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The Odyssey of Classical Education
School of Athens (detail), Raphael, 1511. Alamy

The Odyssey of Classical Education

Classical education instills precisely the skills and habits most sorely needed in society today.

· 8 min read

When I visit foreign countries, I often go into bookstores. They provide a window into how cultures think. Thumbing through high-school history books in Japan, I noticed that many were divided into two sections: one dedicated to Japanese history, and the other resembling a Western history textbook, including material on ancient Greece, the medieval feudal system, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and so on. They covered the same core Western Civilization topics that are the focus in classical schools in the US.

It seems strange that citizens of many non-Western countries recognize a value in Western civilization that many in the West themselves cannot or will not see. An OECD survey of over 20 of the most advanced countries in the world found that Japan scored highest of all in “proficiency in literacy and numeracy among adults.” But the current proliferation of classical schools across America indicates that there are many other Westerners who do recognize the value of Western culture and want to ensure that it is passed on to future generations.

It is also odd that the classical education movement is sometimes described as elitist. In point of fact, it is driven by millions of everyday working parents, homeschool mothers, and local community leaders. Critical theory is the opposite: a product of ideologues who shelter in elite universities but claim to represent the oppressed masses. Classical schools have been expanding rapidly due to demand from millions of families; critical theory is pushed on millions of families despite resistance, as illustrated at countless contentious school-board meetings publicized on YouTube. Critical theory requires the uncritical consumption of ideological dogma; classical education asks us to accept the value of a dialogue of ideas that has transpired in the West over millennia, a value recognized in foreign countries like Japan.

Americans are buying into classical education on a massive scale. Arizona, for example, offers a public-school tax credit of up to $400 for making contributions or paying fees to a public school. And of the 20 state charter schools receiving the most public-school tax-credit funding from taxpayers in 2022, nine were classical schools from the Great Hearts network, the largest classical-school network in the world. It enrolls some 25,000 students in 40 schools. Students from Great Hearts schools, the Classical Charter Schools network in the South Bronx, which enrolls 7,000, and other classical charter schools consistently outperform students from other public schools on standardized tests. For example, Great Hearts students in Arizona exceeded the state averages on state-achievement assessments by 27 percent in English and 22 percent in math in 2022. And far from being elitist, classical charter schools enroll students from virtually every ethnic background, including thousands of children of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In private education, the Association of Christian Classical Schools saw its school membership and student enrollment grow by up to 50 percent in the past decade. It now includes some 475 schools enrolling around 70,000 students. And beyond classical charter schools and private classical schools, tens of thousands more students receive classical education through homeschooling and classical co-ops. Meanwhile, Americans are leaving regular public schools in droves, with many school districts shutting down schools and cutting dozens of teaching positions.

But beyond all the numbers, one of the greatest benefits of classical education is that it instills precisely the skills and habits most sorely needed in society today. While the average American student now interacts with their friends more through texting and online than in person, sometimes lacking the ability to hold a face-to-face conversation, students in classical schools practice the art of face-to-face conversation on a daily basis in a civilized, sophisticated, and respectful way about higher-level topics. In a class called humane letters, for example, they converse about the Great Books in a roundtable format—which can put them light years ahead of their peers in preparing for the conversational style of college seminar classes. And in a TikTok and Instagram world of instant gratification and momentary fads, the focus of classical education on arts and literature dating back hundreds or thousands of years instills a respect for contemplation and things that are lasting.

One might argue that, by placing the primary focus on Western ideas, classical education excludes other cultures such as Eastern classics or indigenous practices. On the surface, this is true to an extent. Classical schools do center on European and American civilizations and Judeo-Christian roots. This should be a surprise to no one. In any region of the world, K-12 schools focus heavily on teaching the predominant culture of that place, with the obvious aim of preparing students to be competent in the art of citizenship in their own country. Kenyan geography textbooks have chapters on Kenyan tribes and soils. Panamanian history books cover Panama’s unique geographic location, its blend of races and indigenous tribes, and the origins and economy of the Panama Canal. There will necessarily be many foreign cultures “excluded” in basic education, simply because of the limited time available. But the general idea that there is something wrong with schools in a Western country rooting education in Western civilization is based on an undesirable fantasy that schools should give every culture of the world equal attention in the curriculum. Attempting to do so is a recipe for the amorphous mishmash called “social studies” that often leaves students with no cohesive sense of any culture at all.

