Thomas White is an author and ghostwriter who specializes in writing about issues related to public policy and education. Thomas has a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature and a Master's Degree in Public Affairs, both from the University of Texas at Austin, and ten years experience teaching writing to teenagers. When he isn't writing, Thomas is spending time with his wife, his son, and his two Australian Shepherd dogs. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
The critics aren’t wrong. Many students and families are frustrated by the new normal. As a teacher, I was frustrated too — my teaching wasn’t as sharp, my students less engaged. Test scores, undoubtedly, will back up these criticisms.
And yet, I don’t think the remote nature of this experiment is to blame. That is to say, returning to campus won’t fix everything. The standard pedagogy of today — teacher introduces new topic, student does work based on that topic, I-do-we-do-you-do — clearly isn’t working through Zoom, because without the physical presence of a teacher, I-do-we-do-you-do falls apart.
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.
In July of 2015, I was in Atlanta, Georgia for a conference hosted by the Society for Classical Learning (SCL), a professional organization that supports classical Christian schools and educators across the United States. The Society for Classical Learning is one of three major organizations that launched in the 1990s, right around the time when Classical education was taking off. I was attending to further my professional development as a teacher at Pericles School, a classical evangelical private school in central Texas where I had worked for three years.
Quintilian believed that oratory — the act of public speaking — was a moral necessity for a democratic community. Society could not function properly unless good, morally upright people were trained in the art of rhetoric, equipped and ready to advocate in the public arena for what is right. These philosopher-speakers would combine their wisdom with the art of persuasion and lead the way to good policy.
At Pericles School, we aimed to teach our students to be the “Good Man Speaking Well,” and we tried to model it in our classroom practices, from kindergarten all the way up to the senior thesis project. School leaders, from the various principals up to the headmaster, invoked the phrase at community-wide assemblies and staff professional development sessions. In one assembly, an administrator explained the difference between the good man speaking well and simply the man speaking well. The latter was unkind, argumentative, constantly believed he was right and that everyone else must submit to him.
The Good Man Speaking Well was not just about persuading others to support one political policy over another; it was a way of being. If you had the proper tools, if you could reason clearly and express yourself, you could determine with certainty what is right, and orient your life around it.
We were attending the SCL conference in part to continue our development into Good Men Speaking Well. The conference took place in a hotel with breakfast buffets and bad coffee. Some of the sessions fascinated me, some confused me, and some frustrated me.
One of the good sessions was “Making Math Memorable,” about how to teach abstract concepts like fractions. The speaker talked about cognitive science and memory studies, and even years later, it was a memorable talk. Another was “Teacher Formation,” where the facilitator talked about neurological responses to fear and how teachers can manage emotions (the students’ and their own) in the classroom. That speaker was a part of a Charlotte Mason school, a philosophy that frequently overlapped with, but ultimately diverged from, Classical Education.
One confusing session was titled “Rejecting the Magician,” and unfortunately the talk itself was far less memorable than its title. I sat in a small conference room with folding chairs set up in amphitheater formation, listening to an old man talk his way through a PowerPoint presentation. Upon leaving this session, I had difficulty deciphering what exactly any of it meant; my notes offered little help, instead waving oblique phrases like “the same impulse brought science and magic during the Renaissance” and “conform our souls to reality, or conform our reality to ourselves?” The speaker drew heavily from C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Abolition of Man,” a favorite in Classical Education circles.
My frustration, though, came from the week’s keynote speaker. Once per day, everyone would gather into a large auditorium and, under the fluorescent lights, spend two hours listening to Stephen C. Meyer, the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. Meyer was at the SCL conference to speak on “irreducible complexity,” his biological argument against the scientific validity of evolution.
In laying the groundwork for his theory, Meyer told a story of the history of scientific thought. In his telling, thinkers during the scientific revolution recognized that nature could be understood by the human mind, precisely because both nature and the human mind pointed back to a creator. He quoted Kepler, as describing the purpose of science to “think God’s thoughts after him.” Modern scientists, Meyer informed us, had strayed from Kepler; they had no intention of thinking God’s thoughts. So how did we get from then to now?
His culprit was a French scientist named Pierre Laplace. In 1796, Laplace theorized that the Earth, as well as its planetary neighbors, were formed from gaseous refuse thrown off by the “protosolar nebula,” an atmospheric extension of our sun. The material ejected from the nebula eventually condensed in gravitational centers and became the planet we live on today. While the modern scientific theory differs from Laplace’s protosolar nebula, its essence has remained. Laplace’s theory had a lasting effect on our understanding of where our home came from.
