society to wander without purpose. Postmodernism would replace “objective standards grounded in a transcendent religious law or rational concept of the common good” with “private choices and subjective values.” Schools would be directly harmed, because relativism

undermines the very possibility of learning. If there is no content that is objectively true, what will there be to teach? If there are no intellectual standards, how can children be graded? If there are no moral absolutes, how can children be disciplined and educated to be responsible citizens?

The very foundation of society would wither away beneath our feet, and chaos would reign. This is what Kern feared and fought against. In Kern’s estimation, he was on the vanguard, defending his fellow man against an existential threat. Jack Lion followed in this philosophy, as did my colleagues at Pericles School.

These concerns do not make Kern, Lion, or any other classical educator unique; rather, they are typical in evangelical apologetics, a discipline that attempts to use logic and reason to prove the existence of the Christian god. The apologists, these Arguers, often use moral relativism — or rather, a simplistic understanding of moral relativism — to make their case. Typically, they will define relativism in a similar fashion to Kern (“what is true for you may not be true for me”), extend it as an absolute, then present a wild counter-example (such as “if my morality allows for me to steal from you, and you believe in moral relativism, then you must accept my thievery”), and call it a checkmate.

There are several obvious objections to the Arguers: that people can and will object if an action clashes with their sense of right and wrong, that no one holds a morality which allows rampant thievery, that a wide spectrum of gradations exists between “there are no moral absolutes” and “there are no moral commonalities,” and of course, that this isn’t what moral relativity, as a philosophical concept, is actually about.

Moral relativity does not suggest that the difference between right and wrong is unknowable, but that it is situational. Despite the claims of Lewis, Kern, and the like, the nature of good and moral behavior is not consistent across, or even within, nationalities and cultures. It is not even consistent for a single individual across different circumstances. It is easy for the Arguers to point to big issues like murder or cannibalism, but this amounts to shouting into the wind; these issues are not largely under debate.

The Arguers would say that moral relativism is simplistic. This is ironic, considering that they actually espouse a form of absolutism, a far more juvenile philosophy. Chrissy Stroop, an exvangelical (ie former evangelical) writer and creator of the #emptythepews movement, explains the evangelical fear of relativism like this:

When push comes to shove, however, conservative Christians will often admit that what they’re really concerned about in these matters boils down to a sort of consequentialist ethics. Espousing an extremely dark view of human nature, traditionalist Christians literally believe that without absolute Truth and values derived from God, humans will become incapable of moral behavior, leading to social decline and disorder…

The truth behind moral relativism is that no one person, group, or ideology has a monopoly on truth and morality, and this is a deeply offensive suggestion to the evangelical mind. The core motivating value behind western evangelical belief is that their way of living and thinking is the way, the truth, and the light, not just for them but for everyone. The problems of this world will fade away when, and only when, everyone comes around to their way of thinking. And why shouldn’t it be this way? Their way, it would seem, is the objective moral truth.

Kern writes that the journey towards truth does not begin with skepticism, but “with the sincere acceptance of dogma,” and this is a core motivating belief behind the classical education curriculum. Literature is read, or not, based on whether the characters model preferred behavior and values. Music and art is appreciated, or not, based on whether it reinforces a particular sense of order and structure. Scientific inquiry is studied, or not, insofar as it affirms a doctrine of Intelligent Design. This is the “Wisdom and Virtue” of Classical Education. The doctrine must come first, and all study exists merely to reinforce it.

The movement known today as Classical education began because evangelical truth was losing its grip on society, beset on all sides by modern philosophy and pluralism. Kern warns of Marxists, who believe “that cultural norms and social institutions are nothing more than masks for power, by which one group (e.g. white heterosexual males) oppresses others,” and colleges that teach students “to establish new social and political identities as members of victimized groups.” He explains that

Classical education studies local traditions from the standpoint of universal human values, and it appreciates the common values that people of all cultures share. But advocates of multiculturalism urge women and minority students to submerge their personal and moral identities into the presumed character of their race, gender or ethnicity. They never extend this invitation to the white, the male, or the American.

For Kern, efforts to respect diversity of racial and gender identities are merely a ploy to pull people away from the “common values.” Kern insists that all humanity shares these common values, the “Law of Nature” Lewis wrote of, yet he places the “common values” in direct conflict with racial and gender diversity. In doing so, he implies that the Laws of Nature, the true values that underly human experience, are those of white, male Christian America. At other times, Kern makes this explicit; in a chapter on the “Rise and Fall of the Liberal Arts College,” Kern questions whether courses in “Feminist Approaches to History” or “Gay Men and Homophobia in the Modern West” could really be “substantive in content.” What Kern really wants is to remain in control of societal values, and he founded the CiRCE institute to aid in this goal.

