There are a handful of defining moments in our nation’s history. One of them was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. No one did more to shape that set of events than Martin Luther King, Jr. The young Baptist pastor gave voice to a powerful vision of what it means to be a human and how we ought to order our republic accordingly. That vision attracted and forged a highly diverse alliance consisting of Americans from all races, creeds, and economic backgrounds. And it made a significant practical difference for the better, as evidenced in the fall of segregation laws.
King’s vision is remarkable too for its invocation of classical sources. As he pointed the way forward to a time when men would be judged by their character and not their race, the moral framework he relied on was built on a Biblical image of our humanity and the theories of the American Founders, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine.
King’s words and vision are no less true today than fifty years ago. Grounded in classical sources, they provide a genuine foundation for legal equality and mutual respect. We know that King’s vision needs to be part of our future together. For those of us working in education, we would do well to note King’s example. In particular, it should be a great encouragement to us that classical sources can help us build a better culture and improve the lives of our neighbors, even against great obstacles.
Classical has to do with the past, but it has another meaning as well: the term classical reflects the highest expression of human thought; it honors what is best about us. Classical texts speak to the most lasting considerations of human beings.
There was a time when the authority of classical education was preeminent in American educational culture. It was the norm for American students to study works such as the Bible, Shakespeare, and Aristotle’s Politics; to read Latin and Greek; and to write clearly, even eloquently. Classical studies gave the students the content and the context necessary to understand the world, much like a good trail guide helps us scale a mountain.
That preeminent place has largely slipped, but classical studies are still highly effective when allowed to flourish. Let’s turn to some recent examples of how classical sources hold out something better for the present and point toward the future with hope. Of particular encouragement are several compelling examples where some expression of classical education has changed the culture for the better.
Classical music for building solidarity. In 1975 the Catholic economist and politician Jose Antonio Abreu observed in his home country of Venezuela that poverty increasingly prevented the nation’s young people from rising to lives befitting their dignity as humans. Among poverty’s other ill consequences, it prevented them from attaining solidarity with their fellow Venezuelans. His solution? Classical music: He established a vast, national network of instruction, including free teaching and free instruments. Over 750,000 students from every sector of Venezuela, including the poorest barrios in the inner cities, have been trained. El Sistema students perform well on state standards, go on to higher studies and employment, avoid crime, and contribute productively to their communities—all at higher rates than the national rates for their peers. National models based on El Sistema have been established in 55 other countries, including Afghanistan, South Africa, Haiti, and the Philippines. This means that classical music is changing young people’s lives for the better in a diverse range of cultures.
Classical education for transforming disadvantaged minority students. In 1998, Cornerstone Schools in Washington, D.C., and The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, Indiana, were founded. The missions are Evangelical. Each serves students from the poorest, most violent parts of their respective cities and among a demographic that is significantly disadvantaged. Both missions chose classical education as their model; at the heart of their programs are Great Books from the Western canon. Cornerstone and The Oaks offer a culture their students can rightly claim as their own, not only because D.C. and Indianapolis kids live in the West but also because Great Books are the best guides to exploring our humanity. In other words, every student deserves to read the best. On top of that, their students are graduating from high school and attending college at rates that belie the trends among inner city minority students. Classical education, then, is highly effective in lifting them to important achievements and opportunities otherwise out of their reach.
Classical education for transforming the incarcerated. In recent decades the national prison system has faced alarmingly high recidivism rates. In response, prison outreaches have increasingly turned to classical sources for transforming the lives of prisoners. Founded in 1976, Prison Fellowship relies on extensive study of the scriptures, especially in the context of the Alpha program. Since the 1990’s, Shakespeare Behind Bars has been engaging prisoners in stage productions where they are the actors. Just this decade, the University of Notre Dame established a program offering a range of courses in the liberal arts at a nearby state prison. All of these programs, and others like them, have directly and significantly lowered recidivism rates. Among the undeniable elements to their success are classical texts and classical courses.
These are all highly compelling cases. In each one we see a dramatic change that is unarguably good: disadvantaged, sometimes even broken, lives are directly improved by an opportunity for some form of classical education. That’s the inspiring element, that’s what initially attracts us to these cases. The practical element, the lesson for anyone in the business of educating students is this: the classically grounded missions change lives for the better because they impart the highest, the best. By drawing on the wellsprings of the past, these missions renew and elevate the vision of their students’ humanity. By bridging the distance between people, they build culture marked by solidarity and love. In achieving those noble ends, they provide hope.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.