In response to:

An Overabundance of Virtue from the September 21, 2023 issue

To the Editors:

I read with interest Erin Maglaque’s complimentary review of my recent book, Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena [NYR, September 21]. Her main point of disagreement, which seems to issue from an extreme form of moral relativism, lies with my contention that what I call “virtue politics” might have a contemporary application. I won’t argue that point, since I have an extensive discussion of it in the next issue of The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies. I do, however, think that Maglaque misleads her readers when she characterizes the classical education movement as a right-wing political project. In my view classical education (a misnomer for traditional liberal arts education) is something that thoughtful progressives can and should support.

I take it Maglaque is British, so I don’t blame her for not being better informed about the classical education movement in this country. I myself have spent some years going to classical education conferences, trying to inform myself about the movement, meeting its leaders and classroom teachers, and writing about it. Maglaque seems to take her information from reports published by the Network for Public Education, a partisan advocacy group for public schools. A large proportion of its news items lately have been devoted to spreading alarm about the classical school movement, which it commonly presents as an arm of Republican Party politics.

It is certainly the case that a number of Republican politicians have embraced the classical school movement in the last several years, particularly in Florida and Arizona. But the movement goes back for decades and existed long before it became part of the culture wars. My father, after his retirement from a business career, was involved in what became a classical school during the 1980s and 1990s. Great Hearts Academies, the largest classical charter network, began in the 1990s. It is also true that classical schools vary greatly in quality and levels of funding (something that could also be said of public schools).

It is not true, however, that classical educators think of themselves as weapons in the hands of Republican ideologues. Almost everyone I have met in the movement avoids making political statements and wants to keep contemporary politics out of the classroom; that, in a way, is the point. I have met no advocates of Christian nationalism, whatever that is. Some are Christians, others are not. Classical charter schools, which are public institutions, as a rule do not provide religious instruction. Most teachers become part of the classical education movement because they love the liberal education they themselves received in school and want to hand it on to the next generation. Many are distressed that this no longer seems possible in some (not all) public schools. They want their students to be able to receive the deep humanity of Shakespeare and the glorious music of Milton without having to negotiate political minefields.

I do not think public schools as such are the enemy. Many of them are excellent and filled with dedicated teachers. I know this because five members of my immediate family have made their careers in public schools. Too many public schools, however, have not shown an appropriate restraint and have alienated families with their aggressive politics and their contempt for the religious beliefs of students and their parents. They lack the civil virtues, a deficiency that, sadly, has become a general one in our hyperpartisan society. That is one reason why somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of public school parents (and 15 percent of Black parents) have withdrawn their children from noncharter public schools since 2020 and have sought classical alternatives. It is also why, according to the latest Gallup poll, trust in American public schools is at historic lows. K–12 education is best served when teachers and parents work together with mutual respect and party politics is kept outside the walls of the school. That, unfortunately, is not the case at present in many school districts.

The past is a foreign country, but no educated person should want it turned into enemy country, the exclusive preserve of “white supremacists” and “right-wingers.” The Western tradition is too valuable for it to become the foster child of one political party. It should be handed down, with all candor and suitable critical rigor, to future generations. The current tendency to subject it to ignorant attacks and demonization is destructive of civilized values.

James Hankins
Professor of History
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Erin Maglaque replies:

James Hankins writes that I’m ill-informed about the classical education movement and wrong to characterize the movement as a conservative one. He speculates that I’m wrong because I’m British; in fact I’m American, though it doesn’t matter much; our differences of opinion run deeper than a point of fact.

Like many proponents of the classical education movement, Hankins argues that there is some existential conflict between “politics” on the one hand and an understanding of, say, the “deep humanity of Shakespeare” on the other. (I think that would be awfully surprising to Shakespeare, but then I was only dubiously educated about him in a public community college.) For Hankins, “politics,” always meant derisively, seems to be a shorthand for the many connected contemporary concerns that teachers and students bring to the history classroom: questions about race, gender, and class; about power and inequality and oppression; about the relationship of the past to the world that they inhabit.

I see these as enriching questions to ask in a history classroom, not coming from a contempt for history but from a profound curiosity about it. Students and teachers do not want to consign whole histories to “white supremacists”; on the contrary, by asking critical questions, historians and their students are rigorously defending the past from being flattened into the inane but seductive version of itself so beloved by the far right. These questions—these “political” questions—do not turn the past into an “enemy country” but reflect a deeply humane search for the relationship between our own small lives and the lives of the past.

But it’s true: to put the past into conversation with our own new ideas, to approach the study of the past animated by a searching curiosity about the present—that is indeed political. Nearly thirty years ago, Umberto Eco wrote in these pages about his childhood in Mussolini’s Italy.* He argued from experience that one feature of fascism is “the cult of tradition,” under which, he wrote, “there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.” So let’s not pretend. Of course the classical education movement is political; so is the progressive movement for a critical approach to the past. But only one of them is a real education.