After decades of mediocre results and skyrocketing spending in American education—lately compounded by unscientific COVID school closures and politicized classrooms—parents, taxpayers, and policymakers have had enough. Across the country, states are reforming their outdated bureaucratic systems and giving schoolchildren more and better options than the failing status quo.
Seven states now have established universal education choice programs that fund students, not school districts and their cadre of self-serving special interest groups. More than one million children left U.S. public schools between 2020 and 2021, while private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling have seen unprecedented enrollment growth.
And why not? Private, charter, and homeschool students outperform their peers in public schools on standardized tests and are more likely to volunteer in their communities and share their parents’ values when they grow up.
That’s where classical learning—one of the fastest growing branches of America’s education revolution—comes in.
Classical education eschews pedagogical fads. It instead steeps students in the great works of literature, philosophy, history, and science—what the poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” Instead of Critical Race Theory and Marxist claptrap, children learn about Greece and Rome, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and the glory of the American founding.
Drawing inspiration from Greek and Roman academic traditions, classical education seeks to ground students in the good, the true, and the beautiful. Its highest aim is to form virtuous students grounded in the best of the Western canon. Classical schools instruct students through the sequence known as the “trivium,” guiding them through grammar, logic, and rhetoric. They first establish a knowledge base, then learn how to evaluate arguments, and finally how to articulately express their thoughts.
As such, classical education is interested in more than forming good students; its charge is forming students who are good.
More than two hundred new classically oriented schools have opened across the country in just the last two years. Classical learning is being adopted by charters, start-ups, and homeschooling parents. And classical education networks will only grow further as states embrace parental choice.
It should come as no surprise that, amid this conservative reform rebellion, the education establishment empire is striking back. The ideologues who run America’s leading academic institutions and interest groups will not surrender their privilege and power without a fight. Powerful teachers’ unions are fighting reforms across the country, even in red states like Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
More than 1,800 U.S. colleges have already gone “test optional,” dropping long-standing requirements for applicants to take the SAT or ACT exams. Even liberal pundits admit this move is just colleges “burning the evidence” of their long-standing discriminatory admissions practices.
Leftist elites are also leveraging their control of Advanced Placement tests—which allow high school students to earn college credit—to marginalize educational alternatives. A draft of the AP African American Studies course, for instance, was stuffed with CRT and anti-Americanism—exactly the kind of nonsense that parents pull their kids from public schools to avoid. The proposed curriculum would have (deliberately) put classically educated students at a disadvantage. Luckily, conservatives led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fought back, threatening to drop the course and forcing the College Board to revise it.
The Sunshine State recently gave classically educated students another huge win by putting the Classic Learning Test—classical education’s standardized test for high school juniors and seniors—on par with the SAT and ACT for district-wide assessment and eligibility for the state’s competitive Bright Futures Scholarship program. Additional rule changes are in motion to make sure students of truth, beauty, and goodness are at no disadvantage in the state. Further, Florida’s New College already announced it would accept the CLT for admissions—the first Florida public university to do so.
There is a reason Florida ranked first in The Heritage Foundation’s inaugural Education Freedom Report Card last year. Other states are well-positioned to follow Florida’s lead, including Alabama, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. But perhaps no state could accomplish as much as Virginia, which has long been home to a thriving homeschooling community and classical schools.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin was elected in 2021 on the issue of parental rights and education reform. His administration worked closely with classical educators to reform the state’s social studies guidelines. There is no reason, in this environment, for Richmond not to bring the CLT into parity with them in state admissions offices.
Classical education is not a fad: It’s been around for thousands of years. Students who graduate from classical programs succeed academically, professionally, and spiritually—that’s why classical programs from elementary to higher ed are growing. A standardized test measuring classically educated students’ aptitude already exists and is accepted at more than two hundred colleges and universities around the country.
Having founded a K–12 classical school and having led a classical college myself, I can attest to the superiority and timelessness of the classical method—and not just for the best students, but for every student.
“The best that has been thought and said” is precisely what conservatives should be conserving. Classical education is an indispensable mechanism for doing so, and conservative policymakers owe families the right to access it.
This piece originally appeared in First Things