With the increase in attention to classical education comes a return to the ancient debate. Although we are now separated from their battle by a century, we are not far from the argument between Du Bois and Washington. The recent resurgence of interest in classical education has the potential to open to underserved communities and young people the door to an opportunity that liberal arts education has offered for centuries.
In an 1891 essay penned as a student at Harvard, future civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois asked a provocative question: “Does education pay?”
Anticipating the rivalry with Booker T. Washington that would define much of his early career, Du Bois writes true education is more than just practical job training. Genuine education, Du Bois argues, aims at the higher ends of human life, the “Truth, Beauty, and Virtue” of the tradition that includes Aristotle, Socrates, Michelangelo, Goethe, Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Christ—a few of the denizens of the realm that Du Bois calls “the kingdom of culture.” One enters this kingdom through an education grounded in the liberal arts—the great works of literature, history, philosophy, and science that have explored the nature and meaning of human life.
Today, a liberal arts education continues to have both detractors and defenders. One hotspot for the conflict between the two is the increasing national interest in returning to classical education.
While this movement has been on the rise in charter schools, homeschooling, and private schools for several decades, it has grown even more prevalent during the last few years as the recent pandemic drew attention to the problems in America’s public schools. Just as in the days of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, much of the conflict over classical education is focused on questions of access, particularly for people of color and children from underserved communities.
In the early 20th century, opponents of classical education favored a vocational focus for the education of black Americans, the white working class, and the masses of new Americans immigrating from across the globe. Their efforts led to the current situation, in which classical schooling has far too often been a privilege available to a select few. With the increasing interest in classical education among diverse communities, many of the old arguments against it have resurfaced.
Opponents of classical education, for example, have argued that its focus on canonical works of literature, history, art, and music is outdated and is not culturally relevant to the current generation of children — the most racially and culturally diverse in the nation’s history. If these critics fear that Greek mythology, Renaissance art, and Roman political intrigues will not capture the short attention spans and inspire the imaginations of today’s youth, a step inside a classical classroom will quickly dispel such notions. When taught with expertise and enthusiasm, the ancient works of Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles have as much ability to capture hearts and minds now as they did thousands of years ago. More than that, young people, through the skillful guidance of a teacher, can pick up and build upon the themes of these works to apply them to their own lives and contemporary circumstances. The rage of Achilles and the homesickness of Odysseus are easily relatable to the lives of today’s high school freshmen, despite the time and cultural distance. The issues of war and displacement, immigration, law enforcement, and justice raised in works like Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Sophocles’ “Antigone” speak readily to the contemporary concerns of young people.