From a certain standpoint, classical education is just about the least faddish thing possible, because human beings have been reading Plato for well over two thousand years now. On the other hand, classical education is not simply “reading Plato.” Classical education is also sports programs, Land’s End uniforms, Spring formals, mission statements, and parent-teacher conferences, and it is from a position amidst all these things that the question, “Is classical education just a fad?” is a bit harder to answer.
The astounding growth of classical Christian schools in America over the last twenty-five years alone should prompt classical educators to inquire whether classical education is sustainable, and this question may be asked without ingratitude toward God, Who “gives the increase.” The rise of classical Christian schools in America happened alongside the rise of megachurches and if someone were not willing to ask whether the latter was a fad, I would think they simply did not know what a fad was or did not care to admit that fads existed.
A fad is an easy solution to a perennial problem. Fads are typically products which are neither as expensive nor as time-consuming as actual solutions to perennial problems. Most fads are presented as ancient, long-dormant solutions to human woes, and thus fads lasso the power and mystery of old things; however, fads are often married with “recent studies” or scientific breakthroughs, thus assuaging potential customers of the fear they are buying into some exploded, luddite theory. In this way, the “recent studies” aspect of a fad wards off critiques the fad is “outdated,” and the long-dormant aspect of a fad pacifies cynics who would otherwise dismiss it as nothing more than “the latest thing.” Fad diets are some of the easiest fads to understand. Most fad diets appeal to the eating habits of some far-removed people group, yet the effectiveness of these eating habits is always explained according to “science,” for the authors of fad diet books almost always have prominently displayed “PhDs” before their names. Many fads are also just good things which have been blown out of proportion and treated as panaceas when, in fact, they are merely small aspects of a good life, and on this point, I would add that theology is also uniquely susceptible to faddishness. The decidedly unintellectual spiritual warfare fad of the 80s gave way to the highly intellectual worldview fad of the 90s, which in turn yielded to the gentler, more artistic “culture” obsession of the 00s. The last ten years or so have largely been devoted to “community” (which is not simply a Christian fixation, but a concern front-and-center on most corporate websites), although “community” has become so ubiquitous, we rarely notice the term any more. A friend recently suggested “personhood” was about to have a moment. There are minor theological fads, as well, like the sudden flourish of interest in Trinitarian theology around ten years ago, wherein one could find lately published “academic” books on the Trinity which had no citations and no bibliography. I am Orthodox, but I simply have to admit I converted ten years ago, at the height of the liturgy fad.
A fad’s most easily recognizable feature, though, is its sudden and meteoric rise. If no one was talking about it ten years ago and there are ten popular books about it today, it’s probably a fad. If those who subscribe to the thing are incredibly touchy about the thing being called a fad, it is likely a fad. Were a Catholic to suggest to his Lutheran friend that sola scriptura were a fad, his friend would almost certainly laugh off the idea. Say what you want to about sola scriptura, it has lasted five hundred years and it will easily last five hundred more. People tend to not care much when the transcendent identities they embrace are attacked. What vexes people to no end, though, is when the fad they think a messiah is called-out as a mere trend, for fads typically present themselves as “here to stay,” whereas things which are actually here to stay are untroubled about the way they are perceived.
Much like the parabolic seed which falls on shallow ground, most fads produce quick results. The results are not sustainable because they are not built off sacrifice or because they “have no root,” which is to say those who are given to fads will simply cut and run as soon as an easier, less-expensive, faster-working solution is proposed elsewhere. This is a fitting point upon which to turn back to the question, “Is classical education just a fad?”
At present, I do not believe classical education is a fad, though I believe it is poised to become a fad— and will become a fad— if those within classical education do not tenaciously, constantly fight against faddish tendencies. If classical education becomes a fad, it will simply become very popular very quickly, and then it will become very unpopular very quickly. The rapid deflation will not return classical education to the small, good thing it was formerly. Rather, the rapid deflation will destroy it. Classical Christian educators should also recognize they are susceptible to the same temptations which have beset Ivy League schools in this country, wherein spiritual death has been regarded a fair price for staving off bodily death.
How can classical educators fight the creep towards faddishness?
First, classical education must not be presented as an easy solution to any sort of problem. A classical education demands a classical home. Parents who are unwilling to pursue classical homes necessarily regard classical education as a relatively cheap medicine for the modern teenage illnesses of ennui, sloth, boredom, lust, worthlessness, and ignorance. If a classical education is not married to family dinners together, loyalty to a traditional Christian church, minimal screen time, an aversion to the delusions of popular culture, and a disgust of the Darwinist desire to get ahead in the world, then classical education will slowly erode into every other kind of modern education.
Second, classical educators must be upfront about their preference for old things, by which I mean things which have lasted, as well as their commitment to cultivating faith, hope, love, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance in their students. If classical educators present classical education as a means of attaining to the latest theological fads (worldview, culture, or what have you), they will never settle into any fixed identity and will be blown around by every wind of the zeitgeist.
Third, as Andrew Kern has said, “A classical school must be willing to die.” If a classical school is willing to make any compromise necessary to keep its doors open, then it is not a Christian school, for it has broken faith with the martyrs. A classical school should know very well where the martyr’s test begins and at what point fair compromise has turned into capitulation to the world. If a classical school is not willing to die, it does not have a reason to live.