Ep. 178: Big Ideas – “Classical Schools in Modern America” with Ian Lindquist

May 7, 2020

Ian Lindquist joins us to discuss his essay,  “Classical Schools in Modern America, published in the fall 2019 edition of National Affairs.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m joined by Ian Lindquist who is the executive director of the Public Interest Fellowship and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The subject of our conversation today will be his essay in the fall 2019 edition of National Affairs titled, “Classical Schools in Modern America.” For starters, what is classical education and is it appropriate for the modern era?

Ian Lindquist: That’s a great question, Jason. First of all, thank you very much for having me on, admired EdChoice’s worked for a long time and it’s a real pleasure to be here with you. It’s a great question about classical education. I would start by saying that classical education is an education that takes its bearings from the wisdom of the ages with an eye to the best that has been thought and said to use the British historian Matthew Arnold’s phrase to describe culture.

In a classical school, it’s common to find children reading Plato, Aristotle, the Old and New Testaments side by side with, say reading, Isaac Newton, the actual text of Charles Darwin’s, “The Origin of Species,” for instance. There’s an emphasis on going back to the original sources and that’s for a couple of reasons. One is that the best texts that have stood the test of time really embodied the best that has been thought and said, and classical education holds that students, even if they’re in sixth grade or seventh grade, ought to be in contact, ought to be in conversation with those authors. I think the second thing that characterizes classical education is a focus on a particular kind of pedagogy and that often takes two forms. The first one is an adherence to the classical trivium and quadrivium. You often find that in Christian classical schools or in Catholic classical schools.

Then another form of pedagogy that is often found in classical education is what’s called Socratic learning or Socratic education. That means that students sit around a common seminar table and they have a conversation about a particular text, let’s say Homer’s Iliad or Plato’s Republic or it could be something like Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. What students are doing here is they’re trying to dig into the text in order to hone their skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening as best they can.

Jason Bedrick: Could you say a quick word about what the trivium and quadrivium are?

Ian Lindquist: Absolutely. The classical trivium is made up of three major stages: grammar, logic and rhetoric, and those stages proceed throughout one’s education. The quadrivium is made up of different ways of looking at the same subject: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. That sort of corresponds to what we would now call math and science, and the trivium is now what we would call English or literary education, and education and literature. But those are all modes of looking at subjects in different ways from sort of a simpler way to the most complex way. Again, the trivium moving from grammar to logic to rhetoric, and the quadrivium from arithmetic to geometry to astronomy and finally to music.

Jason Bedrick: So, in your essay, you speak about the importance of classical education for societal renewal. I’ll just quote your essay. You said, “Renewal, of course, is a matter of generational formation of enabling the young to receive their inheritance as a blessing rather than a curse and doing that well is a matter of getting education right. That should worry us because in a lot of ways, our society is getting education wrong at this point, but it should also send us searching for examples of how we might do better.” What do you mean by that? In your view, what are we getting wrong about education today and how could we do better?

Ian Lindquist: So, I’ll take a look at one specific thing, which is that of late, many young people report that they feel very little attachment to their country, but they don’t know much about our civic associations or about the structure of the Constitution or what might be beneficial about a peculiarly American form of Liberty or American form of association. That’s I think, a failure of education and it comes from I think a lack of historical knowledge about other polities at different times, other ideas that have been tried when it comes to political life. I think one of the things that classical education does is it opens people up to other ideas that have been tried in political life and often shows the way that the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, perhaps by reading the Federalist Papers. One really sees that there are specific problems that are being responded to. So, a kind of immersion in historical knowledge allows students to have a proper view, not only of the Constitution or the Declaration, but really of American history and civic knowledge generally.

Jason Bedrick: Now, so in your view, classical education is of supreme importance to our civic health. Could you explain a little bit more about the role classical education has played in civics?

Ian Lindquist: I do you think that inheriting a tradition that has been passed down over thousands of years is not a guarantee and it’s something that takes a deep immersion in not only historical subjects and historical texts, but also in the languages that the texts are written in and the form of learning that allows you to access them at the deepest level. That’s kind of the work that goes on in the classroom. But I think another dimension of American civic life that is implicated in your question, Jason, is that the classical education movement began in the early eighties and it’s a fascinating story how it’s grown up, not by just being a kind of Luddite education, but rather by being an education that looks to the best that has been thought and said in the past and makes use of timely, contemporary associational forms in America that mean that that form of education is not just residing in the home, but is residing in schools that have grown up in the last 40 years or so.