Perhaps it sounds like I’m blowing this out of proportion, reading too much into a slim book published nearly 25 years ago. But no, Andrew Kern’s Classical Education is in fact representative of the larger movement. In 2019, a classical teacher named Shawn Barnett acknowledged this while writing for The Federalist:

The elevator pitch for classical schools usually goes something like this: Modern public schools have become a hotbed for cultural Marxism and are indoctrinating students in leftist ideology. Meanwhile, schools reach for every technological fix and educational fad, to no avail, as U.S. students’ scores in reading and mathematics continue to lag behind those of other developed countries. But it wasn’t always this way.

It’s Kern’s book, condensed into three sentences. To Barnett’s credit, he acknowledges that this story is a “gross oversimplification,” and that Classical Education is largely influenced by Dorothy Sayers, who wrote in the mid 20th century and knew very little about Western society’s previous 2000 years of education history. By pointing out these discrepancies, though, Barnett gives away the game clearer than Kern did. Barnett laments that the public high school he attended as a teen later “became a battleground for the transgender agenda,” and that if he must

Choose between sending my son to school where he will learn to write beautifully in cursive, receive a content-rich instruction in history and science, and read “Treasure Island” versus a school where he’d be given an iPad, sat in “pod” with other students pooling their ignorance, and read sections of “I Am Malala”? That’s a no-brainer.

Barnett doesn’t seem to understand progressive pedagogy or what happens in public schools, and his phrase “pooling their ignorance” betrays a horribly low view of children. Most tellingly, though, he doesn’t care whether or not the education is “classical” in any real historical sense. But he does take great care to ensure that his child does not read Malala Yousafzai’s memoir.

In some ways, there’s nothing interesting about reading Kern in 2020. Every argument he makes, every complaint about liberal universities or multiculturalism has been mainstreamed and repeated ad infinitum by modern conservative media. In other ways, though, reading Kern in 2020 is fascinating. He was both ahead of the conversation and far more brash than many writers today. Had Kern written Classical Education in the mid-2010s, he might have found a home with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and published in Quillette, the online publication known for its pseudo-intellectual, strong anti identity politics and anti politically-correct ideology. Writing in the mid-90s, though, Kern did not have to play the game of the Quillette writers, couching their views in language that might appeal to the educated center-left. He was able to be far more direct, far bolder.

In his boldness, Kern makes one thing clear: he came prepared to fight. Kern does not see this as a scholarly debate over pedagogy (at the time of writing, Kern was not yet working in education at all), but a “fight for the free life of the mind.” The goal is to instill in students a particular viewpoint, a set of values. He writes of Christians opening private schools, “aroused by the aggressive and hostile secularism of public education.” Kern likens classical Christian educators to the Greek Athenian warriors in the battle of Marathon, protecting their homeland from invasion by Persian soldiers from the East. Proud warriors, representing the birth of Western democracy, art, and literature, protecting their society from the approaching East. It is a telling analogy.

If a rift began to show itself in 2014, by 2016 it was unmistakable. Most of my colleagues long held out hope that Ted Cruz, the evangelical Christian and Tea-Party senator representing Texas, would prevail against Donald Trump and become the Republican candidate for president. The most ardent conservatives in the teacher’s lounge thought that Trump was a fool, and they seemed distraught when he clinched the nomination.

Yet, there were signs of Trump’s eventual support in the evangelical community. One day, while chatting with my students at the beginning of class, the topic of the election came up. I’ve always liked talking current events with my classes, and after four years of teaching Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird, I was confident enough to not worry so much about saying the wrong thing. Most of my students thought Trump was a joke — at this point, most pundits did too — but one boy, in the back of the room, raised his hand. I called on him and he said “but what about the Supreme Court?” Looking around the room, I saw a few too many heads nod.

By November, the winds had already shifted. The morning after the election, some students could be seen crying between classes, while others literally danced in the hallways. Over the next few years, support for Trump seemed to solidify, with MAGA hats and shirts seen across campus on dress-down days.

Of course, the seeds of evangelical support for Trump had been sown long before 2016. Trump, with his gleeful disregard of politically correct speech and his unabashed appeal to turn back the clock, was in many ways the ideal strongman to fight on behalf of Andrew Kern and Jack Lion.

