Classical Ed’s Counterinsurgency

August 25, 2022

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

Not repairing walls, but toppling fortresses and building new towers are orders of the day.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in Law & Liberty on August 22, 2022.

America’s education system is irreparably corrupt, and classical Christian education may be the only remedy. This is the central point of a new book, a New York Times Best Seller, co-authored by Pete Hegseth, a popular Fox News television host, and my friend, David Goodwin, president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools.

Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation is steeped in an ancient idea of education. Education is not simply about acquiring skills or learning geometry, for Hegseth and Goodwin. Education is instead paideia or education toward a particular way of life, through a system of honor and shame that shapes affections and teaches the young to value certain things over other things. Paideia, as they write, “is the closest thing to a real-world cultural ‘force’ that envelops an entire civilization but is so deeply hidden, it’s hard to see.” The titular “battle” is between the Western Christian Paideia (WCP) and an ever-developing American Progressive Paideia (APP). Our miseducation reflects a genuine regime change, a transformation in the kind of citizen honored and formed.

The book is partly a history of this regime change, and partly an inspirational guide about what to do about it.

This is also a popular book. Hegseth and Goodwin are lumpers, not splitters, when it comes to telling this story—but anyone who would write a popular book about paideia can be forgiven a good bit of lumping. We should judge the book’s arc rather than its details.

In the beginning, according to Battle, education in America and indeed throughout the West embodied a WCP. What is this Western Christian Paideia exactly? Christian character formation—formal and informal—was the aim of society’s institutions. Churches taught people about their duties. Families prepared children to take them on. Universities, steeped in the classics, prepared statesmen to lead and prepared innovators to think. They viewed the world through the lens of man’s fallen nature, God’s grace, and the hope for salvation. Evils were not eradicable. Restraints were not radical cures. Great hopes for the human good lie only beyond this world. Christian charity was a prized character trait. The educated class, whether they were deep believers or not, saw the need for shaping character and valued the specific WCP. “Every Western generation from the time of Christ until the late 1800s knew of [WCP],” as our authors write. Every Western community made perpetuating the WCP central to its own way of life.

Then, “about one hundred years ago, [WCP] was deliberately targeted to change the course of our nation.” Progressives buried the WCP and began to occupy the commanding heights of society in order to impose a new paideia or a new vision of the good life. The takeover of the commanding heights is seen most obviously in the transformation of America’s education system. Universities became the engines for the broader regime change, while K-12 systems prepared young children for a new future. John Dewey emerges as the leader of this sinister regime transformation, and his minions spread quickly throughout the whole system. After a lag of a couple of generations, WCP was erased from America’s memory, so today we barely know what we are missing.

The progressive takeover happened in stages. During the late 1800s, school districts were organized. Common curricula, overseen by state boards of education, became standardized. School attendance became well-nigh mandatory. Finding the system sufficiently centralized for takeover, the first wave of progressivism taught citizens to love America—a powerful country with a growing state. Progressives wrote about their aims in The New Republic, where they articulated their hope to socialize Christianity through social gospel movements and undermine the idea of an otherworldly church. During the progressive era, the secular Pledge of Allegiance came to schools. Woodrow Wilson established Flag Day in 1916. Americanism or nationalism replaced Christianity as the center of American paideia. This new God-free paideia emphasized how vocational education pointed each citizen to his place within the broader social order.

Centralization continued as teacher’s colleges, emphasizing Progressive pedagogy, proliferated. Graduation requirements were standardized. Textbook authors, trained in the Progressive vision, omitted America’s Christian foundation and put forward a secular vision of education. People were no longer viewed as sinful; instead, society was plagued by repressive systems that could be removed with clever administration. People could be best understood as cogs in a worldly machine, rather than possessors of Divine Truth. Students aimed at social salvation or a utopian vision, rather than a heavenly kingdom not of this world.

Right now, classical Christian education is a small, somewhat fringe movement, but Rome too was once a small village on the outskirts of civilization.

