Have the Liberal Arts Gone Conservative?

The first thing you notice when walking into the middle-school classrooms at Brilla, a charter-school network in the South Bronx, is the sense of calm. No phones are out. The students are quiet—not in the beaten-down way of those under authoritarian rule but in the way of those who seem genuinely interested in their work. Sixth graders participate in a multiday art project after studying great painters such as Matisse. Seventh graders prepare to debate whether parents should be punished for the crimes of their minor children. Another group of sixth graders, each holding a violin or a cello, read out notes from sheet music. A teacher cues them to play the lines pizzicato, and they pluck their strings in unison.

Brilla is part of the classical-education movement, a fast-growing effort to fundamentally reorient schooling in America. Classical schools offer a traditional liberal-arts education, often focussing on the Western canon and the study of citizenship. The classical approach, which prioritizes some ways of teaching that have been around for more than two thousand years, is radically different from that of public schools, where what kids learn—and how they learn it—varies wildly by district, school, and even classroom.

In many public schools, kids learn to read by guessing words using context clues, rather than by decoding the sounds of letters. In most classical schools, phonics reign, and students learn grammar by diagramming sentences. Some public schools have moved away from techniques like memorization, which education scholars knock as “rote learning” or “drill and kill”—the thing that’s killed being a child’s desire to learn. In contrast, classical schools prize memory work, asking students to internalize math formulas and recite poems. And then there’s literature: one New York City public-high-school reading list includes graphic novels, Michelle Obama’s memoir, and a coming-of-age book about identity featuring characters named Aristotle and Dante. In classical schools, high-school students read Aristotle and Dante.

Classical education has historically been promoted by religious institutions and expensive prep schools. (Many classical schools have adopted the Harkness method, pioneered by Phillips Exeter Academy, in which students and teachers collectively work through material via open discussion.) More recently, powerful investors have seen its potential for cultivating academic excellence in underserved populations: the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, has put millions of dollars into classical schools and networks.

Republican politicians have also smelled opportunity in the movement, billing its traditionalism as an antidote to public-school wokeism. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has railed against “a concerted effort to inject this gender ideology” into public-school classrooms, and has celebrated the influx of classical schools in his state. Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, proposed launching up to a hundred classical charter schools statewide, touting their mission to preserve American liberty. As more conservatives have flocked to classical education, progressive academics have issued warnings about the movement, characterizing it as a fundamentally Christian project that doesn’t include or reflect the many kids in America who aren’t white, or who have roots outside this country. The education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch recently wrote that classical charters “have become weapons of the Right as they seek to destroy democratically governed public schools while turning back the clock of education and social progress by a century.”

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, who co-founded Brilla, acknowledged that “classical education is often seen as a white child’s education.” This is partly because of the curriculum: “You’re talking about teaching the canon and mainly white, male authors,” she said. It’s also because these schools have been embraced by white Republicans who have the resources to keep their children out of the local school system. And yet Brilla is not rich, or white, or discernibly right-wing. Many students are English-language learners and immigrants, from Central America and West Africa. According to Brilla’s leaders, nearly ninety per cent of their students meet the federal requirements for free or reduced-price lunches. Saroki de Garcia purposefully opened the first Brilla school in the poorest neighborhood of the Bronx, which has a large population of Latino Catholics. (Brilla is secular, but it offers a free Catholic after-school program.) The students I met were nerdy and earnest, and far from young reactionaries. Angelina and Fatumata, two eighth graders, told me that they started a book club to read about racism in America; one recent pick was “Passing,” the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, set in the Harlem Renaissance. Brilla’s leaders intentionally take a wide view of the canon, and of which texts are valuable to study. “We try to make that connection for our students, who are mostly Black and Hispanic, with faces they can see themselves in,” Will Scott, the principal of one of Brilla’s middle schools, said.

Brilla’s administrators were careful to note that the network isn’t “classical” but, rather, “classically inspired.” This distinction is partly practical. Although teachers invoke Latin root words when they’re teaching kids English, for example, students don’t take Latin as a subject. But it also seemed like the school’s leaders wanted to put some distance between themselves and the broader classical-education movement. “If we say ‘classical school,’ that has a connotation,” Scott said. Still, it’s telling that the schools have found traction by marketing themselves as “classically inspired” in the South Bronx, where voters overwhelmingly prefer Democrats and the college-graduation rate is among the lowest in New York City. During the lead-up to Brilla’s launch, in 2013, volunteers posted up outside a local McDonald’s to pitch families on enrolling. “We billed it as, This is what the élite get,” Saroki de Garcia told me.

Everyone I met at Brilla seemed aware that their school is an implicit rejection of traditional public schools, but not in the way one might expect. Although America’s public-school wars are often depicted as fights over race and gender ideology, there are also a lot of parents who think their local schools just aren’t very good. Brilla’s two middle schools are in New York City’s School District 7, where, last year, less than a third of sixth graders were proficient in math or in reading and writing. Angelina, a recent immigrant from St. Croix, said that most of her friends “go to a public school, and they talk really poorly about their school.” Fatumata added that “they don’t have what we have,” such as Algebra I classes for middle schoolers. “The schools around us are, frankly, failing,” Scott, the principal, told me.

There are many charter schools that aim to address the problem of low achievement, often through an obsessive focus on test scores and discipline. Brilla cares about both of these things, but what sets it apart is its mission. Classical education is premised on the idea that there is objective truth, and that the purpose of school is to set kids on a path toward understanding it. This principle is often framed in philosophical shorthand—classical educators love talking about “truth, beauty, and goodness,” which can sound like a woo-woo catchphrase to the uninitiated—and it’s paired with an emphasis on morality and ethics. Brilla students attend a character-education class every morning, where they talk about how to live out the different virtues reflected in the texts they read. As Alexandra Apfel, an assistant superintendent for Brilla’s middle schools, said, “We’re building students that are not just going to be academic robots but moms and dads someday.”

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers, a motorcycle-riding Anglican crime writer, delivered a paper at Oxford titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in which she bemoaned the state of education. “Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves?” Young people do not know how to think, she argued, because they’ve never been taught. They may have been introduced to subjects, but not to what it means to learn.

In the face of this contemporary problem, Sayers proposed an ancient solution: the revival of a medieval teaching format called the trivium, which divided learning into three stages—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. The first stage is about mastering basic skills and facts; the second teaches students to argue and to think critically about those facts. By the third stage, they’re ready to express themselves in essays and oration. This model of education, cultivated by Renaissance thinkers and the Catholic Church alike, was common among European élites for centuries.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

Sayers’s essay built on a long-standing debate about whether this kind of education made sense in a rapidly changing, industrialized world. Classical-education advocates often point to John Dewey, the early-twentieth-century progressive reformer, as the bête noire who marginalized their preferred form of schooling: “There was a war going on between the progressive and the classical educators, and the progressives won in a rout,” Andrew Kern, the founder of the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education, told me. Although this story is perhaps overly simplistic, Johann Neem, a historian at Western Washington University, said, it’s true that Dewey and other progressives thought that the old ways of education were inadequate for modern students. These progressive reformers planted the seeds of two trends. The first was shifting the focus of school toward appealing to the interests of the child, rather than transmitting ancient knowledge and wisdom, which these reformers considered élitist. (“Academic and scholastic, instead of being titles of honor, are becoming terms of reproach,” Dewey wrote.) The second was a utilitarian impulse—some scholars thought that the purpose of education was to train workers. They did not believe that every student needed to read Plato.

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