Jason Bedrick: Now, one of the interesting things I learned reading your essay is that classical education is about a lot more than just schools. It’s about family and civil society as well. Could you talk a little bit about how the families interact with the classical schools and the other different associations and institutions that have grown up as the classical education movement has grown?

Ian Lindquist: Sure. Well, maybe the best way of answering your question is to try to tell the story of the way that the classical education movement grew up. The sort of starting moment, the in the beginning moment that I pinpoint in the essay is the founding of Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, in 1981. That school was founded by a handful of families who had met in a living room and decided that the educational options that were available to them were not sufficient to their minds. They decided as a result, to found a school that was based loosely on the vision that Dorothy Sayers lays out in the essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” One of the founders there, Doug Wilson, later writes a book called, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. He writes it about a decade on from the founding of the school.

Now, a number of other families saw the success of Logos School and they decided that they wanted to replicate it. And so in the early nineties sometime, there was a conference that was held with many of these families who came to see what was going on with Logos School and to learn a little bit about it. That conference has continued and there’s been an association that was formed, which included Logos School, but also all of the other schools that came to be a part of what eventually became this league or this association of schools, and that is now the Association of Classical Christian Schools, which has about 300 schools and is educating about 40,000 students per year. You can go find all kinds of… There’s policy documents and publications that the ACCS puts out for the benefit of its families.

But you can see there this movement from a desire and interest within the family that grows into a school, into a formal school, and then that formal school attracts interest and grows, eventually, into a kind of association or league. Now, the ACCS is one example of that, but there’s also an example with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which follows a similar structure of development. Then a similar thing happens also with families who are interested in founding a group of charter schools out in Arizona, which eventually becomes Great Hearts Academy, which is educating about 18,000 students in 30 schools today.

Jason Bedrick: That’s a good point to mention, the role that school choice policies have played in the development of classical education because you know in your essay, that most of the religious schools obviously are private schools. So, in a number of states, students have been able to access these schools using vouchers or tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts. But also, there have been a number of public schools that have adopted some form of secular classical education model and these have predominantly been not district schools, although there are some district schools doing it, mostly charter schools. Is that right?

Ian Lindquist: That’s exactly right, yeah. The charter, they’re very interesting because, well, again, going back to the story of the beginning of one set of them, so in 1994, Arizona passes state level legislation to put money toward charter schools. This allows groups of families to come in with a vision of what they want education to be, a vision of teacher recruitment, a vision of how to relate to the families who bring their kids to the school and it allows them to get some startup help with the association with the school that they’re going to begin. So, in 1996, a group of families get together in Tempe, Arizona, and rather than starting a private school, they make use of this new mechanism, this chartering mechanism. They received some startup funding from the state as well as per pupil funding over the years, of course.

But they take their bearings from a school that had been founded up in Minnesota called the Trinity School. Now, the Trinity School was originally a religious school. Great Hearts thought that the secular dimension of the education in the Trinity School was very good, very sound, historically based and classical. These families decided to adopt the curriculum, of course, without the theology, without the religious dimension and to bring it into a charter context. That education becomes an education for citizenship or an education specifically for democratic citizenship. So, it’s a different rationale for the education of course, but it’s still historically based, it’s still classical and it’s making use of a choice mechanism that’s publicly available.

Jason Bedrick: There was a part of the essay, and I’ll give another long quote because there’s so many parts of this essay I would love to quote, we don’t have the time, but where you talk about this form of democratic classicism, this secular classical form of education and how important civics is to it. You said, “In this view, liberal education means cultivating the habits and dispositions of citizenship. Citizenship and liberal democracy requires education since citizenship requires choice and choice requires exercising one’s freedom with good judgment. Doing so means that the one who exercises judgment must be able to tell the difference between propaganda and persuasion, and this requires a high level of literacy, both spoken and written.” This citizenship ultimately, becomes one of the central purposes of education in classical secular schools. Is that right?

