Classical Schools for America’s Enlightened Age


Classical Schools for America’s Enlightened Age

Apr 17, 2023 14 min read
Rachel Alexander Cambre

Visiting Fellow, B. Kenneth Simon Center & Education Policy

Rachel is a Visiting Fellow for Heritage’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and the Center for Education Policy.
Terry Vine/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

In France or England, if you want to improve or create a new school, to use one of Tocqueville’s examples, you petition the government to do so.

If you want to do so in the United States, you persuade enough of your fellow citizens to join you in doing so.

Of the many virtues of classical education, foremost among them is its defiance of ideological pressures to embrace simplistic historical narratives.

In his keynote address at the National Symposium for Classical Education in February, Daniel Scoggin, co-founder of the classical charter school network Great Hearts Academies, traced the decline of classical education in America back to liberal ideas of the Enlightenment, ideas that, in his telling, unleashed an individualism, industrialism, and relativism antithetical to any education oriented to truth, beauty, and goodness. Yet Scoggin delivered his talk at a conference that celebrated the remarkable growth classical education has enjoyed in America over the past decade, due in large part to the art of association that has long been closely intertwined with American individualism and to the extraordinary success of the school choice movement, which is rooted in liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. As certain postliberal thinkers on the right increasingly disparage those ideas, it’s worth taking note of the practical good they continue to make possible.

Blaming the Enlightenment

While Scoggin identified three significant turning points contributing to America’s loss of classical education, he highlighted the Enlightenment as the primary among them. Unlike classical thinkers like Aristotle, who conceived of education as forming students according to the highest virtue and wisdom, Scoggin explained, Enlightenment thinkers sought to avoid claims about what is best or highest, treating them as matters of private preference rather than of public deliberation. Hence, as public education developed in the US under the influence of Enlightenment ideas, schools increasingly approached students’ reason as a tool to be sharpened and wielded in pursuit of whatever the students themselves valued, rather than as a faculty of the soul integrally directed toward natural ends of wisdom and virtue. “In broad terms,” Scoggin summarized, the individual became the sovereign “moral authority” for his or herself following the Enlightenment, leaving little room for educators to offer any authority on moral matters.

Scoggin’s recounting has a certain appeal to it, demonstrating the chaos that ensues when a society loses sense of any natural order. Indeed, varying versions of his explanation of decline have grown in popularity among small but vocal groups of thinkers on the right who dub themselves “postliberal,” decrying Enlightenment liberalism as the culprit behind a bevy of social problems, from income inequality to failing schools. Yet these critiques of liberalism have shortcomings, as several serious scholars have pointed out, erring methodologicallyhistoricallyeconomically, and morally. In fact, Scoggin himself briefly suggested one such moral blind spot when he twice reminded his audience that “there is deep and objective good in the Enlightenment,” emphasizing by his repetition that this good is something its critics tend to forget, unjustly withholding gratitude. One example of this good, he highlighted, is the Enlightenment’s influence in America:

Our American democracy is a beautiful offshoot of the blending of classical and Enlightenment thought, and only with the convergence of Enlightenment thought and Christian practice, for instance, do we get the abolition movement, one of the most important moments in Western history, a beacon of hope for generations.

This convergence not only conceived of the abolitionist movement; it also prompted the spread and accessibility of basic education. Hence, John Adams contrasted in his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law the “state of total ignorance” in which the English feudal law held the common people to the Puritans’ “use [of] every measure and … every precaution in their power to propagate and perpetuate knowledge” in America. Influenced both by their religious convictions and confidence in the human capacity for enlightenment, they sought to spread education to “all ranks of people.” Adams captured well the blend of Enlightenment thought and Christian practice that Scoggin praised when he argued that “liberty must at all hazards be supported … [a]nd liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know.” As Alexis de Tocqueville famously put it almost 70 years later, “in America, it is religion that leads to enlightenment; it is the observance of divine laws that guides man to freedom.”

Perhaps the Enlightenment critic would counter that whatever beneficent effects it had on increasing opportunities for education have run their course. But in order to determine whether this is the case, we must investigate the causes of a phenomenon Scoggin noted in the opening of his talk—the rapid spread of classical education in America over the past few decades:

Thirty, forty years ago it can be argued that only a five-figure number of students, of kiddos in this country, were receiving a classical education. We are fast approaching that number to be a seven-figure enumeration of kids, of young men and women receiving classical education. And it’s within the realm of possibility that in the next generation or two, classical education may again be the standard of what constitutes an American education.

Classical education is experiencing a revival in America, of all places, what Tocqueville called “the one country in the world where the precepts of Descartes,” Enlightenment philosopher par excellence, “are least studied and best followed.” How can this be?

The Virtue of Association

When in 1831 Tocqueville came to America to observe modern liberal democracy in action, he famously observed the distinctly modern and democratic phenomenon of American individualism, warning of the societal ills it could breed. Unlike aristocracy, which is characterized by hierarchical relations and tightly-bound, multi-generational families, democracy sows relations of equality.