It also, according to Meyer, separated science from God, who was not necessary for the Nebula hypothesis to work. After Laplace, science began to put forth more and more rational explanations for what they observed. No field — not astronomy, biology, chemistry — needed a Creator. Science was taken over by the philosophical viewpoint known as materialism: eternity led to particles, which became complex living things, which became aware, which then, and only then, conceived of God.
Before Laplace, there was a divine order to creation, a way that things ought to be, and scientists understood their job as trying to understand it. But Laplace opened the door to randomness, an understanding of the world that left no room for designed order.
But all hope was not lost, Meyer told us. In the late 20th century, science finally began to challenge materialism. Telescopes, looking at nebulae far, far away, told us that galaxies are moving away from one another. The universe, it turns out, is a balloon, expanding rapidly as time marches forwards. If you could move time backwards, then you would see the universe contract, ever closer and tighter together. When the balloon finally converges to a single point, you have reached the beginning of time. All the matter in the universe, when concentrated in an infinitely small space, would hold an enormous, explosive energy. Scientists refer to this moment as “the big bang.”
In Meyer’s view, materialism could not go any further back than the big bang. Materialism is, in a sense, about observing the material of the universe; since this material began with the big bang, materialism has nothing to say about what came before. It can’t tell us what caused the beginning.
I had heard this story before. My first day of work at Pericles School, my boss Robert and I went out to lunch. He wanted to get to know me better and welcome me into the community, and I took the opportunity to ask how the school approached evolution.
It was an important question for me. Throughout my youth, I had sat through more Creationism talks, first from Sunday school teachers and then youth pastors, than I ever had lessons on evolution from public school science teachers. My view, then, was distorted for a long time; in 10th grade English, I read Inherit the Wind, the 1955 play that fictionalized the Scopes Monkey Trials, and became indignant at how the Christian characters were treated. By college, I had begun to question this, and by the time I began work at Pericles School, I had broken with my evangelical tradition by reconciling faith with an acceptance of evolutionary science.
To those who grew up outside Evangelicalism, this may seem insignificant; to me, it was a dramatic step in forming my own beliefs, and I did not want to move backwards. If I was to find a long-term home in a Christian school, it would have to be one that didn’t sacrifice scientific understanding. But I wasn’t sure what my new boss, who had begun his career as a science teacher, would think of this.
“We teach it,” Robert had said. “Look, my students come in and they say ‘the big bang is bad,’ and I say ‘No! The big bang is good. I just know who caused the bang.’”
Listening to Meyer, though, I began to doubt that “we teach it” had been an entirely honest answer. Meyer explained his beliefs with two concepts: the “cosmological argument” and “anthropic fine tuning.” The first is a simple syllogism:
Everything that begins to exist must have a cause.
The universe began to exist.
Therefore, the universe must have a cause.
The second concept, “anthropic fine tuning,” observes that our world seems to be fine tuned to make room for human life. If a single aspect was set off balance — in the makeup of the air we breathe, in the distance between the Earth and the sun — life as we know it would be impossible.
This kind of theorizing was familiar to me, though I’d never before heard it in such thought-out, academic language. It’s a common approach taken by Christian apologetics, a discipline that attempts to argue the existence of god via logic. Apologetics holds a lofty place in evangelical thought, and at Pericles School, it was frequently centered in the Bible class curriculum. Amongst other points, these Arguers claim that the precise tuning of Earth points to someone, a god perhaps, who must have tuned the instrument.
It’s a flimsy argument, and even at my most evangelical I recognized that. My notes from that talk included an aside (“kind of circular though, right?”) to remind myself that this reasoning goes both ways; one could just as easily say that evolution tuned humanity to the Earth, not the other way around.
Much of Meyer’s talk was based in reality. Laplace really did put forth the nebula hypothesis, and around this time the gulf between the spheres of science and religion did increase. Anthropic fine tuning is not far off from basic principles of ecology, that species evolve to match the ecosystem that produced them. However, though Meyers uses scientific language, he does not use scientific thinking.
In scientific thought, conclusions follow from observations and experimentation. This is why scientific conclusions — beliefs about the world we live in — have shifted dramatically over the past two millennia. Humanity has accumulated more observations, and more tools for observing, leading to new conclusions. These conclusions have been tested, again and again, every attempt made to find the holes in their theories. The Arguers, though, begin with ideology, and when they find the scientific conclusions disagreeable, they seek out different observations. Nowhere is this more clear than with evolution.
In 1990, a man named Bruce Chapman founded a small think tank in Seattle called Discovery Institute. Two decades earlier, Chapman had served on Seattle’s city council, working on important, if not dramatic, local issues such as “good government, strict law enforcement, conservative fiscal policy, and a forward-looking transit system.” In the years since, Chapman’s political career had taken him to a spot in the Reagan administration, where he was exposed to right-wing ideologues and, perhaps more importantly, power. He had “developed a taste for serious politics,” and needed an issue that could elevate his small-time think tank into a powerful, national institution.
