A More Sex-Sensitive Classical Christian Education

May 2, 2023

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published by The American Conservative on April 28, 2023.

The Christian and Western traditions offer a refreshing alternative to the feminist thesis.

The classical Christian education (CCE) movement promises to provide a counterweight to the moral and intellectual decay in America’s public education system. Grounded in great books, CCE poses the greatest questions of human destiny to its students and provides them Christian answers. It seeks to cultivate in students a love of Christian virtues and an appreciation for the ancient virtues, not only through these books but also through an ordered educational environment.

Of course, the reigning American ethos both inspires and threatens CCE’s counter-cultural mission. Students are in schools for thousands of hours from kindergarten through graduation, but they are in the American culture for longer and the schools are in America, too. Between our mass culture, friends, churches, and parents, at least as many CCE students go with the American flow as live a counter-cultural life.   

Most within the CCE movement are broadly conservative, but there is a real debate about what conservative means. Many parents and educators see CCE schools as Tolkien-like shires away from American problems. CCE schools are orderly, rigorous, old-fashioned, and mostly void of woke nonsense. They pursue excellence the better to prepare children for elite college admission and perhaps entry into America’s ruling class.

Others in the movement are cultural warriors, who seek an education set against the current American regime. They want their children to recognize regime lies and avoid the compromises with those lies that too often plague the American church. They emphasize faith and family, wanting their boys to become men able to lead a family, and wanting their daughters to prioritize motherhood.

A battle between these “shire” and “cultural war” factions is present in nearly all classical Christian schools, in every one of their board rooms, and among national organizations such as the Classic Learning Test promoting classical education. This battle will determine the long-term viability of the CCE movement as a counter-cultural force in the country.

Debates about diversity—both about race and sex—within CCE are emblematic of this factional conflict. Let us focus on sex, and a weakness of CCE’s cultural warriors.

Some figures platformed in the classical Christian education movement argue within the feminist frame of “inclusivity,” pushing to make the “living canon” more representative by including more women authors to inspire CCE’s female students. Girls need “representatives” to be inspired to great things in their lives, so anthologies need to find representative women authors to include.

Others point to the idea that American institutions should teach boys and girls interchangeably. This very American position is not totally in error. No one in the CCE movement opposes educating both males and females to “sex-blind” academic success. Doing math, learning grammar, and reading Homer cultivate the same virtues in men and women—accuracy, attention to detail, brevity, diligence, etc.

A counter-cultural CCE, however, cannot be totally sex-blind. In a Christian culture, boys and girls should have different attitudes toward leadership and imagine somewhat different destinies when it comes to family life and the ministry, for example. “Career” choices of boys and girls should, correspondingly, be different. Our post-Christian culture, meanwhile, pushes hardest and most insistently against the Christian elevation of motherhood and the Christian concept of a wife’s role.

It should come as little surprise that the project of classical Christian education is less successful in terms of Christian family formation than it is on purely academic terms. A few years ago, the cultural-warrior ACCS conducted the “Good Soil” study to investigate whether CCE schools are accomplishing their counter-cultural mission. Results were both encouraging and disappointing.

Very encouraging was the faith and intellectual influence at ACCS schools. Generally, ACCS graduates not only attend church at rates well above every other alternative, including homeschoolers, but they have orthodox Christian views. Their lives are infused with a sense of mission. They are grateful for their blessings, not filled with grievances. They are at the center of robust communities and have lots of friends. They have a heightened sense of Christian duty.

On the issue of marriage, however, ACCS graduates look a lot more like America. Though their views are more Christian on sex before marriage, divorce, and same-sex marriage, their marriages resemble those of homeschoolers and students from prep schools. The “Good Soil” study did not ask about the number of children ACCS graduates have, but anecdotal evidence on the timing and number of children of ACCS graduates suggests that our graduates look like America: Few marry before twenty-five and the lion’s share have children after the age of twenty-eight. I would guess that more than half are childless by the age of thirty, based on what I have seen as part of the community.  

CCE has been most impressive in challenging the practices and presuppositions of America’s public schools. They value hierarchy and inequality, virtue and vice. Grounded in Greek and Roman history and literature, CCE schools have plenty to offer when depicting the male heroic. The Greeks and Romans don’t say nearly as much about women, though, and there are very few great women authors to speak of before the Enlightenment. Those facts are impolite to mention but are also revealing causes for wonder.

Thus CCE schools do not generally offer a correspondingly compelling vision of the heroic female for our time and place, despite the Bible’s many women or Homer’s Penelope. Feminist aspirations seek to fill the void. The only image of the female heroic that Americans are capable of giving, it seems, is the girl boss, the suffragette, the civil rights advocate. No wonder CCE is weakest where America is, in a sense, the strongest.

Feminist critics within CCE are right to argue that its curricula must become more sex-sensitive. Those pushing for “the living canon” of representation undermine efforts at character-formation, however, since they refuse also to say that CCE should inspire girls toward maternal Christian vocations. That will not be done by including more women in the curriculum, but by intelligently laying forth compelling visions of healthy, family-first womanhood, rooted in the Christian and Western traditions and thus ever-relevant for today.