Hence, when the democratic citizen looks around himself, he sees neither superiors he must obey nor inferiors he must care for, but self-sufficient equals able and obliged to take care of themselves. This sentiment thus habituates him to neglect the public good, focusing instead on the good of his own family and friends, an inward turn that not only extinguishes public virtues, “but in the long term … attacks and destroys all the others and will finally be absorbed in selfishness.”

Yet Tocqueville recognized in America an important support of virtue that, like individualism, stemmed from democracy’s equality of conditions and, working hand in glove with it, mitigated its worst tendencies. The American citizen, keenly aware of his equality with his fellow citizens, likewise becomes aware of his relative weakness. Unlike the wealthy and powerful aristocrat, he can carry out nothing great by himself, nor can he turn to a feudal lord or monarch to act on his behalf. Hence, Americans quickly learn to form associations if they want to get anything done, and in this way, they become responsible for their community:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small. Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

In France or England, if you want to improve or create a new school, to use one of Tocqueville’s examples, you petition the government to do so. If you want to do so in the United States, you persuade enough of your fellow citizens to join you in doing so. This difference, which Tocqueville noticed nearly 200 years ago, persists today, as Katharine Birbalsingh, founder and headmistress of the Michaela Community School in London, attested to in her keynote address, given the morning before Scoggin’s talk at the National Symposium for Classical Education. First referencing the classical charter school movement in the US and then pointing to the dozens of booths representing the conference’s sponsors, from private universities to fine art guilds, she remarked that “nothing like this exists in Britain, nothing! I couldn’t believe it yesterday; I was going around thinking, my goodness, this is just amazing.”

The conference, essentially an association of associations, was spearheaded by Great Hearts Academies, now the largest classical charter school network in the US, which began when a group of teachers and parents came together to found one small school in Phoenix. The national restoration of classical education anticipated and celebrated by Scoggin originated, it turns out, with America’s unique and skillful use of association, driven by its modern, democratic, Enlightenment-fueled equality of conditions.

The Benefits of Competition

In addition to free association, state-based school choice programs, based on free-market principles of the Scottish Enlightenment, have also boosted classical schools’ rapid growth by allowing them to compete for students who would otherwise be fated to attend their neighborhood public school, regardless of the quality of its education. Scoggin, in his talk, lamented the influence of the Industrial Revolution on government officials and school superintendents in the nineteenth century, who sought to organize the public education system according to business and manufacturing principles, prioritizing efficiency, assimilation, and workforce preparation over character formation. Treating a school as identical to any other business enterprise is surely a mistake. Nevertheless, as the success of the school choice movement has demonstrated, it’s equally mistaken to ignore economic principles altogether, treating school systems as immune to the principles of human nature upon which Enlightenment economic thought is based.

As Lindsey Burke, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, noted at a panel following Scoggin’s keynote at the National Symposium for Classical Education, the idea behind school choice programs, which put public education funding directly in the hands of parents, goes back to the classical liberal economist Milton Friedman. In his 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman reasoned that, because society as a whole has an interest in maintaining “a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens,” the government is justified in funding a general education for all children. However, he challenged whether it was reasonable for the government to administer said education. More efficient, he argued, would be for the government to provide parents with education funds which they could then use at the educational institution of their choice. Tying schools’ funding to parents—who would then be free to leave institutions that are failing or lackluster—would make them more responsive to the needs of families.

Friedman’s argument, of course, rests on the free-market principles articulated most famously by Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. Beginning with the premise that human beings are naturally self-interested—or, to use classical terms, that human beings harbor a natural love of one’s own—Smith maintained that, for most individuals, the quantity and quality of their work will correspond to the compensation they can expect to gain from their exertions. When they can see that they stand to profit from excellence—or suffer from negligence—they will strive for the former and will do so to an even greater degree if they face “the rivalship of competitors, who are all endeavouring to justle one another out of employment.” If, on the other hand, they remain unchallenged by competitors and assured of steady compensation, regardless of their efforts, they will tend to neglect their work, redirecting their efforts to activities more directly tied to their personal interest.

Hence, Smith concluded, when schools are assured of students and the salaries of their teachers and administrators “derived from a fund altogether independent of their success and reputation”—from a governmental fund or endowment, for example—diligence will diminish. To improve schools, he argued, salaries ought to derive more from the “honoraries or fees of [the] pupils,” and pupils, in turn, ought to remain “free to chuse what [school] they liked best,” since “such liberty might perhaps contribute to excite some emulation among different [institutions].”

Both Smith and Friedman expected that such policies would encourage enterprise among educators, spurring, as Friedman put it, “a wide variety of schools [to] spring up to meet the demand.” In the increasing number of states passing and expanding school choice programs, that is just what is happening, with classical school networks like Great Hearts first among responders.

