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America’s Overdue Resurgence In Classical Education

America’s Overdue Resurgence In Classical Education
Bob Schaffer, Headmaster
By Bob Schaffer, Headmaster
Throughout the land, an important resurgence in classical education is propelling the expansion of the public-school marketplace. It’s attracting attention among discerning parents who want the best for their kids.

Prudent parents should take the initiative to learn what the classical approach entails. They must, because the purveyors of traditional, unionized, bureaucratized, government-owned, monopoly schools do not recommend it. Many of them, in fact, despise this classical resurgence with a seething hatred as nearly every facet of the movement is disrupting the status quo.

Within this framework, it is imperative for Colorado parents to take charge of their children’s education. It’s the only rational hope for a better education system, one capitalizing on the best of private and public options.

Fortunately, we need not look far to compare and contrast. Classically oriented schools are popping up all over our great state. A handful have been around a while and have promising, long-term results to offer.

By objective measurements of academic success, Liberty Common School in Fort Collins might be the state’s best public school. Sure, that’s an audacious and arguable statement; so, might be a defensible qualifier.

Liberty Common is a classically-oriented, K-12 charter-public school that recently concluded its 25th-anniversary year. In every year of operation, its students have performed either at or near the top as determined by various metrics.

This is rather significant on many levels, but mostly because, as a classically oriented school, its faculty do not teach to the state’s conventional standards and its administration does not aspire to score well on state-mandated “CMAS” tests. Nonetheless, without studying for them, Liberty’s students consistently outpace their peers.

The composite performance of Liberty’s upperclassmen on national tests designed to predict college success — the ACT and SAT — has never ranked below fourth place out of Colorado’s hundreds of high-school entities where all juniors are required to take the test (currently the SAT). Within recent years, Liberty’s composite scores have broken state records.

This is no fluke. Liberty’s track record of high performance spans the entire history of the school, a feat predating my coming aboard in 2010 as principal of our junior-high/high-school campus. Since 2018, I have had the privilege of being the school’s headmaster overseeing our entire three-campus, K-12 operations.

Liberty educates around 1,500 students, and we’re growing. We plan to add a fourth campus in 2025. There is a waitlist of students hoping to get in via the blind lottery we use to determine who will be next to enroll.

Our school excels in closing achievement gaps and triaging academic casualties among students who transfer from nearby schools with learning deficits often years below grade level. Liberty’s “Academic Support Team,” which leads in educating students with special needs, is staffed by devoted professionals of astonishing accomplishment. This is a key tactic in the school’s ongoing success.

A board of seven volunteer parents elected from the school’s broader parent population serves as the school’s fiduciary steward and provides general policy oversight to ensure the institution stays true to its well-documented mission. Collectively, these parents hire one employee —me. In this way, I, and by extension all school employees, report to and are held directly accountable by parents.

Parental leadership at Liberty is not a democracy. To stand for election, board candidates pledge to adhere to the school’s longstanding philosophy and academic traditions relative to pedagogy. They ensure the school is faithful to its charter — the covenant that defines a charter school — which is a contract with our local school district. (In Colorado, charter schools also can be authorized by a state-created agency called the Charter Schools Institute.)

The classical tradition

Liberty’s example is replicable. There are schools throughout the country, dozens of them, that have modeled themselves either entirely or in part upon the policies, curriculum, practices, and procedures Liberty makes available as an open source.

Our administrators regularly assist start-up efforts pursuing a similar vision. Doing so is part of our original mission. Like all charter-public schools, Liberty is publicly funded. As such, there is nothing proprietary here. Taxpayers have already paid for all the best practices we deploy and the lessons learned in rejecting some less-than-perfect ones.

People ask me all the time to describe the innovative things we must be doing at Liberty to achieve consistently superior results. I love our answer: There is virtually no innovation here. We’ve become quite wary of anything in public education cloaked as “innovative.”

Adults have been educating children for thousands of years and in every part of the world. While advances in neuroscience relating to learning disabilities have rescued young lives, the general notion there are astounding new insights on learning to which the greatest educators of antiquity were somehow oblivious is a dubious proposition at best.

Classical education starts with the natural-law premise that human nature does not change. It’s the same premise that undergirds America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It’s how we can assert as Americans that all men are created equal and are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights.

This is how we can know and proclaim with absolute certitude what these rights are, and how we can rely upon internalized moral constants, virtues, to guide us in protecting our own rights, but more importantly in a civil society, revering the rights of others.