Ian Lindquist: Absolutely. When thinking about, for example, what we want for students in a reading curriculum or in a writing curriculum, I think that the quotation that you just read, the ability of students to tell the difference between propaganda and persuasion and they’re needing a high level of literacy to do it, that’s the main thing that classical schools are thinking about setting their writing and reading curriculum. So, let me just give an example. I mentioned Socratic education a little bit earlier. One of the things that happens in a Socratic education is students learn how to ask questions about a text.

Of course, you can ask questions about a text simply because one wonders about the text because it’s worthwhile in itself to wonder about the text. But another reason to teach people to ask questions is to be able to tell the difference between persuasion and propaganda, so to introduce a level of skepticism, which is then introducing a level of independence for the students. Those students eventually will grow up to be citizens in the American Republic and that level of skepticism is going to be an important safeguard for their freedom, both political and you could say, psychic or individual at the level of the soul.

Jason Bedrick: So, in an era where everybody seems to be concerned about fake news and the inability to tell the difference between what is propaganda or what is satire or what is real on social media, one would think that this more classical form of education might be a solution to these problems that we’re facing in the present and will likely increasingly face in the future.

Ian Lindquist: I think that’s right. Political life and political deliberation within a polity is not a matter of just throwing out certain facts and coming to a decision about what one ought to do individually or what a collective group ought to do. They’re going to have to be suggestions. They’re going to have to be questions that are raised. I think political deliberation is not as clear cut as the distinction between just facts and falsity might lead us to believe. So, as you say, the people who are receiving a classical education are going to be able to enter into that kind of deliberation, I think in not only in a more sympathetic, but a more full way than if one had not received an education like this.

Jason Bedrick: You spoke a little before about how these schools grew and are flourishing and how they’ve started to form leagues and associations, but there’s also a commercial aspect that has grown up around these schools in the form of publishing and testing, and they’ve also developed relationships with colleges. So, why are these relationships with these three different types of institutions so important, and what services are they providing to these schools and these communities?

Ian Lindquist: Yeah, great question. I was really surprised to see that this was the case. Usually, when I’m trying to think about schools, I’m either thinking about what’s going on in the classroom or trying to think about what makes it possible for certain schools to exist. But to see the development of this sector leads to sort of parallel organizations, parallel institutions that help the schools to further their mission was very exciting for me. So, I described already the movement from families to schools and from schools to leagues or associations of schools, but once the associations come to be, it looks like there are many parallel institutions that grow up in order to service those schools. You mentioned first I think, Jason, publishing houses.

Jason Bedrick: The publishers. Yeah.

Ian Lindquist: So, one thing that you can see is a press like the Classical Academic Press, which is formed in 2001. After many of the organization—the associations of schools that I was talking about before—after many of those have been formed, Classical Academic Press is founded and schools that are trying to revive and dust off an older form of education may know what they’re missing or may want to make use of things that they’ve heard about, but they may not actually have the resources available to them. At the same time, I think an organization like a Classical Academic Press may not be able to exist unless there is at least more than one, but hopefully more than a few schools that are interested in purchasing some of the materials that they may publish.

For example, it’s only if there are a lot of parents who are interested in it that a press would be interested in publishing something like an introduction to classical education. If you look at the inventory of books that the Classical Academic Press, you can see that there’s not only an introduction to classical education, which is a guide for parents, but there’s a public and charter school edition, which has some differences from the original text and there’s also an addition in Korean. So, you can see that the Classical Academic Press is sort of going out and trying to find as wide a market as possible for classical education because it’s to the press’s benefit. At the same time, the press would not have come to be unless this movement had already gotten off the ground and there was a kind of on the part of the public.

Jason Bedrick: So, there’s a symbiotic relationship. You had these schools that we’re looking for, first of all, they were looking for texts that may have been long out of print. As you note, they could find Plato to Tocqueville on the Barnes and Noble bookshelf, but there are a lot of these texts that just are not in print, so these publishing houses opened up to fill that need. Also, they’re looking for curricular materials that are put together in a digestible fashion for the classroom. The schools in order to grow and flourish need these materials, but until they reach a certain critical mass, you don’t have the publishing houses there. Now, that the publishing houses are there, the schools can grow even further. So there’s this virtuous cycle.

