Relight the torch

David Ferrero

Interest in classical humanism, the "traditional" liberal arts, has fallen sharply in recent decades, and nowhere more so than in American K-12 education.

Grounded in the worlds and ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and transmitted to us through the European middle ages and the Renaissance, classical humanism aims to teach students about the ideas, arts, persons, and events that constitute the "Western tradition." It's a model for the liberal arts that engages students with the intellectual and cultural traditions that gave rise to the culture and society they take for granted today. Yet it is also a model that has everything going against it.

The intellectual tradition of classical humanism carries a whiff of elitism, not to mention Eurocentricism. It was developed, transmitted, and evolved through society's upper strata, and undeniably centered in Europe and North America. Some of its most prominent modern advocates have died, such as Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Jacques Maritain, and Paul Gagnon. Several of today's most eloquent defenders, such as E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Diane Ravitch, are nearing retirement. Unfortunately, there are precious few among the young generation of scholars and educators to keep the classic liberal arts flame burning.

Other approaches to the liberal arts, however, are blazing away. Three are especially vigorous: process inquiry, cosmopolitanism, and activist academicism.

At its core, Process Inquiry is the belief that what matters most are the disciplinary methods of inquiry, which lead to students being able to solve problems, being creative, as well as adaptable and capable of learning new material quickly. Subject matter per se matters little--the process associated with it is what counts. The purest example of this view is Howard Gardner's.

Cosmopolitanism rests on the belief that students should be subjected to a wide range of civilizations, cultures, and artistic and intellectual traditions. In other words, young people should be educated as citizens of the world, and not limited to what Western Civilization has wrought. Martha Nussbaum and Kwame Anthony Appiah are prominently associated with this line of thinking.

Activist Academicism wants to reinvent traditional liberal arts curricula to reflect certain recent innovations in the discipline that constitute them. So, they contend, the K-12 curriculum must be updated to incorporate labor history, ethnic studies, women's studies, media studies, postcolonial studies, ethnomathematics, critical theory, and microhistory. Gary Nash is a proponent of this view, but there are many, many others.

While classical humanism needs to reinforce its own place in the K-12 curriculum, those of us who support it should not look for fights to pick. These other approaches deserve respect. We should look to form alliances, not force schools to choose between traditional liberal arts and its competitors.

This is intellectually honest, because few partisans of rival views deny that study of the Western tradition ought to be included in any conception of liberal education, and few classical humanists deny the value of scholarly innovation, the sympathetic exposure of students to other traditions, or the importance of inquiry and method.

In other words, at the level of broad essentials, consensus can be found among advocates of competing models of liberal learning. But plenty of deviltry lurks in the details, which is why alliances tend to break down.

How, then, might we accommodate reasonable differences among sophisticated and well-intended educators without watering everyone's model down to the incoherent muddle that characterizes today's K-12 curriculum? Fortunately, the introduction of charter schools and other forms of public school choice over the past 15 years has opened new possibilities. Entrepreneurial educators with strong educational convictions and deep concern for students and democracy have shown that there really are "multiple pathways" to becoming a reflective, productive, and empowered adult. As long as we can find ways to craft policies that ensure that all kids are schooled under some cogent and defensible conception of liberal learning, we can let a dozen flowers bloom. Done right, such policies could harness diverse talents in pursuit of broadly shared ends.

One way to accomplish this is to erect an accountability system for public education that ensures that schools do more than teach the basics without attempting to determine the content or formats of assessments used to gauge their success at it. For example, establish national standardized testing requirements in reading and math (perhaps with additional requirements in American Constitutional law and government, advanced writing, and basic science), combined with requirements that schools teach a broad general curriculum that conforms to some legitimate conception of liberal learning without specifying which. Enforce this mandate with a combination of on-site inspections and locally developed (and state-certified) assessments in history, geography, arts and humanities, civics, and foreign language. This "tight-loose" framework would provide a nice balance between pluribus and unum in educational practice.

Still, these policies, while good for liberal education in general, will not ensure that the traditional liberal arts grow more robust. Classical liberal arts advocacy also needs fresh voices and new inspiration. Currently the most prominent organizations pressing for liberal education are associated with either conservative or libertarian politics. This reinforces an unfortunate tendency in American education on all sides to politicize curriculum, a tendency fundamentally at odds with the mind-expanding spirit of liberal learning.

America sorely needs a new organization that fills the void left by the demise of the Council for Basic Education, which closed in 2004, one that unifies those who support classical humanism without taking political sides. I suspect that every large high school and perhaps one in three elementary and middle schools in the country has at last one teacher with a passion for the traditional liberal arts. That represents a corps of thousands of educators laboring in isolation and dissatisfied with the national subject matter councils and other professional associations currently available to educators. Tap half of them, and you've got the beginnings of a new and potentially powerful professional network.

Classical humanism is as vibrant and relevant as ever. It continues to set standards for excellence in thought, art, and ethics, and the very liberal-democratic society we take for granted today is firmly rooted in its stories and ideas. It's time that committed educators stand up and relight the classical liberal arts flame.

This essay is drawn from the background paper that Dr. Ferrero prepared for Fordham's Beyond the Basics conference.

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