Of course, all of this requires considerable acquisition of knowledge. The deeper, higher, and broader, the better. Without it, civil society is doomed. Preserving the culture and perfecting national unity is really the business we’re in at Liberty Common. Patriotism is among our core virtues and we aim to educate youngsters to be capable citizens worthy of good lives, authentic liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is no coincidence America’s founders were classically educated. Eloquent poets of freedom, their words were informed by common knowledge using vocabulary of precise and potent meaning. Their careful phrases inspired a nation and mapped the longest sustained period of prosperity in the history of human civilization. These founding principles inspire American students today; at least, they should.

America’s revolutionary statesmen envisioned and built a complex system of government upon classical absolutes of truth, beauty, goodness, perfection and cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. They reserved the greater share of civic power to the people and to the states owing to their keen understanding of the nature of man, the capacity of the intellect, the perils of vice, and the blessings of God.

Co-heirs to the first principles of liberty, American students deserve to be educated like the wise Americans who conceived and rested the republic upon them. Their parents deserve to be treated like real customers. Their teachers deserve to be treated like real professionals.

There are many excellent tomes on classical education. The topic takes some explanation as it’s not simplistic like the myriad fads, fashions, and trends that pass as innovation in modern American schools. These vogues are better characterized as experiments wherein other people’s children are forced into assuming roles of lab monkeys.

That may work out just fine if a hypothesis holds, devastating if not, which has become the norm in American schools.

In his tidy booklet, “An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents,” Christopher Perrin offers a concise description which I commend. Still, the topic does not lend itself to pithy one-liner definitions. Perrin touches upon the canon of “Great Books,” engagement in the “Great Conversation,” and the contributions of specific philosophers. Properly understood, these are actually scrupulous references, not nebulous constructs, and they’re all pretty important.

“Education is that vast undertaking of passing on the wisdom and knowledge of one generation to another,” writes Perrin. In another instance, “Classical education is old, which is why it now appears so new. It was new with the Greeks and Romans over 2,000 years ago; they are credited with constructing the rudiments of the classical approach to education.”

Why it works

In practice, classically oriented schools like Liberty Common tend to embrace mental disciplines of memorization, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, the hard work and logic of refined language usually aided by the study of Latin, sometimes Greek. They demand reading and homework. Acquiring knowledge is key, which is far different than the emphasis upon “the skills of learning” typical in American public schools.

Along their education journey, classically trained students are led to recognize patterns. They discover from modeling. The building blocks of core knowledge — facts, formulas, key historic dates and figures, essential literature, etc. — enable extraordinary levels of creativity and problem-solving as young minds mature. As a strategy, it’s quite powerful and well-proven over centuries and on multiple continents.

Emphasizing the acquisition of knowledge in this intensive way creates adroit learning skills almost as a byproduct. In contrast, attempts to develop learning skills — now the main emphasis in American public schools — do not produce knowledge. This is a defining divergence in the classical-education movement that even today’s intellectually honest teachers are coming to realize.

This vital point was underscored earlier this week by an applicant for a teaching position at my school. Liberty Common requires all applicants to submit a “Statement of Educational Philosophy.” In this instance, the applicant gave me permission to share here the parts of his essay that explain his hope Liberty will hire him away from his current job at a regular government-owned school.

“I became disillusioned with the untested and thoughtless educational fads that permeate the field of education,” he writes. “Rather than succumbing to the pressures of following the latest trends pushed by colleges of teaching, I support a classical liberal arts education. By grounding education in the rich traditions of the liberal arts, students gain a solid foundation in a wide range of subjects, enabling them to think critically, communicate effectively, and appreciate the depth and breadth of human knowledge.”

Ah yes, this young teacher gets it! “(I) believe in a classical liberal arts education that empowers students with a broad knowledge base and the ability to engage in thoughtful discourse,” he concludes. “Through this approach, I aim to cultivate curious, informed, and empathetic individuals prepared to tackle the challenges of an ever-changing world.” America could use more teachers like him.

Though the popularity of classical schools is surging among both American parents and intellectually awake educators, they face fierce opposition from government-owned districts, conventional-school administrators, and teacher unions. The reasons for the hostility are many.

Classical schools require of their instructional corps purposeful focus and subject-matter mastery. They tend to shun the partisanship and political indoctrination that poison government-owned classrooms. They defy fads toward specialization and job training in secondary and even primary grades. They reject the psychological profiling and occupational-tracking strategies that have come to replace the content expertise once required of all classroom educators.

