Classical & Futurist

(PC: Bruce Jeffrey)

This month, I am fairly certain I am the only educator attending both OESIS, one of the most progressive and futuristic education conferences, and the Society for Classical Learning’s Alcuin Retreat, a meeting of some of the leading educators in the Classical school movement. I have daydreams of putting some of the best thinkers from each movement into a room together just to see what would happen. I suspect it would take a while for each side to get over its preconceptions about the other side, but what I hope would emerge would be a recognition that what each group is doing is critically important to the future of education.

Progressive Education

At OESIS, where I presented on our mini-course program, I found innovative teachers pushing for radical change in how we do schooling. They want to disrupt the education paradigm the way Uber disrupted the taxi industry. At the conference I heard proposals for getting rid of A-F grades, personalizing learning for every student, blending online and classroom instruction, assessing student learning with projects instead of multiple choice tests, and changing transcripts so that they reflect student mastery in core competency areas rather than giving students credit for taking a class in a particular subject. I saw examples of teachers using virtual reality in their classrooms, of students designing and 3D printing prosthetics, and of students from across the globe collaborating to write and record original music compositions.

At bottom, what I saw from these innovative, progressive educators was an emphasis on the learning experience, on cultivating the skills and character traits students will need in the new economy, and on promoting mental, physical, and emotional health in the age of anxiety. They believe the schools that were designed for the 20th century did not work very well in the 20th century and certainly will not equip students for the 21st century, where creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, cross-cultural competency, and character will be increasingly sought after by employers.

Classical Education

At the Society for Classical Learning retreat, I will be meeting with teachers who were as frustrated with the 20th century factory model of education as the progressives were but, rather than invent a new paradigm, opted to restore an older model of education. They looked back to Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe to discover what Dorothy Sayers called the “lost tools of learning.” The focus of Classical schools is on forming moral and intellectual virtue, on cross-disciplinary training in grammar, logic and rhetoric, and on reading great books and discussing big ideas. Unlike progressive schools, which aim to personalize learning, allow student choice in the curriculum, and try to remain value-neutral when it comes to forming a student’s conception of the good, Classical schools typically set a course of study that they believe will train the habits of a student’s mind and heart to know and love the good, as understood by the adults in the school. To the progressives, the Classical school folks seem rigid for prescribing the course of study, backwards for not embracing recent technological advances in their classrooms, and intolerant for pushing a defined conception of the good. To the Classical school folks, the progressives seem foolish for allowing the preferences of teenagers to set the agenda of education, willfully ignorant of the values they smuggle in under the guise of a value-neutral curriculum, and insufficiently critical of the negative impact technology has on moral and intellectual formation.

Common Ground

There is a healthy and important debate to be had about the differences between the two approaches, but I want to focus on what I have seen as common ground:

  • Both groups are fighting against the factory model of education, where students are funneled through an assembly line of classes and tested and judged constantly,
  • Both are frustrated by the rat race created by the college admissions process,
  • Both are opposed to creating disciplinary silos that unnaturally slice up the world into biology, math, history, art, language, etc., and
  • Both want to put the focus of education on skill and character education, on higher order thinking, and on creativity.

Augustine said that education must bring together wisdom and eloquence, for wisdom without eloquence is ineffectual and eloquence without wisdom is dangerous. The same can be said of these two approaches to education. We need both. A bunch of Classically trained intellectual snobs who cannot navigate the changing world will be ineffectual, and a bunch of rudderless students who can manipulate the latest technologies and need to be entertained constantly is a frightening prospect indeed. But neither of the movements really fits these caricatures. There is more that unites than divides them, and there are divergent voices in each movement. My hope is that at Stony Brook we can combine the best ideas from the two movements. We will need both wisdom and imagination to train up the generation of visionary leaders our world needs.


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