Our Lost Classical Learning
The Western canon was not an unchanging set of texts, but an ongoing conversation that lasted thousands of years—enabling each generation to build on the intellectual heritage of the past.

But to say that classical education only teaches about the West is simply false. Ideas cross geographic boundaries, and it is impossible to study the West without studying non-Western cultures. Western civilization traces back to Christianity and Classical Greece and Rome. Jerusalem is in Asia, Jesus was Asian, and the Bible is largely an Asian book. Part of what helped Greece reach new heights of learning was its location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. And ancient Greece included the western coast of modern Turkey, which was home to major Greek thinkers like Herodotus and Thales of Miletus.

In Herodotus’s Histories, one of the foundational texts of classical education, students read about the cultures and geographies of the Egyptians, the Persians, the nomadic Scythians and Massagetae of Central Asia, and non-Western cultures. In studying the Silk Road and the Renaissance, students explore the Islamic cultures that bridged China and Europe, and the Islamic scholars like Averroes who rescued Aristotle and other Greek works lost to Europeans during the Dark Ages, and gave them back to Europe. Studying the Age of Exploration includes understanding the role of Chinese empires that produced gunpowder, the compass, and other inventions adopted by The West. And to study American history is to study a cultural melting pot and interactions with countless Native Americans and immigrants from non-Western cultures. It is a historical fact that, for better or worse, no other region of the world has had more contact with and influence on foreign cultures than the West. I would wager that students graduating from classical schools know as much or more about non-Western cultures than many students graduating from traditional public schools.

One of the most puzzling critiques of classical education is the contention that it pushes a single “right wing” point of view that must be accepted uncritically. (This argument is often made by ideologues who themselves embody the very sort of one-sided viewpoint they ascribe to others.) These critics are apparently unaware that in humane letters class, students read sharply contrasting viewpoints, like Karl Marx and Adam Smith, or Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, and John Locke, the father of modern liberalism. In fact, part of the defining essence of classical education—and what makes Western culture itself distinct in the world—is the degree to which it encourages disagreement, invites contrasting perspectives, and emphasizes its own self-critique. It does this with the goal of improvement, which is the true purpose of free speech, a value pioneered by the West. As Tocqueville put it, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Classical education’s focus on critique and contention can be seen every day in humane letters seminar discussions, for example in the study of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, which I just completed over several months with my 11th-grade class. If the critics of classical education are right, these Homeric epics would have clear, black-and-white messages about what is right and wrong, and we would have studied them as some sort of dogma to be inhaled. But as anyone who has read these books (as many who criticize classical education have not) knows, the reality is the opposite. The works we read promote inquiry about big questions in every chapter: “Should Achilles have waited to rejoin the army while his fellow Greeks died?” “Did Hector put his pride above his family?” “To what extent does Helen have agency in determining her own fate?” “Is Calypso truthful in saying ‘I am all compassion’ when she lets Odysseus go?” “Was Odysseus right to kill all the suitors vying for his kingdom? Was there another way?”

The Odyssey begins:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.

The Odyssey and the other texts taught in classical schools are chosen specifically because they sing for our time too. They open universal questions which connect to students’ own experiences. “What do you do when you’re faced with two bad options, like Odysseus navigating between Scylla and Charybdis?” “What forces today are like the lotus eaten by the Lotus Eaters, which makes them forget their journey home? What helps us remember?”

The works studied in classical schools are, like Odysseus and Western civilization itself, full of twists and turns. They are anything but monolithic. In fact, at the center of one of the most displayed artworks in classical education, Raphael’s The School of Athens, are two figures shown in disagreement: Plato points upward toward the world of forms, while Aristotle motions outward toward the empirical, natural world. Among the innumerable other contentious disagreements that classical schools encourage students to explore are the differences between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on the state of nature and the social contract; the split between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists on the purpose and nature of an ideal government; the differences between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the merciful God of the New Testament; and differing perspectives on American race relations in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Huckleberry Finn, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and To Kill a Mockingbird. The idea that these works all subscribe to a single point of view is contradicted by the millennia of diverse opinions in conversation—and the resulting innovations—that mark Western intellectual history.

Robert C. Thornett

Robert C. Thornett has taught in seven countries and has written in The Diplomat, The American Mind, American Affairs, Education Next, Modern Diplomacy, Earth Island Journal, and Yale Environment 360.

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