Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made headlines for dodging a fundamental question: Should pornographic materials be present in K-12 school libraries? Whitmer’s unwillingness to answer the question (which should be a resounding “No!”) is indicative of the state of education today. While many schools have excellent teachers working within the mainstream system, public education in America is not what it used to be. Endless studies have shown that public education is failing (see articles on the subject here, here and here). There is a better way: Classical education begins with a traditional understanding of the human person, espouses specific educational goals and applies clear methods to transform the student.
Classical education begins with a proper understanding of the human person. As Katy Faust notes, children grow in predictable ways. Classical education recognizes the stages of child development. In the early years, students have very little knowledge. Your mind is curious; they crave to know. During these years, sometimes referred to as the grammar phase, classical education asks students to memorize lots and lots of information. Here is the time to learn the 50 states, the multiplication tables, the timelines and the periodic table. As they progress into middle school, students move into the logical phase: moving from concrete to abstract thinking, students want to think, debate, and challenge the information they have learned. Students move from mathematics to algebra and geometry to increasingly complex literature and history; they begin to distinguish their culture from other cultures. The process culminates in high school where students enter the rhetoric grade; As high school students, they are asked to exchange views on their areas of study. The process culminates: you study, you interrogate, and then you speak. Ideally, a classically educated student will have delved deeply into a topic and be ready to move from that degree into the world of adult conversation.
While teachers recognize different stages in child development, they constantly mix all three stages. A middle school class might have a research project culminating in presentations to help each other learn better; an upper grade school class might have a debate and then write a response listing the conclusions drawn after the discussion was conducted; High school students may need to memorize a poem in order to recite it to their classmates. Classical education recognizes the student as an evolving human being and seeks to equip him or her with the knowledge, skills, and tools to preserve his or her intellectual heritage.
Such education aims to prepare a student for a lifelong pursuit eudaimonia, the highest human excellence. Aristotle argued that virtue is the path that leads to that greatest excellence, so the most important element of education is to train students in right action. There are certain habits that lead to a better life: honesty, integrity, work ethic, loyalty, and moderation all lead to better ways of living than vices. People who lack self-discipline, who exemplify laziness, and cultivate habits of lying and self-flattering fail to position themselves live a good life. A classic education tries to prepare the students for it live well and live well for the rest of your life. Through his studies, the classically educated student is prepared to recognize the good, true and beautiful in the world and to live accordingly. The goal is to help such students to become excellent people.
Classic training uses specific methods to achieve these goals. The first of these is a clear expectation of moral behavior in the school environment. By clearly articulating expectations and enforcing those expectations with both positive and negative consequences, a classical school helps shape student habits. Second, a classical school is full of teachers whose passion for their subjects invites students to join them in an in-depth study. Through Socratic dialogue, primary textual exploration, reading, writing and discussing great books, laboratory experiments, learning Latin and/or Greek, encountering and creating beauty in the visual arts, and going as far as possible in their mathematical studies, students are invited into the world seen as a place of beauty and wonder; their task is to receive this world and take great pleasure in understanding it.
The Thales Academy is a model of classical education that this paper describes. On each campus, faculty strive to help students see themselves as dignified creatures worthy of respect. Students expand their intellectual powers through study, practice virtue, and grow in wisdom and stature. Faculty work with students to help them master the material and build strong communities within the school. Together we become outstanding human beings, immersed in the study of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Pornographic material has no place in K-12 education, and both policymakers and educators should make it clear that its goals are far more important than engaging with different types of human sexuality. We are concerned with the task of human education, to help each student see themselves as beings with a great ability to know the true, the good, and the beautiful. We should not settle for anything less in education, pedagogy and faculty.
Josh Herring is Dean of Classics Education at Thales Academy Apex JH/HS. He hosts a podcast called The Optimistic Curmudgeon and tweets @TheOptimisticC3. In his spare time, he reads and writes to pursue a PhD in Humanities from Faulkner University.