Evolution was that issue, and Stephen Meyer was the person to lead the fight. Under the funding of Discovery Institute, Meyer created the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, dedicated to fighting for anti-evolution views’ place in the public sphere.
The Center’s strategy was laid out in “The Wedge,” a memo that would have remained internal, had a curious part-time mailroom employee not made himself a copy. It’s easy to see what piqued his curiosity — the cover illustration showed a portion of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel with a giant triangle (the wedge) superimposed over it. It looks oddly cultish, as if the document might belong to a secret society that works in the shadows. The text itself does not disappoint.
The introduction to what has become known as “The Wedge Document” tells a story that is ambitious and dramatic in its scope: a correct understanding of man’s place in the universe (and a respect for God’s) led to the great achievements of Western civilization, “including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences”; this correct understanding came under assault when “thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines”; materialism “denied the existence of objective moral standards”; these beliefs threaten us with “coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth”; and finally, that in response, “The Center seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.”
Without belief in a divine order, society would fall apart. Government would step in, try to fill the hole left in the absence of order, to disastrous results.
This narrative is familiar to anyone involved with Classical Education, but what comes next is new. The Wedge Document is not a philosophical treatise, but a direct, coordinated attack plan, with the specific goal of supplanting the scientific theory of evolution’s place in public thought with what they termed “intelligent design.” The Center hoped to drive a wedge into the scientific establishment, and from that wedge break a gulf into the culture at large.
The strategy was divided into three phases. First, the Center would sponsor scientific research and writing that favored intelligent design. Once they had developed a base of scientific writing to refer to, phase two would publicize the work, through op-eds, documentaries, talk show interviews, and outreach to political leaders. After the public had begun to accept intelligent design — not necessarily as the truth, but at least as one possible scientific explanation, on level with evolution — the Center would move into phase three: confrontation. They would pursue legal intervention to secure intelligent design’s place in public school curriculum. If all goes according to plan, the document suggests a potential endgame: “The attention, publicity, and influence of design theory should draw scientific materialists into open debate with design theorists, and we will be ready.”
The Wedge Document does not describe scientific inquiry, but rather a PR campaign, and a clever one at that. They were not pushing intelligent design on anybody, just supporting open debate. The message was: stay open minded, we don’t have all the facts. If they could succeed, it would be a nice turn of events; historically, it was the anti-evolutionists who had appeared closed-minded.
Seventy years after the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, a direct assault on the theory of evolution would certainly fail. The Scopes Trial had pit the inerrancy of the Bible against the insights of the scientific process. By the end of the 20th century, this question was old and settled. Those who willingly tossed aside science in service of young Earth creationism may have taught my childhood Sunday school classes, but they were a dying breed. The Arguers behind the Wedge Document knew that, to get their ideas accepted, their ideas would have to sound like science.
After finishing his history lesson that day in Atlanta, Meyer asked the audience a rhetorical question: “are there any legitimate criticisms to the theory of evolution?” The answer, to this auditorium of Classical Christian educators, was a resounding yes, but Meyer’s alternative had by 2015 evolved, if you will, from “intelligent design” to “irreducible complexity.” The theory works like this:
When a creature reproduces itself, it passes on DNA, an instruction manual for how to build the creature. This DNA is incredibly complex — specified complexity, in Meyer’s words, which basically means the code isn’t a meaningless collection of letters or digits. Every piece must work in tandem for the creature to work properly.
However, DNA does not always copy itself precisely; there are mutations, errors in the code, causing something different to be created. According to the accepted science of evolution, this is how new creatures emerge. Over millions of years, small mutations here and there, coupled with genetic recombination and natural selection, result in an enormous diversity of species. But Meyer says this is functionally impossible. Mutations are mistakes, so how could they provide anything useful? Meyer made a mathematical analogy, saying that errors in computer code are incapable of yielding workable software, because the whole thing was written to achieve one particular result. He ran a thought experiment on his PowerPoint presentation: a bike lock with four dials, ten digits each, would have 10,000 different possible combinations. One would unlock the bike, while the other 9,999 combinations would be useless gibberish. Relying on mutations to create a workable organism is like randomly spinning dials to unlock a bike.
In other words, the probability of random mutations creating, for example, an eyeball are functionally zero. A room full of monkeys clanging away at typewriters will not recreate the works of Shakespeare. Meyer even had numbers to prove this. He explained that, for every one DNA sequence that produces a “short, functional” 150 amino-acid protein, there are 10⁷⁷ other possible arrangements (or mutations) that do not produce a functional protein. Ten raised to the seventy-seventh power possibilities of gibberish for every one solution. The bike lock seemed elementary by comparison. To make matters worse, Meyer told us, throughout the history of life on Earth, there had been only 10⁴⁴ organisms. Fewer opportunities for mutations than it would take to produce a single useful one, by a magnitude of 10³³.