Classical Education is a cultural movement, not a pedagogical one. The job application I filled out in 2012 asked very little about pedagogy, classroom management, or any other issue related to teaching. It did, however, ask about what books I’d read recently, what TV shows I followed, my travel experience, as well as my personal convictions towards alcohol, marijuana, abortion, sex, homosexuality, debt, and dancing.

This survey may seem unrelated to the professional qualifications of a teacher, but it makes sense when you acknowledge that classical education does not exist primarily for any pedagogical purpose. It is a vehicle through which to fight a culture war. Try as I might, this was not a system I could ever have changed from within. All that was left was for me to learn, slowly and then quickly, that I did not belong there. 

It was not a system that Mike Yates could change either. A couple years after his one year at Pericles School had ended, Mike took a job teaching in another Evangelical Christian school (this school had no official affiliation with the Classical Education movement, but shared much of the same philosophy). Here, things were worse. During Mike’s fifth period class, one of his students — a young Black man, one of the few at the school — decided to refrain from standing and reciting the pledge of allegiance, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. Mike didn’t think the protest would be a problem — it was, after all, the student’s constitutional right.

But parents in the community did have a problem with it. They came to school to complain. Some students took on their parent’s anger, and this eventually escalated into a physical conflict between the student and his peers. The school’s administration swept this under the rug, and Mike left that job, too, again after only one year.

Mike later found work that better suited and appreciated him, in a private school based on progressive pedagogies that originated with John Dewey. Here, instead of teaching kids to revere the adults in their lives, students took charge of their own education. They set their own goals, created projects that fascinated them, and used technology at every step of the way. Instead of working in a school that sought to hold back the tide of progress, Mike began to rethink education altogether.

I didn’t read Classical Education until a few years after my time at Pericles School had ended. The book wasn’t on the required reading list for staff or families — instead, they assigned An Introduction to Classical Education, a Guide for Parents by Christopher Perrin, a book that, at 45 pages, was less than half the length of Kern’s. Perrin, writing in 2005, nine years after Kern, is sneakier. He doesn’t openly lament diversity and inclusion, but instead writes as his starting point that “customs, mores, and standards are changing” and asks “how do we nurture [our children] in the midst of all the confusion, doubt and conflict of this modern world?” His solution is to recognize that education “is cultural transmission.” Before the midway point, he makes passing references to moral relativism and how “Christians and their viewpoints are not generally appreciated” in modern society and education. Perrin and Kern swim in the same intellectual waters, and their work frequently coincides with each other.

Discovering the roots of Classical Education helped me see my time in Pericles School with fresh eyes. At Pericles School, the ideology that opposed diversity of thought and values, that sought to bring all minds into accordance with its own, was hidden, coded beneath an “apolitical” surface and generic idealism.

Kern showed me that a reference to the “Great Books” is not simply reading high-quality works of literature, in which case Chinua Achebe would absolutely fit, but rather a reference to a list of 1,000 books compiled in The Death of Christian Culture by a humanities professor named John Senior. With this understanding, it’s obvious that Things Fall Apart, a book that depicts Christian colonialism destroying a vibrant African culture, would have difficulty finding a home. Kern showed me that phrases like “wisdom and virtue” and “truth, goodness, and beauty” were not simply nice-sounding ideals to strive for, but rather referred exclusively to the knowledge and values that support white Christian dominance and deny diversity of experience.The purpose of Classical Education is to pass on these values.

Another way to phrase this is that Classical Education, in its philosophy and curriculum, reinforces white supremacy. It has, over its three decades, layered many arguments on top of this goal, reaching into philosophy, history, literary analysis, and cognitive science. But those are justifications, arguments to make the movement acceptable in polite society. Beneath all that lies a naked desire to protect white cultural dominance.

Classical Education is one front in a culture war, at times fought covertly, but more recently out in the open. And it is growing: official counts range from 300 to 500 private schools, though the actual number is likely higher, as well as many individual homeschoolers and homeschooling co-ops (Christopher Perrin has estimated that the number of Classical homeschoolers may be double that of private school enrollment, though the exact number may be impossible to know). Expand the count to include Evangelical schools without the Classical label, like the one Mike Yates worked for after Pericles School, and the number goes far higher.

This particular front in the culture war found a strong advocate in the Trump administration, particularly Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos’ mission, spanning decades as a political operative before her role in the federal government, has been to redirect public funds to private schools, including many religious schools. As the head of the Department of Education, she is in a prime role to do that.

In March 2019, DeVos attempted to cut funding for public school special Olympics while pursuing $5 billion in tax credits to help kids attend private schools and announced she would “no longer enforce” a rule that prevents religious institutions from providing private schools certain services, such as professional development and some in-school interventions, which in many cases can receive federal funding.

