Two student reading textbook for test together in library.
Two student reading textbook for test together in library.

The Bottom Line The Need for Classical Education Beyond Charter Schools

As an educator, I’ve long been an advocate of charter schools, which I believe are an important step in providing a quality education for all students. Charter schools represent a marked and demonstrable advancement in public education.  Publicly funded but privately run, they escape the bureaucracy, inefficiency, and loss of mission endemic in public schools today, particularly those in major urban areas. Charter school teachers are free to teach in the time-honored, traditional manner that focuses on the mastery of math, science, literature, and history—which should of course be of first priority in any school or school system.  But another priority is equally important: the teaching of civics. This is why I advocate not just for charter schools, but for charter schools that provide a classical education.

Unfortunately, public schools have strayed far from their mission by incorporating highly controversial and unproductive socio-political issues into already underperforming K-12 curriculums. At a time when the United States is losing its competitive advantage in math and science relative to other industrialized countries, there is the progressive vision to push critical theory, ethnic studies, and gender ideology into the forefront of K-12 curriculum. While these topics may be appropriate for study at the secondary level, they are inappropriate at any level when used to indoctrinate students through a lens of oppression which we see now as early as elementary school.

Especially alarming is the lack of civics education. We live in a culture where there is little understanding of basic civics, which can be traced back to deficiencies in our education system. Indeed, the National Education Association noted as recently as 2017 that civics education in the United States is “in crisis.” Testing results bear this out. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, only twenty-five percent of U.S. students are proficient in civics.

Civics is a vital component in classical education because a classical education not only teaches students “the three R’s,” but also teaches students to be thoughtful, informed citizens who understand the moral, philosophical, and political traditions that make America a great country—one of individual opportunity and a beacon of freedom for many around the world.  Especially foundational is an understanding of our Constitution and how our system of government is morally grounded in the Declaration of Independence’s pronouncement that our inalienable rights are endowed by our creator rather than granted by government. This is vital in understanding the proper role of government.

A recent political debate underscores the criticality of civics education.  In urging strong gun control legislation in the wake of recent mass shootings, Democrat congressman Mondaire Jones threatened that if the legislation he proposed were not passed, he and other Democrats would seek to both eliminate the Senate filibuster (to get the bill to the President) and expand the Supreme Court (to overturn Second Amendment protections). Regardless of one’s views on gun control, one has to ask how a representative who has sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution would propose such an utterly destructive path—one that would further escalate if Democrats lost control of Congress.

Many other representatives joined Congressman Jones in deriding the constitutional right to own a firearm. It is reasonable to ask how these people were elected to Congress when they have so little respect for the Constitution. The answer is clear. Since most Americans have little grounding in civics, they neither study the issues nor ask candidates hard questions regarding where they stand on the issues or what they would do to solve hard problems. Furthermore, they don’t hold those in office accountable for their performance on issues, but lazily vote by party affiliation.  This is all to the country’s great peril.

There is little doubt that our nation is heavily polarized both socially and politically, and what we have come to expect from our elected representatives, particularly at the federal level, is staunch partisanship focused on domination over the other party.  Consequently, simplistic arguments that seek to inflame and divide rule the day, rather than deep and thoughtful arguments that seek resolution and consensus. But it all comes back to us. We, the people, a people lacking basic understand of civics, are the ones who put them there. If we can’t find a way to restore civics to our education system, we will eventually fail as a nation.

A classical education, particularly within the context of charter schools, is the remedy for the failure of our current K-12 education system to produce well-rounded, well-educated individuals who exhibit true moral virtue and respect for others. A shining example of an institution leading the way in this regard is Hillsdale College, whose K-12 Classical Education program provides curriculum and training to those bringing classical education to their communities across the country.

If we want to see real change in America, we need to reinvigorate our education system with the founding values that made this country great. That starts with our children who will be the next generation of voters. Let’s not fail them.

Walter Myers III

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
Walter is a Principal Engineering Manager leading a team of engineers, working with customers to drive their success in the Microsoft Azure Cloud. He holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, where he is an adjunct faculty member in the Master of Arts in Science & Religion (MASR) program teaching on Darwinian evolution from a design-centric perspective. He is also a board member of the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), a classical charter school in Southern California associated with Hillsdale College.
Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?