It was a powerful performance. Meyer’s PowerPoint slides included a simple four-dial bike lock, followed by a computer rendering of a bike lock whose dials extended out on and on and off screen. He was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and presented a logically consistent argument. The crowd cheered.
I was uncomfortable, anxious. My mind raced, and for a brief moment, I even reconsidered my earlier acceptance of evolution. Maybe he’s right, I thought. Who was I, an English teacher with no formal scientific training, to question him?
I left the talk, opened my phone, and Googled “irreducible complexity critique.” Scientific objections to Meyer did not take long to find. Ironically, irreducible complexity oversimplifies the evolutionary process. It assumes that one correct genetic code exists, while all others are wrong; that evolution must work progressively, advancing the organism towards a more perfect form; and finally, that any form with reduced complexity would be useless and thus erased by natural selection.
Each of these assumptions is wrong. Genetic code is not a bike lock, where one perfect combination works and all others fail; rather, the evolutionary process has many paths to choose from. The brains of birds are structured differently from those of primates — among other variances, birds have no neocortex — yet many bird species exhibit remarkable feats of intelligence, including language and spatial memory. Presumably, birds and humans developed similar traits independently. Cephalopods, too, have evolved incredible intelligence, including complex problem-solving skills, despite diverging from our evolutionary tree long before human intelligence developed. These divergent paths are even evident within members of the same species — in particular, ours. The human brain can compensate for damage and reconfigure other sections to do the job of the damaged portion. As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.”
Incidentally, this principle is also true in computer coding. There are many different paths to creating workable code, which is why one software company can patent their code, while a rival company creates a competing software with the same user functions. Anyone who has used a computer knows that software can continue to accomplish its core function with many, many potential errors in its code. It may be, in fact, that the only place this isn’t true is in cracking bike lock combinations. For an alternate path there, you would need a heavy pair of shears.
Meyer’s bike-lock critique supposes not only that there is just one single viable path for evolution, but that the modern form of an organism, in all its complexity, is the only “workable” version of the DNA code. Nothing else, even if off by one digit, would unlock the bike. This is absurd, when applied to living organisms, and even when applied to individual parts of them. A rudimentary eye that produces 10% of modern human’s vision would be far preferable, in a “survival of the fittest” scenario, to no vision at all. A hand with no thumbs or weaker dexterity would be preferable to no hands at all.
This is the deep value behind intelligent design; more so than the belief in a divine order, the Arguers believe in perfection. Humanity has been perfectly and wonderfully made, and randomness cannot create perfection. Anything less than perfect is, quite literally, the result of sin, a deviation from the way God intended things to be.
But the scientific theory of evolution is not about marching organisms towards a level of greater perfection — in fact, it rejects the very idea of perfection. Organisms adapt to better fit their environment, and this is a process that does not require value statements. Modern birds are the descendants of ancient dinosaurs because they were better fit to survive one particular extinction event, not because they are somehow more perfected creatures. Whales have five finger bones inside their flippers, not because that’s the perfect way to build a flipper, but because in one early stage of their evolution, they were land dwellers.
“I’ve read them,” Robert said. “Some people think they’ve found ways to reduce the complexity, but… they’re wrong.”
I later confirmed that Pericles School’s approach to how we teach evolution was essentially the same as Meyers’. One of our science teachers, during a presentation, described the concept of “nonoverlapping magisteria,” which states that science and religion ask questions along separate lines of inquiry, and are neither mutually exclusive nor overlapping. At first, hearing this description, I nodded my head in agreement. To my dismay, though, the science teacher continued with “now obviously, this isn’t the approach we take.”
A former student of Pericles School wrote me an email, in which he explained:
I remember the subject of evolution coming up occasionally, and specifically in Biology. This discussion included two revolving understandings about the age of the Earth. The young Earth vs old Earth question was presented as a choice. We were taught in my memory that some people believed each of these theories, which is true, but more or less it was left at that.
He’s right — it’s true that some people believe each of those, but of course that doesn’t mean both those beliefs are equally valid. The student went on to explain that there was a rift within the student body, between those who believed in young Earth creationism and those who did not. This rift found its way onto a public message board discussion, where several Pericles School students defended the school’s approach to evolution. They said that the school teaches evolution as a theory, albeit one with “serious flaws.” One student suggested that the school did not support “monkey to human” evolution.
Pericles School did “teach evolution,” they just taught that it was wrong.
To Robert and my other colleagues, my questions did not matter, and our conversation ended shortly. They were not interested in the debate.
