There is a lot of unhappiness these days. A recent Monmouth poll revealed that 73% of Americans are unhappy with the direction of our country. Teachers are especially grumpy, with a survey reporting that 54% of them are seriously considering leaving teaching.
Clearly, that survey didn’t include many teachers at classical schools.
I just returned from the National Symposium for Classical Education 2022, in Phoenix. The annual gathering included 495 teachers, administrators, supporters, and scholars of the classical model of K-12 schooling. Wow, are they happy!
Why shouldn’t they be? Classical education teachers are doing what they love to do: elucidating the messages of classical works from around the world to eager young minds. Not only that, but classical education is a fast-growing model of for K-12 education in the U.S., with dozens of new classical schools opening every year.
Classical education is an approach to nurturing the whole person: mind, body, heart and soul. As the Institute for Classical Education website puts it, “Through the study of languages, the sciences, history, mathematics, literature, and fine arts, classical education helps students recover a sense of wonder in their search for knowledge, alongside a deeper purpose—namely, the pursuit of wisdom and development of virtue.”
One imagines a possible motto for classical education: “Nurturing students for over 2,000 years.”
The three primary objects of classical education are truth, goodness, and the appreciation of beauty. That sure sounds like a prescription for happiness.
Classical education draws heavily from the Western canon, including classic works from the Greeks, Romans, Jews, and a certain English bard who wrote some cool plays. Most classical curricula, however, also include a solid dose of non-Western classics from Eastern societies and both African and African-American sources.
The theme of this year’s Symposium was “For the Love of Poiesis: Teaching the Fine Arts.” The goal was to deepen attendee’s appreciation for, and skill at, exposing students to beauty through artistic expression.
Frederick Turner of the University of Texas at Dallas kicked the conference off in grand style with a keynote speech on “Why Beauty Matters.” Turner led us through material on the fine arts, quantum physics, psychology and biology in a veritable tour de force. One vital way in which beauty matters, Turner explained, is that it drives us to reproduce. Beauty sparks desire.
One can imagine a conversation in the Turner household: “Daddy, where do babies come from?” “Well Joey, they come from a person seeing a beautiful person, thus sparking their brain to produce pheromones, leading to …”
Anika Prather of Howard University delivered a second stirring keynote address on “The Black Tradition of Artistic Expression of Classical Literature.” She shared her personal story of how exposure to classical works sparked her love of learning and gave her life much needed direction.
The most inspiring aspect of classical books and art, according to Prather, is that they address universal truths about human nature. Classics unify. They don’t divide.
Even Mark Bauerlein was an instrument of joy. An Emeritus Professor of English at Emory University and the author of dour books including The Dumbest Generation and The Dumbest Generation Grows Up, Bauerlein led a session titled, “Yes, the Arts Have Standards: Very High Ones.” His message was that educators and policymakers should not shy away from demanding rigor in fine arts classes.
Bauerlein was the person who inspired me to write this post. During a break he said, “Look around you. These people are so happy.”
A session on music appreciation concluded with the participants filing out of the conference room, forming an impromptu choir, and serenading the delighted souls who were lunching in the convention center food court. Well, that’s not something you see every day!
Christine Perrin of Messiah University presented a delightful seminar on “Tolkien the Poet and the Education of the Poetic Imagination.” She explained how the 60 poems in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – including pieces spoken by central characters such as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Tom Bombadil – advance the narrative of the story and draw emotional responses from the reader. We all are called to purposeful adventures in our life, and poetry helps us to appreciate and express the thoughts and emotions wrapped up in our quests.
My University of Arkansas colleague, Albert Cheng, Director of the Classical Education Research Lab, presented the results of his empirical study of the effect of integrating poetry into areas of the curriculum outside of the fine arts. In his cleverly designed experimental analysis, Cheng finds that students understand more about birds, the weather, or the moon by reading a poem about them than by reading a dry analytic description, of the same length, about them.
Good poetry engages, informs, and moves the reader. Science proves it!
I presented on the founding of two new classical schools in Northwest Arkansas, Anthem Classical Academy and Ozark Catholic Academy. I began my talk with a twist on the famous Harvard Law School orientation quip, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here next year.” I instructed my audience of classical teachers and administrators, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of you will found a new classical school next year.”
The main point of my talk was that founding a new school is challenging, but every obstacle can be overcome by people committed to delivering a classical education to eager students. The mission propels one forward!
We all seek joy in our work, whenever and wherever we can find it. Classical educators seem to find joy often and everywhere. They are The Happiest People on Earth.