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Is classical education going woke?
A spirited provocation deserves a spirited response
In 1989, John O’Sullivan formulated a law: “All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” If some found it difficult to accept O’Sullivan’s Law at the time—don’t ask me, I was still a babe in swaddling clothes—it seems impossible to deny it now, as we approach the third anniversary of the Summer of 2020. Every major institution, public and private, “political” and “non-political” alike, has been forced to take a side in our culture wars. The overwhelming majority of them have capitulated; many have seemed to embrace the new creed with zeal. It has not been enough to protest, “We’re not right-wing or left-wing; we’re just a humble organization interested in ____________.” The lesson of the last few years, perhaps the last few decades, seems to be: You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you.
Over at The American Conservative, Matthew Freeman has accused the classical education movement of catching “the woke bug.” Read his essay here. It begins provocatively and controversially, naming a handful of prominent figures and institutions—most importantly, the Classic Learning Test, perhaps the most important single institution in the movement—that Freeman thinks are guilty of betraying classical education to woke imperatives. And it proceeds to get, if possible, even more provocative and controversial. Freeman argues that these figures have not only betrayed classical education situationally, in the last few years, but have thoroughly misunderstood it, by reading the great tradition of the West through the lens of their own contemporary prejudices, especially the modern prejudice for equality and against hierarchy, whose current iteration has taken the form of diversity, inclusion, and equity, but whose roots (in Freeman’s account) are planted in modern liberalism itself.
Thus, the essay has three main parts: a hook that accuses the leading lights of today’s Classical Education Movement of going woke; Freeman’s own account of the tradition as centered on virtue understood classically, that is, hierarchically, and thus an ennobling education in the “hero-worship” of a great litany of pagan and Christian megalopsychoi, above all the hero Christ Himself; and a concluding exhortation to Freeman’s readers, friends of his version of classical education, to “wake up to the actual virtue of the tradition it claims to be handing on.”
I haven’t (yet) seen those accused by him respond; but then again, his piece just dropped, and it’s probably wise for those accused to gather their thoughts rather than fire back quickly on Twitter. I hope—for their own sake, and for the sake of the classical education movement itself—they do respond. (Every devotee of free speech should affirm a rollicking culture of criticism and criticism, on the assumption that such debates will shed light on the truth. All lovers of classical education should hope for an open and vigorous debate on its true meaning, and the best tactics and strategies for its devotees to pursue.) And when they do, I hope they take the second and third sections of Freeman’s essay seriously. I clicked the link expecting a short and rather breathless indictment of particular figures, based on heated accusations likely to generate heated indignation (and perhaps counter-accusations) in the accused. I found heat aplenty, in the first section, and was surprised to find much more in the second section, though to be sure the whole essay is written with a kind of thumotic heat. Freeman’s is an impressive and, as I said, provocative and controversial account of the fundamentally hierarchical and agonistic character of virtue, an argument with direct and (in Freeman’s hands) explicit implications for our understanding of Greek poetry and philosophy, of the arc Western history, and of Christianity itself. If we can’t at least debate these topics amongst ourselves, how can we offer a classical education to our students?
It is a commonplace that Greek competitiveness, love of the agōn or struggle for excellence, was manifested not only in heroic and martial feats found in Homer and Herodotus but also in the intellectual and artistic competition among the philosophers, poets, and sculptors of classical Athens. I look forward to a vigorous debate in response to Freeman’s piece, in the hope that we epigones, laboring today on behalf of classical education, will prove ourselves worthy inheritors of our tradition.
UPDATE: David Goodwin responds to Freeman’s article here, disputing Freeman’s characterization of his Federalist argument.
UPDATE 2: Benjamin Merkle of New Saint Andrews comments here, dryly characterizing his appointment to the CLT board as a “diversity hire.”
UPDATE 3: Clifford Humphrey, here, worries that “merely classical” schools will go the way of “merely Christian” schools.