“All I’m saying is, that’s a good book, but it’s not one of the Great Books.”
It was near the end of the conference, and I was sitting by the pool with Robert and several other colleagues, eating chips and salsa. We were laughing through a winding conversation about all things Classical, when Robert began to explain what exactly qualified a book as “great.” As it turned out, age was a key factor.
“So Animal Farm? The Lord of the Rings?” I asked, “these aren’t great?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Maybe they will be. They just haven’t been around long enough.”
“Chronological snobbery maybe?” one friend retorted, referring to a C.S. Lewis idea which states that things cannot be good or bad simply because they are old or new. “Chronological Snobbery” had made its way into the Pericles School logic curriculum, alongside informal fallacies such as slippery slope and ad hominem. Robert laughed at the response, as if it were a joke and not a real argument. I pressed further.
“You’re saying that nothing written more than 80 years ago can be considered great? That disqualifies every book on my syllabus. Are there any great films? Or TV shows?”
Robert patiently explained that I misunderstood. There was a difference between a good book and a great book. A great book was one that lasted through generations, that continued to speak something about the inherent nature of humanity across all place and time. Maybe there would be great films, but we didn’t know yet. I didn’t put it together that day, but in the classical education mindset, “Great Book” was not a subjective description to apply to books that speak to you; it was a set reading list.
I didn’t have time to continue the conversation. Across the table, the atmosphere changed abruptly, a chilling cold front blowing through the crowd. One by one, people looked at their phones, and their faces fell sullen.
News from Washington had broken: Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy had written the majority opinion in Obergefell v Hodges, declaring same-sex marriage legal throughout all fifty states.
Inwardly, I took this as good news. By this point in my faith journey, I had long supported gay marriage politically, though I had not yet recognized that it posed no theological contradiction to Christian orthodoxy. In my view, the role of the church was not to legislate that others obey our theology.
My view was not particularly progressive — I am today ashamed to admit that I still believed homosexuality went against the law of God, I just didn’t think the law of man had to follow that — but still I knew the ruling was good, that it would help people. I also knew I was in the minority that day, likely positioned to the left of anyone attending the conference. I may have been the only person in sight who took the news from Washington gladly. Not in the mood for arguments, I hoped the conversation would move on, and for a moment it seemed no one would speak. All were shell-shocked into quietness. Then one colleague offered comfort.
“But… did you read Justice Roberts’ dissent? It was masterful. He said that the court was redefining marriage, and that was unprecedented. The law can’t do that.”
My colleagues wanted solace, reassurance in the narrative arc of their nation, and they did not sufficiently find it in Justice Roberts’ dissent. Their sense of order, their authority to speak to the way things ought to be, was being shaken. I, too, needed reassurance, not in my community’s place in the nation, but in my place in this community.
I stepped away from the crowd, took out my phone, and called my girlfriend, Brooke. The mood on her end could not have been more different. Brooke is a social worker, at the time working for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, and her workplace was ecstatic. Many of her colleagues had been in long-term relationships with their partners, and for the first time could see those partnerships legally recognized. Brooke was on her way to get celebratory drinks with her roommates, one of whom, Maddie, would marry her wife two years later.
By the time of Maddie’s wedding to Rychelle, an Episcopal seminary student, my theology had evolved to match my affirming political views. This change did not, for me at least, come easily; if accepting the scientific validity of evolution was like hiking a theological mountain, accepting LBGTQ people was akin to scaling a vertical rock face. You could be the fringe Christian at church who believed in evolution, but this was rebellion, not only from my friends and colleagues, but every spiritual leader I had ever had. This was the kind of change that people left their churches over — sometimes willingly, and sometimes not — and I knew it. Admitting my prejudice and changing my beliefs would put my sense of community at risk.
One day, about a year before their wedding, Brooke and I were discussing the issue while cleaning the kitchen. She asked “what do you think about this?” and I demurred, retreating in my discomfort to an explication of the theological arguments on each side. It was the exact tactic I used whenever I could not condone the viewpoints expressed at Pericles School, yet would not risk rocking the boat.
While it’s doubtful this was ever an honorable strategy at Pericles School, it was downright foolish to use with my partner. Brooke was not interested in the musings of theologians old or new, and repeated her question, “but what do you think about it?” then waited silently for the answer while I scrubbed dishes. When I finally spoke, after far too long a silence, I made a very poor choice and said “you know, you don’t have to keep standing there.” Evidently, she agreed, because she left to another room.
This was, as of this writing, the angriest Brooke has ever gotten at me, and the only time she has ever left one of our conversations without a clear conclusion, at minimum a plan for how or when to continue talking.