Classical teachers tend not to position themselves among the ranks of union workers. They prefer instead to be trusted, evaluated, treated, and compensated on a legitimately professional, independent basis. Merit is the coin of their realm.

Classical schools generally embrace a universal truth of education: It is the right and responsibility of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children. This statement is, in fact, an operational premise at Liberty Common School.

These schools hold morality and virtue in higher regard than the intellect yet acknowledge virtue requires thoroughly cultivated knowledge. Accordingly, knowledge clarifies morality and truth as absolutes, not relative constructs or flimsy paradigms otherwise relegated to one’s feelings, emotions, orientations or personal preferences.

A failing status quo

Given such high stakes, it should come as no surprise the American education industry has become the nation’s biggest economic and political concern. It is the anchor of our culture. Education is certainly our most critical domestic issue.

The galactic inertia of public-school textbook publishers, teacher colleges, all manner of commercial contractors, union politics — the infrastructure of the education industry — bounds by obscene profits derived from the current system. Its defenders enjoy cabals of well-placed partisans in state capitols who protect the cartel with loyal ferocity. These great forces, often called “The Blob,” effectively farm cash off of the children and in doing so subordinate the students’ interests to the maintenance of an unholy empire.

Consider the trillions of dollars coursing through local, state and federal education budgets. Add to these private tuition, capital investments, teacher-training, loans, lawsuits, endowments, scholarships, grants, accreditation panels, retirement funds, insurance systems, outsized regulatory agencies spanning primary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions, and more.

To varying degrees, everyone wants to be either an education consumer or provider. This is where the big money is.

It is not hard to imagine how these vast oceans of education cash spawn rampant corruption, wicked partisanship, flagrant waste, fraud and abuse, and heartbreaking academic victims — we’re talking about children — generations of them. Over the past century, the government-owned education monopsony has come to specialize in all of these depravities nearly to the exclusion of teaching useful things.

Particularly for those of us who are ardent advocates of an enriching, thriving public education system, being candid about its shortcomings lays bare an alarming national tragedy. Insiders know this better than most.

For example, it was the U.S. Department of Education itself that, upon conducting in 1983 an introspective study of its place in the industry, articulated “A Nation At Risk.” The title alone sums the report’s incendiary findings.

The document’s scathing third paragraph, for one, posits, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

That was 40 years ago! Regrettably, this haymaker failed to inspire improvement. Things have actually gotten worse.

Earlier this month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” showed plunging declines among eighth-graders in U.S. history and civics. The declines are more pronounced among cohorts of generally low-performing students.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writing in Forbes describes these results as “grim.” Only 13% of American students are proficient in U.S. history. Only 22% in civics.

“The biggest problem, though, may be that we’ve created a culture in which too many educators have been encouraged to imagine that civics and history education is less about mastering key events, democratic norms, or America’s political institutions than raising a generation of political activists,” Hess writes.

For parents who are serious about their right to direct the education of their children, situational awareness of the treachery pervading the public-education industry is indispensable. Being alert will save their children’s lives.

This is no time for despair. Despite an avalanche of reports portraying the American public-education landscape in the image of Gomorrah, there are still good schools to be found within its walls, and more yet to be created.

There is solid justification for rational hope among those inclined to apply parental effort toward prudent academic ambition. In this context, Liberty Common School is hardly the only cause for optimism.

We all know great, exemplary teachers, maybe even a functional school here and there. They exist, and parents must aspire to choose them. Where they don’t exist, parents should lead in assembling them.

Only by growing a vibrant marketplace can demanding, active, and engaged education consumers create and expand suitable schools capable of educating children to be free.

All children win when parents become warriors on this worthy battlefield, and the victories do not accrue only to their own kids. Everyone prospers whenever and wherever there are plentiful options for the voluntary exchange of goods and services.

Public schooling is too important to be exempt from the marketplace of competing ideas and advantages. Anyone educated in a classically oriented American school knows this to be true.

Bob Schaffer is headmaster of Liberty Common School, a K-12 public charter school in Fort Collins. Schaffer represented Colorado’s 4th Congressional District for three terms in the U.S. House, 1996-2002. He also has served on the Colorado State Board of Education, including as its chair, and he represented state Senate District 14 in the Colorado Legislature, 1987-1996.

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