The driving purpose of today’s public schools is to prepare students either for college or a job in our “21st century economy.” This language cannot be avoided because, at root, many educators understand a person’s happiness to derive from these two things. Colorado’s main academic test, the “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers,” institutionalizes this view at a very young age. Of course, at the age of 18 students may pursue one or both of these avenues. And, both a college education and a job are good things.
But are they the best or most important things? Shouldn’t education aim higher?
At Golden View Classical Academy we understand the development of character, and therefore of citizenship, to be a central purpose of education. This is not something that can be taken for granted, as it is both too important to leave to chance and too difficult to dismiss as the inevitable consequence of 12 years of formal schooling. As our Founders knew, freedom in a republic is fragile and requires consistent upkeep and attention – there is no autopilot for citizens who mean to rule themselves.
And so, we take our cue from James Madison, who once wrote:
“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Our students will study some part of American history in every grade from kindergarten through 8th. In the high school, juniors spend the entire year investigating America’s great literature, its rich history, and its special form of government. We do this not so students can get jobs or go to college, but so that as 18-year olds they can exercise their right to vote thoughtfully and responsibly.
But being a good citizen requires much more than going to the polls. It requires knowing about our traditions and great documents. It requires knowing about heroes and villains, feeling the pride that comes from independence, and desiring to lead one’s life in a responsible and honest way. We want students who can speak thoughtfully and responsibly about America, and therein contribute to conversations with their families and fellow citizens. This, more than career and college-readiness, is the lifeblood of a flourishing republic.
But as Madison recognized, knowledge alone does not make one a good citizen. Our students need virtue as well, since knowledge without virtue is limited or even dangerous. Which virtues do we instill in our students? Participating in Socratic discussions develops both boldness to declare one’s opinion and moderation to listen to others’. Habits of patient reading form a taste for beautiful phrasing and good English. There is no more powerful inoculation against vulgar and ugly things than in developing a student’s delight in hard work with great stories, art, and music. After reading and rereading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address or Pericles’ Funeral Oration, students come to appreciate beautiful and well-wrought arguments, become more thoughtful listeners, and therefore become better citizens.
At Golden View Classical Academy our students will come to realize that a worthy college education and a fulfilling career come from a flourishing republic, and that the typical understanding of education gets this precisely backwards. This needn’t be taught in a lesson. It is the natural outgrowth of the classical education we provide.
Robert Garrow, PhD