Flat White

Schools must return to a classical education

7 April 2022

9:00 AM

7 April 2022

9:00 AM

Evidenced by this week’s international CiRCE conference on classical education involving a number of Australian and American speakers, the good news is there is a resurgence in schools teaching an enriching and challenging curriculum based on a liberal view of education drawing on the classical tradition.

An education that introduces students to what Matthew Arnold terms ‘the best that has been thought and said’ and that enables students to be culturally literate and morally grounded.

For far too long, debates about education have focused on falling literacy and numeracy standards, the level of funding, and whether non-government schools deserve government support, teacher quality, and the need to emphasise science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Equally, if not more important, is providing what the poet T.S. Eliot terms an education committed to the ‘preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom’. An education that is also morally and spiritually fulfilling.

Michael Oakeshott in The Tower of Babel argues education is inherently moral in character when he writes, ‘Every form of moral life (because it is affection and behaviour) depends on education.’

Such an education is also like a conversation where students are introduced to and participate in a dialogue stretching back in time.

Such an education ‘is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognise the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation’.

As argued by Saint John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University education, instead of being utilitarian, it involves a ‘process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study of science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture’. 

Newman also states a classical or liberal education is one where ‘truth of whatever kind is the proper object of the intellect; its cultivation then lies in fitting it to apprehend and contemplate truth’.

As argued by a group of Melbourne-based teachers responsible for establishing the Australian Classical Education Society, for too long the school curriculum has emphasised a practical, real-world approach where the focus is on preparing students for the workforce and teaching 21st century employment capabilities and skills.

Add the impact of politically correct ‘Woke’ ideology where students are indoctrinated with radical sexuality and gender theories, identity politics, victimhood, and the mantra of man-made global warming and it’s no wonder generations of students are leaving school pessimistic and cynical about Western civilisation and our way of life.

In opposition to a utilitarian, materialistic, and neo-Marxist-inspired approach, the Australian Classical Education Society argues ‘education must communicate to the spiritual, intellectual and moral dimensions of all human beings’. To flourish as resilient, well-educated, and knowledgeable citizens young people need to be educated in its truest, most enriching sense.

A newly established Catholic boys’ school in Sydney, Hartford College, is also dedicated to ‘educating the whole person and developing moral character’. In addition to STEM subjects the curriculum includes the ‘aesthetic through art, music, literature and drama’ and studies in ‘classics and the foundations of Western civilisation’.

Instead of denying the importance and ongoing significance of the past, a classical view of education draws heavily on Western civilisation and epochal events like the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and (before then) the philosophers and sophists of ancient Rome and Greece.

While contemporary approaches to education focus on the future, a classical approach stresses the importance of continuity as well as change and the realisation that human nature has not changed since the time Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates taught in Athens and philosophers and historians including Marcus Aurelius and Tacitus walked the streets of Rome.

Greek tragedies like Oedipus teach students that to be human is to be ruled by fate and the gods and hubris is self-destructive; the Bacchae, that hysteria and emotion often overrides rationality and reason; and Medea, that even mothers can be guilty of the most horrendous, evil crimes.

There’s no doubt the Western world is suffering an existential threat represented by totalitarian, dictatorial regimes like Putin’s Russia and China’s Xi Jinping while being undermined and attacked within by neo-Marxist inspired Woke, cultural-left ideologues.

Add the impact of the China virus and it’s understandable why so many young people are suffering anxiety, depression, and ennui and often turn to drugs, narcissistic sexting, and social media in an attempt to fill the void.

As such, it is even more critical that schools rediscover a classical view of education, one where students are intellectually enriched and morally grounded where they discover a sense of spiritual comfort and fulfillment. To do otherwise is child abuse.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior fellow at the ACU’s PM Glynn Institute and a speaker at this week’s (April 8 and 9) CiRCE classical renewal online international conference.

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