Ian Lindquist: Yes. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Then you have one other dimension to this virtuous cycle, which is people are looking for more and more guides to how to go about classical education. So you have the Classical Academic Press publishing something like John Amos Comenius, a guy that no one had heard of for hundreds of years, but it’s a biography of him and his vision of education. You have a whole series that they publish on visionary reformers in schools, which is very interesting. But you had asked about a couple of other forms of these associations, right, Jason?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, test makers and teacher training.

Ian Lindquist: Yeah. So, maybe starting with the teacher training. A few years ago, the University of Dallas launched a program, a graduate program in teacher training for classical teachers. I believe that it was first in partnership with Great Hearts Academies, but it has since expanded and it’s gone from having something like 10 teachers or 20 teachers in the first year to having 110 or 120 this year. So, pretty rapid expansion all things considered. I think that this came out of two demands, two necessities. One was a desire by schools to give their teachers, their promising teachers further training and training that combined two things. One is just depth of knowledge about the tradition and about many of the important texts in the tradition. The second thing is specifically classical pedagogy, whether it’s studying something like the classical trivium or the classical quadrivium or it’s studying Socratic practice, but the program was made up of those two sides. One was just deepening the knowledge, the practical knowhow of teachers.

Then I think the second thing is that that career advancement and that investment that the school is able to make in the teacher means that the teacher is going to stick around for longer. So, for the schools, it’s a way of retaining a certain kind of institutional knowledge and retaining teachers further on into their careers. When I was teaching earlier in my career, there were a few professional development options, but many people were leaving to go to graduate school or sometimes to go to law school or to go wherever it was that they were going. There was not an opportunity like this University of Dallas program. So, for the schools, it’s really an opportunity to give further career advancement and thereby, to retain top talent in their schools.

Jason Bedrick: Then what’s the role of these testing companies that have sprung up since the advent of classical education?

Ian Lindquist: Yes. The question about the testing companies is very interesting as well. So, the classic learning test comes about in 2015. It’s founded by a guy named Jeremy Tate who has made a career in coaching students for college entrance exams. He and his colleagues saw a need for a new test. I think at the same time, they saw that there was a growing interest in this different form of education. So, they have gone and found partners at the higher education level, partners who are say, small Christian colleges, colleges like St. John’s College, which is not religious in any way despite its name. They’re not religious in any way, but is focused on the great books of the tradition and partners like Zaytuna College, which is a Muslim liberal arts school. In fact, the nation’s only Muslim liberal arts school out in California. I think the founders of the classic learning tests sensed that something was a foot and they sensed that there was a kind of hunger for a new kind of test.

The CLT focuses on content richness, the sort of language that students from classical education schools are used to. Language like truth, goodness, beauty, justice, passages from texts that are hundreds or thousands of years old. These things are common on the CLT whereas evidently, they are not so much on other college entrance exams. Just to demonstrate that the CLT has in fact found interest in a market in this, they’ve gone from 40 partner colleges in 2017 to over a 150 this past year. So, it appears that there is a lot of interest in this, not only in the states but also up in Canada and a few partner colleges in Spain as well.

I think the most interesting thing about the classic learning test, though, is that they found themselves as a kind of convener of these colleges in order to find out what these colleges are really interested in knowing about students who are applying to their schools. I don’t think that the CLT saw itself as a convening entity. It saw itself as a group that was interested in having the best possible college entrance exam, but they’ve come to be a kind of main convener in this classical education space because of their desire to reach out to as many colleges as possible and really kind of find the boundaries of this market, if that makes sense.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. So, in other words, you’ve got this growing sector and then as the sector’s growing, you’ve got these publishing houses that emerge to fill one need, you’ve got the test makers that emerged to fill another need and then you have these colleges that are working with the schools, both they want their graduates, the graduates of these classical education schools, so that’s why they need the tests, but then they also are now providing teacher training programs that go back in and feed the schools. You have a number of lessons that you discuss at the very end of your essay. I think one of the most important ones was that this is something that we have to measure in the sense of generations, not in election cycles, as you put it. As important as tests are really, you end up seeing the fruits of these labors in how these graduates live their lives and then raise their own kids, how they are as spouses and neighbors and friends and members of their community.