Instead, I finally stopped ignoring the harm the church does when it denies people the right to be who they are. This harm would not go away if the church simply stopped trying to legislate its theology, because there are millions of people who put their spiritual worth in upholding the teachings of the evangelical Christian church. They do so for many reasons. Some grew up in it, and it’s all they know. For others, the church is the only place to find friendship, child care, or counseling services. Others, of course, find deep spiritual value in the rituals, history, and stories of Christianity.
Then there are those who have no choice: the students, whose parents enrolled them in Pericles School and others like it, realizing that their community is actively hostile to who they are.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” To many evangelicals, this means deny the richness and diversity of human experience and conform yourself to the image of modern-day American evangelical Jesus. Homosexuality is simply one more thing that must be denied, one more thing to lose in order to find salvation. It is an insidious thought; all you must do to find salvation is let go. To find friendship, child care, and counseling, to find ritual, history, and narratives, to find salvation, you must deny who you were made to be.
The church has done great harm to people in making them deny this part of themselves. Around the same time of Maddie and Rychelle’s engagement, I saw another friend take the opposite path, denying the self almost to the point of death. I decided I could no longer be a part of that harm.
In October 2016, the best-selling Christian author Jen Hatmaker announced a similar decision. In an interview, Hatmaker was asked if she supported gay marriage “politically speaking,” and her reply went one step further: “Not only are [gay and lesbian couples] our neighbors and friends, but they are brothers and sisters in Christ.” The interviewer delved further, asking whether Hatmaker would attend a same-sex wedding and how she would respond if one of her children came out as gay. In both cases she answered affirmatively. Finally, she was asked whether she thought an LGBT relationship could be holy, and she answered “I do.”
Within a week, the far-reaching Christian bookseller Lifeway stopped selling Hatmaker’s books. She lost speaking gigs at conferences. Across the evangelical corner of the internet, blogs and online magazines roared to life. They belittled Hatmaker, suggesting she is unable to reach her own conclusions, merely following a crowd, part of a movement “that cannot create culture but can only react to it and mimic it . . . There is simply no foundation in the movement for someone like Hatmaker to resist the cultural momentum.” Others attacked her intellect, stating that “the flimsiness of the hermeneutic cannot support the weight of tradition.” The Arguers unleashed themselves, but Hatmaker held her ground.
Others did not. Eugene Peterson, the pastor and author of the popular “Message” translation of the Bible, was asked in a July 2017 interview whether or not he would officiate a same-sex wedding. He gave a one-word answer: yes. Within a day, Lifeway had suggested it would stop carrying Peterson’s books, and Peterson recanted his position, releasing a statement with his official position affirming “a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.” Lifeway continued to sell Peterson’s books, and 14 months later, Peterson passed away at the age of 85. This back-and-forth on same-sex affirmation, raising then dashing the hopes of LGBTQ Christians, became one of his final public acts.
Evangelical culture demands fealty. Full submission to the leadership and teachings of the church, and you get access to the full benefits of that community. For some, this includes career advancement. For others, friendship and social support. For some, a high quality education for their children. Jen Hatmaker rejected the evangelical sense of order, and the establishment rejected her. The prominent evangelical website The Gospel Coalition used her writing as the basis for a story titled “Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories,” despite Hatmaker’s insistence that she had not de-converted; in fact, she and her husband were pastoring an evangelical church in Austin, TX.
For Brooke and I, solidifying an acceptance of homosexuality did mean leaving our church. No one told us to, but they didn’t have to. We were considering what it would look like to stay there, to build a future in that community. How could we possibly support our friends while giving our time and money to that institution? What if we had kids? What messages would they hear in Sunday School and youth group about our friends, most specifically Maddie and Rychelle? We’d heard the teachings, the way people spoke, the jokes they made. This was not a place we could stay.
For me the cost was, relatively speaking, mild. I walked away from my community, but remained on friendly terms with many people there. Jen Hatmaker lost opportunities, but kept writing and published her latest book in early 2020. The real cost comes to LGBTQ Christians, such as Junia Joplin, the trans woman who lost her job, as a Baptist pastor, after coming out. Or the teenage church volunteer, removed from leadership roles, rejected by her community, because she came out on Instagram as a lesbian. Countless stories like these of trauma and heartbreak, exist in blogs, podcasts, and books.
At dinner in Atlanta, the night of Obergefell v Hodges, I heard the headmaster relate a conversation he’d had with administrators from other schools. They were strategizing, trying to figure out what they would do when an openly gay person applies to work in their schools. The fear was palpable. If future court rulings built upon this precedent, places like Pericles School might find themselves facing discrimination lawsuits. They might lose their tax-exempt status. They might lose accreditation. They had not yet figured out a response.
