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Are Classical Schools Elitist?

It’s true that classical schools have much to be excited about. To start, we really believe in what we teach. We feel that it is true and lovely and can be defended as such. Our detractors balk at this.

This post was orignally published on Common Sense Classical.

The charge of being “elitist” or “exclusive” is one that I occassionaly come across. Between school uniforms, a challenging curriculum, and a culture that includes things like a house system, an initial impression of a classical school can sometimes be described as “hoity-toity.”

It’s hard to know for sure where this impression comes from, but it’s not entirely unwarranted and certainly deserves to be addressed. When I myself have encountered elitism within classical education the culprit is generally pretty simple: an educator or administrator has fallen into the trap of taking themselves far too seriously.

The mission of an educator should be taken with the utmost gravity and that seriousness is not out of place. However, when educators take themselves too seriously they start to resemble those crusty parodies you see of teachers like the teachers in Dead Poet’s Society who slam Latin textbooks on desks and stick their noses up at Robin Williams. Suddenly, teachers who should be delighting in the content they teach find themselves joylessly parroting lessons and scolding students with unnecessary tenor.

I’m happy to say that the classical educators, leaders, and administrators that I work with—both here in Colorado, but also across the country—are far from elitist.

If you take one thing away from this post, I hope it’s this: Classical education is not great because other schools or models are inherently bad. Classical schools are great because they work toward excellence in both moral and academic life; because they aim to prepare students for a life of meaning and flourishing independence; and because, above all else, they love knowledge and desire to share it.

With that said, I’d like to delve a little deeper into where charges of elitism have gone astray.

Most educators find classical education humbling; those of you who have ever homeschooled with a classical curriculum likely understand this. The canon of classical education is vast, wide, deep, varying, enduring, and excellent. Most educators, when reckoning with the task before them, find themselves tremendously humbled. One of the best analogies I’ve heard comes from Christopher Perrin who runs Inside Classical Ed. He compares the task of teaching classically to standing in the lobby of The MET and realizing that it holds more than two million works of art. It is “dazzling” and will never be fully mastered. Educators who claim or act otherwise simply have a poor understanding of their own craft. While they may strive to get better and better at the art of teaching, classical educators are always learning and adding to their arsenal of knowledge; it’s a pursuit that never ends.

True “elitists” may feel the same sense of dazzlement, but they want it all to themselves. For them, knowledge is not a thing to share and love, but a badge of superiority. They don’t ‘teach’ at all, rather, they try their very best to show that knowledge belongs only to themselves. True teachers, the kind with which the world of classical education is absolutely brimming, feel quite differently. They love what they study, they know that it makes them happy, and they want to share it with the world.

There is no secret recipe or hidden technique to what we do—no magic cure-all to all the difficulties of childhood and the problems of the human heart. A classical school is not immune to struggle. We deal with bullying and behavior issues and students who don’t do their homework. And while we deal with these things quite well, we don’t expect to ever solve them completely. They are part of the way of things, and, like snake oil, any cure-all is sure to cause more problems later on. That’s not what we’re about.

We are about love, the love of knowledge, and virtue, and people, and the world in which we live.  All we’d like to do is share.

It’s true that classical schools have much to be excited about. To start, we really believe in what we teach. We feel that it is true and lovely and can be defended as such. Our detractors balk at this. They claim that we teach Western political philosophy because it keeps the powerful people in power, and that we teach great books because they keep people tame and in-line. Hence the accusations of elitism: our detractors see our work as somehow preserving the status of the elite (whomever the “elite” may be).

We disagree. Our aim is simply to teach people, people of all kinds and classes, how to live a good and happy life in society with others. Do we claim to know what a good life looks like? Do we claim to be able to distinguish the good from the bad? Certainly. Do we do that for the sake of oppressing the low and protecting the high? Certainly not.

Actually, we believe that there is nothing more empowering—nothing more opposed to the idea of elitism—than classical education. So we teach Western political thought because we think it leads to a society that is more stable and more happy than it would be otherwise. And we teach great books because we think that they are more enjoyable and more enlightening than anything else. And in this, our accusers mistake our conviction and enthusiasm for arrogance.

I should mention, too, that students who attend classical schools tend to outperform non-classical students on tests like the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. College acceptance rates at classical high schools continue to be high. More than that, though, students who graduate from classical schools leave with a real sense of their civic responsibilities, virtue, and their place within the world. All of this is to say: classical educators are excited. And though there is still much work to be done (as there always will be), we are proud of where we stand.

There are many who will look at a classical school website and, upon seeing the uniforms and culture items, think “My child could never do that” or “My child isn’t smart enough for that school.”  School choice is a wonderful thing. The idea that a parent can choose the educational model they want for their family is exactly the way that education should work. However, it has given rise to this notion that some schools, namely classical schools, “just aren’t for everyone.”  Every time I hear this, it saddens me. So, I’ll just set the record straight now. Any student with the desire to succeed can be successful at a classical school.

What does it take? Conviction. Classical schools are like anything else in life—if you don’t commit to it, you won’t succeed. If you’re only fifty percent on board, you’ll fall off the boat. If you don’t believe in the mission, you’ll never achieve it. That, truly, is where the notion of ‘exclusivity’ comes from. But we are not exclusive; we are not made for the elite, or the special, or the gifted. We do have a vision and mission, though, that is unique from other schools. Classical schools are a good fit for any family that is willing to partner with us on that mission.

Do I think that everyone should choose a classical education for their kids? Yes. Unequivocally. But I also want students and families to be happy at school. So I say this without reservation: if you’re not on board with ‘classical,’ then you won’t be happy. The school will strike you as strange, and you will find yourself wishing to make it more ‘normal’—more like the other, local schools, and less attached to the mission that sits at its core. And make no mistake: without that mission, and without the vision that inspires it, we would be worse than nothing—we would be pretentious, and stuffy, and elitist.

But with the mission and its vision, we are something else entirely. We are a movement of people so devoted to good things that we desire to share them.

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