So, we live in the education policy world here at EdChoice, everybody is focused on metrics. How can you measure whether there is success? But what you’re saying is that in this essay is that classical education is about something that’s much more important, something that is very hard to measure. You might be able to measure on this test what the students have picked up in terms of the content, but what you can’t pick up through a test is their engagement with, as you put it, the students’ engagement with concepts like beauty, truth, goodness, justice and virtue. So, how can the classical education movement demonstrate the value that they provide to society in a way that’s not easily measurable?

Ian Lindquist: That’s a great question. I should mention that I definitely don’t want to downplay the policy challenge of measurement. That’s something that is a gigantic challenge and I don’t think that it would be prudent to say, “Well, just throw out all tests.” That’s going a bit far, but you’re absolutely right that I think that especially, the virtues that you mentioned, those of neighborliness, inquisitiveness, of a sense of wonder, it’s going to be very difficult to measure the things that try to articulate or are distinctive about classical education and that might be more important that what we’re able to measure in a quantifiable way on the standardized test. I think that the sector is still trying to figure out how to demonstrate this value, but one thing that I would point out is that many classical schools actually also perform well on standardized tests. So, that is still a public measure that many of those schools feel that they want to live up to.

There’s not a lot of data on this, but I think it would be very interesting to take a look at people who are sending, let’s say, their kids to classical charter schools, that is those that are focused on democratic citizenship because they believe in the historical components, because they believe in the mission primarily versus those who are sending their kids to classical charters because they are interested in just getting their kids a good education, one that will prepare them for college, which is a sort of, I was going to say more traditional, but I should say just the way that we normally talk about what educational success should be. So, I think some work can and should be done on that divide among parents to see how much the poll of classical schools is because of the traditional quantifiable measurements to the promise of students being set up well to perform on those quantifiable measurements.

The second thing I want to say is generational vitality, I think, can be measured by seeing how many alumni come back and are really engaged with their schools and with the institutions that right now are very new, but that in, let’s say 15 or 20 years, will be half a century if not more than half a century old. I do think that seeing how much people are beholden to or feel gratitude toward their schools will say a lot about what those schools were really able to do for them. The students are the ones who are going to have the best sense as they grow into adults of what the school gave them, how well the school set them up to really be adults. So, looking at alumni engagement over time could be another thing that could answer this question. Part of looking at alumni engagement might be looking at the number or the percentage of those who decided to go back and teach in these schools, also, something that I think there’s not data on right now, but it could be something to track over time.

Then lastly, let me just say that I know that the Institute for Classical Education, which was a group that came up in the essay, is working on gathering this data, but taking a look at what students do afterward. I think it would be good to think of the categories of what students do afterward sort of creatively. Not only do they go to a high performing university or do they go on to get bachelor’s degrees—that’s an important measure. But I think also are there students who go to the military who give time towards service? Are there students who go off and start their own companies? So, thinking about the data of what students do afterward creatively would be a very good thing for a new sector like this. That’s not exactly an answer to your question, Jason, but those are places where I would point to things that could demonstrate value over a generation or so.

Jason Bedrick: In closing, many of our listeners are parents and if they wanted to learn more about classical education schools near them, where should they start looking?

Ian Lindquist: I would start by looking at the Association of Classical Christian Schools website online. There’s a great map on there, which tells you where every single school is. I would say the same thing for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which is not only for Catholics. There’s a great map on their website, too. And then lastly, I would point them to the Institute for Classical Education.

Jason Bedrick: Which is the secular organization.

Ian Lindquist: That’s right, which is a secular organization which is aiming to gather a lot of this data and convene all of the different schools that are within the classical education movement. I think from there, parents and your listeners will find that those organizations will point them in the direction of other organizations that can be helpful to their search.

Jason Bedrick: My guest today has been Ian Lindquist, the executive director of the Public Interest Fellowship and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His essay, “Classical Schools in the Modern Era,” can be found in the fall 2019 edition of National Affairs. Ian, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Ian Lindquist: Jason, thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the big idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.