In the following years, this question — how Pericles School might operate in a world that increasingly affirms LGBTQ people — gained more and more urgency. During Texas’ 2017 legislative session, a so-called “bathroom bill” was introduced that would have prevented transgender men and women from using public bathrooms that align with their gender identity. It was a blatant attempt to legislate discrimination against the trans community. The bill, which Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick had spent more than a year trying to make law, ultimately failed, despite going into a special legislative session. This was one more blow against Pericles School’s preferred vision for the world.
In January of 2018, the school administration revealed to the faculty a new document, the Statement of Belief and Practice, which outlined doctrinal beliefs held by the school and acceptable lifestyle standards for its members. The “beliefs” portion stated that there is only one way to salvation and one book of truth. The further details of these beliefs were narrow enough to exclude some of the more liberal strains of Christianity, but there was nothing shocking about them; these were standard evangelical theologies.
The statement of practice, though, was more overreaching. It stated that the words and actions of the faculty, staff, students, and parents in the community are “often not a private matter,” and therefore that community members must hold each other accountable to the standards. It asked members to “subordinate their individual prerogatives.” These standards included that community members refrain from — amongst other things — gossip, profanity, drunkenness, and sexual immorality. This last item was spelled out to include any sexual activity outside of “one man married to one woman.”
The document went on to prescribe opinions directly related to hot-button political issues, such as “all human life is sacred and begins at conception,” “God created each person immutably as either male or female,” and “God created marriage to be a covenant relationship between one man and one woman, with the husband born male and the wife born female.”
The document stated that if any community member found themselves living out of accord with the beliefs or standards, they must speak with a member of the faculty or administration to determine whether or not they could be reconciled to the school. Finally, the document said that, for the purposes of the school community’s belief and conduct, Pericles School’s board of trustees is the final interpretative authority on the Bible’s meaning and application.
The statement laid out, in clear and unambiguous terms, what Pericles School believed a perfectly-ordered world should look like, and who had the authority to determine this.
Anyone who did not sign the statement — staff, faculty, or parents — would not be invited back to school the next year. Over the next few months, tensions grew on campus. Parents began whispering amongst themselves, trying to determine who would stay and who would leave. Several teachers quit in direct response to the document.
The board received at least two written complaints about the statement, with the primary criticisms being that the board was trying to elevate Pericles School’s role from “school” to “church.” It was controlling, micromanaging their spiritual walks to the point of dictating what community members could and could not think. In the end, many families did pull their kids from Pericles School over this, but it’s difficult to know how many — by then, the school had an extensive waitlist and could replace anyone they lost. When the new school year began that fall, Pericles School moved onto its permanent campus in the Texas Hill Country.
Despite the much-publicized court rulings from the same term, which gave gay and transgender people employment protection under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, religious schools are free to discriminate.
None of this was inevitable, nor is it essential to Christianity — there are many churches, entire denominations even, that accept the science of evolution and affirm LGBTQ identities. Yet Classical educators, the evangelical Arguers, and others who align with them have spent untold amounts of time, money, and energy fighting these battles. Meyer jumps through one logical hoop after the next as he describes his bike lock, Pericles School drives away community members, all in service of what? For what are the Arguers arguing?
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University (a private Christian college in Michigan) writes about what she calls “white (Christian) patriarchy,” a particular power structure within evangelicalism. She explains, using direct references to a variety of well-known evangelical figures:
What does white (Christian) patriarchy look like? Well, for Paige Patterson it involves cowboy hats and an office filled with big-game hunting trophies. And, of course, a ruthless display of power. For Mark Driscoll it looked a bit more hip, in a 1990s sort of way, more crude perhaps, but the ruthless power was the same. For the likes of Doug Wilson or Doug Phillips, it’s always been a bit more quirky — more of a caricature, really. Then there’s the kinder, gentler version, at least on the surface — the James Dobson and John Piper varieties. But there, too, the power dynamics are largely the same. Power over women, children, church members, and the community. A chain of command, with (white Christian) men at the top.
To Du Mez, the Arguers, regardless of their differing exterior veneers, are fighting to hold on to power. They believe in a perfect order to the universe, granted by God, where humanity sits above all other life forms and (mostly white Christian) men sit at the top of humanity.
But this particular sense of order is under attack. Evolutionary biology suggests that randomness, not order, drives creation. The reality of LGBTQ people challenges the notion that gender (or, perhaps, someone else’s expectation of it) must determine your place in the order of things. And without this order, how would the (white Christian) men stay on top?
Around 2015, when the Obergefell v Hodges decision was announced, some of my colleagues had begun talking about something called “The Benedict Option,” a theory created by the conservative writer Rod Dreher. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Benedictine monks recused themselves in monasteries, where they could keep culture and society alive. According to Dreher, these monasteries “were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.” In the same way, Christians must recognize that society today is falling apart and seclude themselves within their own communities and institutions, so that when the collapse is complete, Christendom can rise again. Essentially, the Benedict Option is to give up on the culture war, keep truth alive on their own, and wait for everyone else to catch up.
