Classical education is rising up to take its place.
A Paideia for the Network State
Classical education needs logos—and thumos.
To a Classical Greek or a Republican Roman, it would be unthinkable to call any education “liberal” that did not inculcate toughness, ambition, and the will to order people around. Liberal education was for those who aspired to be successful and lead; in Latin, a liberalis is a maximally free individual—the opposite of a slave. In other words, the aim of this ancient training was to secure maximum sovereignty for yourself, your family, and your state. Liberal education was for people who didn’t want to be forced to go with the flow. You were more of a failed human if you lacked that awe inspiring spirit of freedom and mastery than if you lacked the ability to give a coherent definition of virtue or play a wind instrument.
For the ancients, the consummate political education was called paideia, a complete mental and physical training in cultural, intellectual, and personal maturity. No Classical Athenian, Theban, Corinthian, or Syracusan father would dream of having his son educated in the intellectual arts without also training him in the arts of war: gymnastics, wrestling, spears, swords, horsemanship, hoplite armor, etc. To neglect these would have meant envisioning a future for your son as some rich man’s secretary-slave or worse. The citizen was responsible for ensuring his own personal sovereignty as a contribution to the collective sovereignty of the polis.
This classical tradition was still alive at the time of the American Founding in men like Hamilton, Adams, and Washington—and plenty of women too. During his long stay in Paris, Thomas Jefferson met the spiritual founder of modern Greece, Adamantios Korais. At the time, the Greeks had been living under Turkish rule for more than 300 years. Inspired by the example of the American revolutionaries, Korais (1748-1833) and others among the Greek diaspora hoped that one day, they too would found a state to unite their people.
Korais thought that investing in education, or paideia, was the best means to establish the Greeks’ hoped-for nation-state. A particular paideia, he reasoned, was the foundation of a nation’s identity. Korais and American Founders like Jefferson acted on the idea that strong human networks serve as the basis of successful states, an idea that’s attracting interest from several different camps of regime dissidents, including both tech futurists and Luddite trad conservatives. The main question for us is, What are the foundational elements of a political community that can ensure its continued existence?
The struggle for public education
In The Battle for the American Mind, Pete Hegseth and David Goodwin agree with Korais that the key element of the political community is culture, another crucial aspect of paideia. The importance of culture is now a familiar refrain on the Right, with many pointing to the importance of safeguarding the ideals of Western Civilization—and even Christian concepts that encourage innovation. Though others on the Right insist that improving their political future involves improving the quality of artistic culture, Hegseth and Goodwin make a convincing case that K-12 education deserves the most focus.
The successful takeover of American K-12 education by progressives must be countered by a paideia capable of sustaining free government.
Hegseth and Goodwin trace the gradual infiltration—and eventual capture—of U.S. public education by the Left. It began in the late nineteenth century with progressives like John Dewey and continued with the importation of cultural Marxism via the Frankfurt School after World War II. The movement achieved a lasting consolidation by unionizing (and politicizing) teacher professional organizations in the early 1960s and founding the U.S. Department of Education in 1979. Left wing educational activists worked to remove traditional religion (e.g., school prayer, the cross, Bible teaching, etc.) from classrooms. Then they focused on grinding down all the other trappings of a racist patriarchy that was supposedly transmitted through classic texts, traditional subjects, and tests of objective knowledge.
The solution The Battle proposes is to reintroduce the crucial regimen that nourished the American Founders and was later forcibly removed by the Left, leaving us with cultural scurvy. Fortunately, that regimen, the Western Christian paideia, is now available in the classical (and usually to some extent Christian) education movement.
What the classical education movement lacks
True to the anti-commerce aristocratic bias of many ancient authorities on education, Hegseth and Goodwin have little to say about practical training for the future. If students want to get an early start on computer science, data science, or even finance and accounting, the message one might take from their book is “that’s what college is for.”
But will we have college in 20 years? James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, forecasted in The Sovereign Individual that tech would empower individuals at the expense of large states and legacy institutions. With the pace of technological, economic, and political change accelerating, parents and students have good reason to want an early start not just on contemplating great ideas but also developing relevant skills to thrive in the twenty-first century. Only when pressed do some leaders within the movement acknowledge this area as a weakness in the promotional discourse around classical education.
It’s important for classical education promoters to address skills-and-success questions more convincingly. If they do, they might get better traction with less ideological customers. After all, they already have a product which, done right, can attract a wide range of intelligent, open minded, and high-paying parents.
For example, in his book The Network State, Balaji Srinivasan urges the next generation of tech founders to study not just STEM but history, which he calls “the closest thing we have to a physics of humanity.” Classical schools, of course, teach history much more rigorously than their woke counterparts.
Classical educators interested in helping students prepare for the Network State, the idea that a country could be founded at a keyboard, and other brutal realities of our decadent future might take a few tips from the Ancient Greeks we all admire.
Time for a rebrand?
To return to a truly classical vision of education, it might make sense to rebrand. Rather than liberal education, how about calling it the sovereign arts? The Ancient Greek idea of paideia for eleutheroi (education for the free), or the Roman artes liberales, have connotations closer to something we would sooner call “sovereignty” than “liberality” in English. They are certainly not about being open-minded or tolerant, although the confidence of mastery is a strong basis for such emotions. Rhetoric, poetry, history, and other sovereign arts were disciplines the ancients used to gain and consolidate positions of authority, balancing the prowess they were developing in other spheres of training.
To speak of cultural education as a training in the classical arts of sovereignty clarifies the overarching goals for students. History is a discipline for the founders (or refounders) of tomorrow’s states. But future leaders in business and statecraft will also need a whole lot more. For example, they must know how to learn new and challenging technical subjects quickly and practice making decisions under pressure with imperfect information. They will have to know how to talk to robots or else they will be outmaneuvered by people who can.
Historically, the sovereign arts have constituted nothing if not leadership training. And in the future, the requisite skill competence for leadership roles of any real significance will be high.
Some might object that classical Christian educators will alienate their base by welcoming more innovation and, arguably, secularism. But given their firm grounding in traditional culture, classically-minded parents and educators can afford to be open to experimentation with more practically-oriented skill sets. Take, for example, the educational collaborative game startup Synthesis, which is currently pitched to children ages 8-14. Such advanced content would balance nicely with Latin lessons.
Either way, if the classical (Christian) education movement is going to grow to its potential, its promoters need to articulate how the rich and rigorous cultural education they offer can fit with other skills that are useful for twenty-first century students. In ancient Athens, for every idealist studying philosophy for virtuous reasons, fifty took seriously the sophist’s claims that he could help them make more money, win more offices, and beat their enemies in court. In antiquity, the sophists won that debate—most philosophers in the Roman empire either had to be independently wealthy or make their money teaching rhetoric, because people knew it worked and was worth the money. And it still is. If classical education understood in this broad way still works, it’s worth marketing in ways likely to win more buyers.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.