Classical Millennials?

Can a classical alternative to today’s typical educational options appeal to the very non-traditional, highly mobile, hyper-tech-savvy millennials? I think the answer is yes, but for those of us who provide opportunities for classical education, we need to think more like millennials. We need to get inside their box and offer an attractive option that makes sense to them.

Let’s start with a couple of salient observations about millennials.

According to a recent piece in Forbes, “67% of millennials say their goals include starting a business, while only 13% say they want to climb the corporate ladder.” Furthermore, they perceive the test-driven, information-based education that dominates much of American schools and colleges—the one that most of them experienced over their lifetimes—as largely irrelevant to that goal.  

Millennials want educational options consistent with the way they are engaging life. More than any other priority, they believe in following their passion, and a lot of them are doing just that. They are highly creative and adaptive. Their generation is considered to be highly entrepreneurial, perhaps the most entrepreneurial generation in America. And they are increasingly, passionately pursuing their creative entrepreneurial dreams.

How do they weigh their educational experiences and options for continued learning?  As the Forbes article reports, “More and more millennials are recognizing that the model of being tested on information that you have been taught to memorize does not equal learning.” They want a more “dynamic” way of learning.  They expect their educational options to be creative, adaptive to their circumstances, and clearly supportive of their entrepreneurial goals. This is why millennials are increasingly turning to what is called DIY (Do It Yourself) educational options, especially online resources.

What do millennials do about educating their own children? Millennials are the principal, emerging generation of parents, so what they think and how they choose is a significant factor in the educational landscape. It turns out that not only are they increasingly dismissive of the status quo for themselves, those of them with school-aged children are also trending strongly away from the typical grade school, secondary school and college options. Over 70% of millennials report that they look favorably on DIY education. This means that millennials are likely to rely on online resources to direct their kids’ education. Again, they want dynamism, which primarily translates to an educational option that is creative, adaptive, and personalized.

And dynamism is above all a matter of millennial passion: identify your passion, they say; figure out what you need to pursue it; then take that path. It might well mean getting an education apart from big name schools and colleges. The curricular content is going to be non-traditional. And it will likely be driven by online content.

DIY might mean giving up some obvious material benefits afforded those who go a more traditional route. However, for many millennials, the counter-cultural freedom and personal fulfillment found in pursuing what they truly love tops other priorities.

There is a growing DIY learning movement with ample online resources. Some are individual resources, such as Khan Academy. Others provide links to a variety of resources offered by universities, art studios, tech clinics, and other learning communities—all providing online educational options. The variety of offerings and costs is wide. The key, however, is the DIY ability to facilitate the fulfillment of passion and vision.

So how might classical education appeal to the millennial mind?

For one thing, classical schools, curricula, and reading lists are counter-cultural. Classical teachers and parents largely resist the national trend toward Common Core. They are not looking to shuttle their children down the normal educational paths. They want what is best, and what is best is what genuinely reflects and nurtures their humanity.  The growing classical movement is not individualistic, but it does highly value the individual and believes with Aristotle that humans are by nature learners and that learning starts with wonder. Furthermore, they believe with the great Christian authors, such as Augustine and Aquinas, that the human mind and human freedom are evidence of something transcendent: the dignity individuals have is by virtue of being God’s image, evidenced in their capacity to know, create, and love. The Christian account of humanity is that God became one of us. He so loves humans that he has arranged for the eternal integrity of humankind through resurrection. Millennials are trending away from the church, but the classical movement is trending toward their sense of individuality as humans. That respect and unparallelled hope should be attractive to them.

Secondly, at its core, classical education is steeping students in a wellspring of wisdom about the human condition. Great works of imaginative and expository literature, the fine arts, and history all open up for classical students the broadest, deepest understanding of what it means to be human. At its best, classical studies train them to sympathize with the human condition. There is nothing more relevant to serving the public through entrepreneurial enterprises than understanding the humanity that everyone shares. Great texts, art, and history can meet the millennial desire to be smart about the people their startups are intended to serve.

Finally, classical education trends away from information-based curricula such as Common Core; in no small measure it is about creativity and performance. Classical students tend to engage in Socratic discussion—discussion that is driven by questions, not by lectures. Typically, they perform more musical works, recitations, and stage productions than their non-classical peers; they write more essays and speak more clearly about what is important in life; and they think more independently.

In fact, the very idea of “liberal” education—often used interchangeably with classical education—is to think as a free human, an independent person, one who is not reliant on existing conditions, not subject to the swing of public opinion or the lure of power and wealth. Classical education, with all the built-in passion and power for discovering and creating, gives the individual the best training. Classical education also ensures that the student can engage any emerging or far-distant situation intelligently, precisely because of the deep wellspring of knowledge and wisdom it provides. These powerful notions of human freedom, independent thought, and the ability to adapt to developing situations should be attractive to millennials.

All this could be an effective way to meet millennials on the inside of their box. It could be a beautiful way to attract them to the classical education alternative. I know that the cultural divides we face today are significant. But millennials are smart shoppers. We can be smart marketers. In fact, anyone providing classical resources should be creative and adaptive like the millennials.


Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.