The Benedict Option has come under criticism from various camps within Evangelicalism, but the most telling criticism is that Dreher is not saying anything new. To follow the Benedict Option is to be an evangelical, with their own communities, their own conferences, and their own schools. Here, they are free to argue the plausibility of intelligent design or the dangers of same sex marriage. They can build up the logic and the arguments within their walls. They can teach their children to be good men speaking well.
After the final session of the Society for Classical Learning conference had concluded, we took a van to the airport to go home. While waiting for our plane to board, several of us began discussing the theological debate of predestination versus free-will. I was explaining my view, that scripture clearly held support for both, so maybe we just accept some mystery and ambiguity in our lives.
Robert shook his head and responded. He held a seminary degree, and spoke from that authority.
“But we actually do know. If you study this, you’ll see that the Bible actually supports full predestination. It’s not ambiguous at all.”
There was an order to all things, even time itself, and this would not be questioned.
What does it mean, to Classical Education, to be a “Good Man, Speaking Well”? It means you’ve accepted their truth, and you fight for it with all you can muster.
To engage in real dialogue, the Arguers would have to go beyond internally-consistent arguments and immerse themselves in the mountains of evidence that back up evolutionary theory — the fossil records, rock strata, carbon dating, and countless other observations. They would have to reckon with the documented cases of homosexuality and androgyny in the animal kingdom, with the myriad cultures, past and present, where normal sexuality and gender expression look different from “one man married to one woman.” The observations that deny the evangelical framework far outnumber those that support it.
But again: the arguments do not matter. Stephen Meyer is no Copernicus, fighting for the scientific method, fighting for recognition of what he has seen. He is running a PR campaign.
The strategy laid out by the Wedge Document made great strides, but ultimately failed. In 2005, Intelligent Design got its own monkey trial in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. After years of putting out scientific articles and general public writings, the Center’s dreams were coming true; a school district in Dover, Pennsylvania had changed its biology curriculum to include an investigation of the problems with the theory of evolution, with intelligent design as one possible alternative. The ACLU sued. The Center had won significant cultural ground, goaded their enemies into open battle, and were fighting to win.
When it came to the law, though, they did not win. A grueling cross examination revealed the scientific inadequacies of intelligent design, and the judge wrote in his decision that intelligent design was “a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” Sounding like science did not make it science, and it had no place in the biology classroom. A private institution such as Pericles School may design its biology course around the weaknesses of the theory of evolution, but this would no longer work in public education.
The decisions in Kitzmiller v Dover and Obergefell v Hodges were losses for the Arguers, but those on the other side should not be so quick to rejoice. The Arguers do not concede defeat; rather, they expel from their ranks anyone who dissents, close their borders, and continue the arguments on their own. Any dissenters who escape the culling, who remain on the inside — LGBTQ students who have little to no say in their schooling experience, teachers who are in the midst of their own faith transformation — are left with no recourse but to silence themselves.
The proponents of creationism-slash-intelligent-design-slash-irreducible-complexity will continue to argue, because their objections are not based in science, but ideology. The opponents of LBGTQ rights, too, will continue to argue. They are fighting against materialism, moral relativism, and other enemies of their faith. Arguing from ideology prevents them from participating in good-faith discussions based in science, anthropology, or any intellectual corner other than their own theology. And so they retreat into their own institutions.
A Note on Sources:
My recounting of Stephen Meyer’s keynote address was constructed from several sources, most notably my own notes that I took while listening to the talk. However, I supplemented this information with several recorded talks Meyer has given, which covered the same information. You can view these sources here:
The backstory behind Stephen Meyer and the Discovery Institute came from this excellent article in Seattle Weekly, titled “Discovery’s Creation.” It contains many fascinating details which did not fit into my narrative.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I was sitting in the auditorium, waiting for our faculty meeting to begin, when a colleague approached me. I’d met and interacted with this teacher a few times, but we weren’t close.
“Do you have J — — — in your class?” the teacher asked.
I told the teacher that this student had just transferred into my class earlier that week. The teacher responded:
“I hate that kid. Just felt you should know.”
I was shocked, taken aback, at the blatant display of hate and disregard for professional standards. This was not a whisper, but loud and direct. It was not a nuanced heads-up to avoid getting into power struggles with the student, but a simple, unadulterated “I hate that kid.” The only response my shell-shocked brain could summon was a half-hearted “ok,” which I had to repeat two or three times as the teacher expounded on this hate, before the conversation finally concluded…