In early 2020, as the COVID-19 epidemic closed school campuses across the country, DeVos put out guidelines regarding financial relief the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which directed school districts to redirect the money to support every private school student living within the district’s attendance area. This was guidance, not a directive, and many legislators thought it was in violation of Title I. But the guidance is greatly influential nonetheless. When asked in a radio interview if her goal was to use the coronavirus crisis to redirect public money to religious private schools, DeVos replied “yes, absolutely.”

On June 30th, 2020, the DeVos agenda found support from the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for Espinoza v. Montana (with Trump appointees Gorsuch and Kavanaugh in support) stating that a state program in Montana, which offered tax subsidies to private schools, had to include religious schools or it would violate the first amendment by discriminating on the basis of religion. This case had, to quote an NPR report, “potentially profound implications . . . A decision like that would work a sea change in constitutional law, significantly removing the longstanding high wall of separation between church and state.”

In a press release, the day the decision was announced, DeVos wrote (emphasis added):

Each and every student needs the freedom to find their education fit, and today the Highest Court in the Land has protected that right by ensuring that families can use taxpayer funds to choose schools that match their values and educational goals, including faith-based schools. I applaud the Court’s decision to assign a manifestation of the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ to the dustbin of history where it belongs. Montana and other states should be very clear about this historic decision: your bigoted Blaine Amendments and other restrictions like them are unconstitutional, dead, and buried. Too many students have been discriminated against based on their faith and have been forced to stay in schools that don’t match their values.

In other words DeVos wanted this case to set the foundation for even greater redirection of public funds to private religious institutions like Pericles School.

One day, three years after leaving Pericles School, I was mindlessly scrolling through social media, when I stopped on a post from a friend, who I had attended church with during my Pericles School days. The image showed her son, on his first day of high school, wearing a green polo shirt emblazoned with a crest nearly identical to Pericles School. But it wasn’t Pericles School at all — it was one of several new charter schools in town.

The similarities extended far beyond the school uniform. The school staffed several of my former Pericles School colleagues in leadership roles. Its website featured a C.S. Lewis quote (though no other explicit religious reference could be found). They advertised a curricular focus on “the great books” (ie canonical white texts) and used code words like “wisdom and virtue” and “truth, goodness, and beauty.” These phrases are not innocuous or vague ideals, and they should not be read that way. 

I was stunned. I had found one of the classical charter schools that Jack Lion had put his hopes in. It was operating in my town, only a fifteen minute drive from my door. In the years since I’d had dinner with Jack Lion, I’d rarely thought about the covert operation he spoke of. When I did, I half-way doubted it was true. But here was the evidence, right in front of me. Shortly after, I drove by another new one — publicly funded — operating out of a church just down the street from my house.

It’s difficult to know how fully or intentionally Jack Lion’s hopes for these schools are realized. Though several multi-state networks of these schools exist, they are not bound together in the ways that Classical Christian schools are, and thus are difficult to track. Without the strength of a religious conviction, certain parts of the philosophy may not be carried over by the staff. It’s possible that they do not all look as similar to Pericles School as the two in my community.

On the other hand, there are signs that they have not fallen far from the tree. In February 2020, Betsy DeVos visited a publicly-funded Classical charter school in Texas, as part of her “education freedom” tour, giving the movement an implicit stamp of approval. Furthermore, it stands to reason that a classical curriculum, built on the Western canon and the intellectual work of people like Andrew Kern, cannot avoid perpetuating white supremacy. 

All education is about values, and the Classical educators know this better than most. About twenty-five years ago, they had the foresight to recognize that values they disapproved of — the tolerance and diversity that Jack Lion whispered about — were beginning to make their way from universities to public K-12 education. So they began building an alternative. Eventually, that alternative began to make its way back into the mainstream.

But there are things to watch out for, signs that you can look to and identify this way of thinking. In their publicity documents, the two publicly-funded classical charter schools in my community talk about things that most parents want from their children’s education: rigorous study, the development of intellect, an emphasis on building strong character. They use phrases like “wisdom and virtue,” “good, true, and beautiful,” and “great books.” That language, though, betrays the foundation they sit on, the same foundation that supports Pericles School, Jack Lion, and Andrew Kern. You can’t see it unless you know their language.

It’s clever. Shrewd, even.

Final Note: If you are an editor and interesting in republishing this essay, please contact me here.

One thought on “Wisdom & Virtue: Classical Christian Schools Against the World

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