Once the system was established, it morphed, while responding to new visions. While early Progressives were nationalistic, later Progressives turned against the nation as the source of oppression. This is the critical turn taken in the 1960s, which has, only in the last decade, come to control a new, anti-American education. This Marxist Cultural Paideia emphasizes America’s racist roots in an effort to detach citizens from the founding, sows gender confusion in an effort to end the church’s influence on family life, and promulgates materialism in order to forget the human soul. “Our modern vision of the good life has been nearly universally transformed into the freedom of personal choice, control of your identity, being accepted for who you are, finding adventure, and creating your own path in life.”

Opponents of Progressive Paideia have been ineffectual in halting it. This reflects a deep failure of understanding that overtook Hegseth himself until he met Goodwin, whom Hegseth calls his Sherpa. Christian fundamentalists during the Progressive Era and today’s evangelicals have always fought the wrong battles. Fundamentalists did not defend WCP, but rather embraced Progressive vocational training and its Americanism and thus undermined the integrated nature of the Christian system. Evangelicals fought back while adopting the terms offered by the enemies of Christianity, building schools that used progressive methods and content, but added Bible reading and allowed prayer.

The only response for the faithful in our situation is to embrace a real integrated Christian paideia. All half-measures adopt a significant portion of the progressive project in order to carve out space for an ever-thinner Christianity.

Battle’s second half describes how classical Christian education provides a feasible remedy to what ails the modern condition. It peels back the psychology of education to its root passions, and tries to show how classical Christian schools can better fulfill the full range of human longings that genuine educators build upon.

Hegseth and Goodwin emphasize human longings for reason, virtue, wonder, and beauty as the most crucial battlements or towers that classical Christian education must succeed in recapturing. Each has been hijacked. Reason is now debased into “wokeness” that offers supposed insights into the nature of white supremacy and oppression. Virtue is now multiculturalism and tolerance, instead of courage, temperance, faith, and other cardinal/theological virtues. Wonder has no place in a world that is purely material. Beauty is either in the eye of the beholder or a tool of oppression, since there are no universal standards for beauty.

What has been perverted can be recovered with an integrated classical Christian approach. These four towers of reason, virtue, wonder, and beauty can be recovered, in fact, since they reflect deep human wishes and aspirations. Man thirsts for knowledge—and Christian doctrines point to the truth about the world. Man’s happiness lies only in virtue—and schools can encourage habits of the heart that point students to the fulfillment of duty. Wonder is one of the beginnings of wisdom—and a genuine education sparks the moral imagination instead of emphasizing skills and information. Beauty is mixed with honor as a natural inclination socially shaped in the beginning but pointing beyond itself to the high. Subjects are not cordoned off from one another in math class and social studies classes under classical education. Rather, the content arrives as a whole so students can relate what they learn to the towers of education.

Hegseth learned from Goodwin that classical Christian education is the best way to satisfy these very human inclinations consistently with the truth. Such schools, they hope, will revive the WCP by emphasizing classic texts and Christian doctrine and faith. In the stead of Progressivism, it offers an education rooted in truth that starts with an appreciation of our civilization’s glories, but points beyond them to Divine Law and the Kingdom of Heaven. Right now, classical Christian education is a small, somewhat fringe movement, but Rome too was once a small village on the outskirts of civilization.

A counterinsurgency against our Progressive juggernaut is needed, so our authors close Battle with a theory of counterinsurgency. First, alternative institutions like classical Christian schools must be established so parents have somewhere they can go when they walk away from government schools. Then, progressive institutions must be harmed and disabled through school choice, defunding teacher unions, breaking up school districts and other means. Lastly, classical Christian education must become the established alternative as it used to be, embodying the WCP and strong enough to resist the APP in any of its forms. “It’s doubtful,” write Hegseth and Goodwin, “that anyone reading this book in 2022 will be alive when this comes to fruition.”

That the problems with America’s education system are deep and abiding cannot be doubted, especially for anyone taken with the glories of Western civilization. Not repairing walls, but toppling fortresses and building new towers are orders of the day. Battle’s call for action is based on a terrific act of faith that Christian soldiers are still capable of such fortitude and love. The popularity of the book indicates that more than a few Americans are woke to this new and old possibility.