Classical Education and Conservatism

What is “classical” education?  Is it a “conservative” thing?

The Heritage Foundation recently published a video lecture by Leigh Bortins, founder and leader of Classical Conversations.

Readers of ILYBYGTH may remember a recent guest post from Patrick Halbrook about the thought of classical education inspiration Dorothy Sayers.

Bortins’ talk at Heritage did not focus too much on Sayers’ work, but rather on teaching homeschooling parents  a classical approach.  Those familiar with the themes of classical Christian education will notice that Bortins mostly assumes the age-graded breakdown of the Trivium, though she does talk us through it.

Her organization, Classical Conversations, claims over 62,000 students enrolled.  Bortins says her program has trained over 8,000 parents, as well as over 16,000 parents who have attended three-day practicums.

Bortins herself now hosts groups of college-age people (currently 19) in her home.  She teaches them in the classical model at her home.

Young people, Bortins insists, must be challenged in age-appropriate ways.  Monotony and repetition, she says, are the right way to teach young people.  Older students must move into questioning and using knowledge to improve themselves and their communities.

Too many contemporary education systems, Bortins argues, focus on basics such as literacy and numeracy.  Instead, education must keep its focus on big questions of virtue and personal formation.  Education, she says, has been turned too often into an industrial processing of young people.

The talk runs for about an hour and is worth your time if you’re interested in understanding the spectrum of conservative ideas about education.  Bortins takes her audience through some exercises relating to teaching with a classical model.  How do we define a common thing?  Bortins uses the example of the Washington Redskins.  What makes the Redskins different from other similar things?  What defines the team?

Parents can learn to engage their student-children in a set of guiding questions like this.  There is no mystery to it, Bortins believes.  Classical education, she says, will allow everyone to enter into all the great conversations from across human history.

Critics might complain that this educational model is literally medieval.  Students in this approach spend time defining, comparing, and disputing, just as young Europeans learned for centuries.

But knee-jerk characterizations of “conservative education” might be thrown off by Bortins’ emphasis on the educational value of the humanization and individualization of education.  Caricatures of conservative education often don’t have room to include Bortins’ emphasis on young people freed to sit under the stars and ponder their existence, young people learning to knit as a way to connect themselves to past generations of civilization.  Bortins’ take on good education revolts against an industrial model that treats young people like widgets.

Yet Bortins also insists on the value of free-market values in education.  She implies a Christian grounding to all true and proper education.  In the American context these days, that puts her in the conservative camp.

Of course, Bortins’ vision of classical education can’t be taken as the last word.  Other classical educators might differ in their definitions and approaches.  But Bortins’ talk gives us at least one prominent classical educator’s explanation of the promise of classical education.