Not only is Great Hearts working to open new charter schools in states adopting and expanding school choice programs, but it is also developing a network of private Christian academies in what Great Hearts Chairman and CEO Jay Heiler has called “our response to the [Arizona] legislation” that in 2022 expanded eligibility for the state’s education savings accounts (ESAs) to all families. Primarily serving low- and middle-income families using ESAs, Great Hearts Christos may, moreover, serve as a model for partnerships with other faith-based communities, Heiler added, mentioning the possibility of private Jewish academies. “We can place schools wherever there’s a funding mechanism.”

Choice and Gratitude

As much as the school choice policies furthering classical education’s reach flow from free market principles of the Enlightenment, they exemplify even more the prioritization of individual choice. At the aforementioned panel at the National Symposium for Classical Education, Jay Greene, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, attributed the astonishing success of the school choice movement over the past two years to its embrace of a new argument: “we need to expand school choice so that … families [can] raise their own children with values and preferences that align with what they’re trying to do at home.”

In one sense, this sounds like a version of the “institutionalized relativism” that Scoggin, in his talk, blamed on the rise of progressive education inspired by Enlightenment Romantics like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau argued that society imposes conformity on its members, who otherwise would live life according to their own senses, blissfully unaware and therefore unconcerned with what anyone else might think of them. While man in his original state “live[d] within himself,” Rousseau explained in his Second Discourse, “the sociable man, always outside of himself, knows how to live only in the opinion of others; and it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence.” Hence, followers of Rousseau, such as the progressive education reformers Scoggin referenced, desired a return to “authenticity” in schools, in which children would be free from pressures to conform to societal norms.

As Scoggin pointed out, this elevation of individuality as good for its own sake downplays the objective standards against which individual choices and values should be judged, thereby undermining the classical ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. Why, then, has the implementation of school choice policies that liberate and encourage parents to pursue their own values, as Greene put it, tended to increase demand for classical education, rather than undermine it?

Perhaps it would be helpful to revisit another thinker of the Enlightenment, Edmund Burke, who was both a friend and critic of its ideas. On one hand, Burke vehemently opposed the French Revolution for its violently fanatical pursuit of “liberty in the abstract,” which forcefully stripped men of all inherited manners, traditions, and religion, and left them “in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction,” as he wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

On the other hand, Burke just as adamantly defended the natural rights of individuals, including the rights to acquire property, freely exercise religion, and educate their children. “Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others,” Burke added, “he has a right to do for himself.” Burke could support a liberal theory of natural rights without denying that those natural rights have a natural end, “the perfection of which [man’s] nature is capable,” because he understood that perfection requires virtue, the exercise of which cannot be compelled but must, rather, be freely chosen.

“Is then no improvement to be brought into society?” Burke posed after denouncing the Popery Laws in Ireland, which persecuted Catholics with the aim of converting them to Protestantism. “Undoubtedly, but not by compulsion; but by encouragement.” Burke, an Anglican himself, did not dispute his religion’s superiority to Catholicism, but he abhorred the injustice and inefficacy of forcing conversion and denying Catholics the right to educate their children as they saw fit, a denial that left parental authority “so enervated, that it may well be considered as entirely taken away.”

School choice policies—and especially ESAs—resist such enervation, encouraging parents to reclaim their role as primary educators of their children. Both traditional voucher programs and ESAs allow parents to choose where their children go to school, but ESAs expand parental choice by permitting them to customize their child’s education, spending some of the funds on “math in one place and English or science somewhere else,” as Friedman mused in a 2003 interview. Furthermore, the funds don’t expire at the end of each year, inviting parents to save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college tuition. By incentivizing parents to spend wisely and take charge of their children’s education, ESAs encourage not simply choice but responsibility—the kind of virtue which natural rights, including parental rights, make possible.

Of the many virtues of classical education, foremost among them is its defiance of ideological pressures to embrace simplistic historical narratives that discourage deeper study not only of the great ideas that have shaped the world but of the practical application of those ideas across different times and places. Scoggin demonstrated this virtue when he spoke of the “deep and objective good in the Enlightenment” alongside its mixed legacy of individualism, industrialism, and relativism. As Tocqueville warned, in democratic regimes, where men lack the leisure for sustained study, it becomes tempting to search for “a few great causes” to “explain what happens in the world,” clinging to “general ideas because they exempt [one] from studying particular cases.”

Classical education, by giving its students at least a few years of leisure for deep and sustained study, serves as a good antidote to this democratic trend, as I outline in a new Heritage Foundation Report on leisure and education in America. In doing so, it simultaneously cultivates a posture of humility and gratitude, not only for the tradition of ideas, laws, works of art and literature, and cultural practices that have shaped our world, but for the ways in which that complex tradition continues to inspire and make possible civilizational renewal today.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty on 4/12/23