What Kind of Citizens Will Classical Students Be?

Michael Can Beek explores how a liberal arts education prepares students for citizenship.

The American Civic Literacy Program recently published the results of a test that asked basic questions covering American history, government, and economics. The average score from a sample of 2,500 Americans was a dismal 49%. Astonishingly, individuals who labeled themselves as elected offcials scored even lower – 44%. Obviously, the American education system is not doing a very good job of teaching its citizens about the functions of their own government. With another presidential campaign season come and gone and with this study’s reminder of how poorly Americans understand their government and history, it seems appropriate to dissect the relationship between the goals of classical education and those of the conventional American education system.

We often hear the arguments for the importance of a government-funded education system. One argument claims that education creates a literate citizenry, which in turn creates a population better informed of political issues. These literate and informed citizens can then make wiser decisions in the voting process, and the government is thus improved by the electorate. Additionally, we often hear government offcials and public education supporters tell us that government-run schools help promote patriotism. By learning about the processes and history of our government, students gain a love for their country. A final common argument made for the modern purpose of public education is its ability to create skilled workers to compete in the new global economy. More than any other argument, this one holds the most relevance today as the American economy appears to be slipping. A well- trained population ensures economic prosperity for our country. These three arguments combine to provide the crutch that upholds much of the modern education system in the United States.

Compared to other parts of the world, the United States does have a high literacy rate. Although American students can read, they rarely read at or above their grade level. In response to this, information about the government, passed down through the media, must be transmitted at a lower level. The Global Language Monitor has analyzed the speeches and debates of the 2008 election and found that Barack Obama’s speeches varied from an 8th
to 9th grade reading level. John McCain’s speeches measured between a 7th and 8th grade reading level. Abraham Lincoln’s speeches measure between an 11th and 12th grade level, and John F. Kennedy scores between a 10th and 11th grade level, on the same scale. Obviously, although American students can read, they cannot read very well, and the political conversation has become more simplistic and didactic.

Classical education aspires to provide students with the ability not only to read at a high level and comprehend complex ideas, but also to think critically about these ideas and develop their own opinions. Courses in logic and rhetoric give students the ability to comprehend complex ideas and to make informed decisions about them. This is skill needed to make truly informed and wise decisions in elections, thus benefiting the process and the nation as a whole.

The need for patriotism is another idea promoted by the conventional school system. We need informed voters who understand their nation’s government and have a respect and love for it. As Judge Walter Crosky recently wrote in a California case regarding the legality of homeschooling: “A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.”

Mere “loyalty to the state” is not the type of patriotism that classical education promotes. We understand that in order to be truly patriotic, students must learn to love the things that make a country great. America is great because of her commitment to individual liberty, the democratic process, the rule of law, and economic freedom. These four factors have been the bedrock of the success and prosperity of the American republic. These four factors contribute to making the United States a country worth loving. Classical education teaches students the time- honored value of these Western traditions, but does not force them to love their country just because they should be loyal to their government for the benefit of the public. This is why teaching history is so important in the classical education model. Students learn the absolute value of these American ideals and then choose for themselves whether they will commit themselves to them or reject them.

The newest form of argument for public education is the need for highly skilled American workers who will compete in the global economy. This goal has become perhaps the primary purpose of our modern system. Increases in funding for two-year colleges and training schools and the specialization of curriculum demonstrate that American educators and policy makers believe it is the job of public education to train potential workers. There is nothing wrong with this in theory, but the problem arises when these students, who are not really students as much as they are trainees, do not receive the well- rounded instruction that classical education offers. Instead of challenging students to improve their reading level and critical-thinking skills, American schools send kids off to learn a practical skill so that they will contribute to the growth of our economy.

Increasing the skill-level of workers may increase productivity to a certain degree, but classically educated students have more than job-specific skills. In today’s global economy, being specialized in a field might help you land a job initially. However, American workers are changing careers at a higher rate than ever before. As technology advances, demand for certain skill-sets rises and falls quickly, and workers often find themselves looking for a new career. Classical education allows its graduates, because of their intellectual well-roundedness, to learn a new field quickly and to change careers if needed. Since technology moves quickly and the demand for skills fluctuates, people with a wide capacity and the ability to teach themselves new skills are the type of people that the United States needs to compete in the global economy.

Finally, classical education provides students with the ability to distinguish between the many different facets of their lives and to prioritize them correctly. Being a productive and responsible citizen is but one important part of an individual’s life. Well-educated students must understand this, and they must know that there are other things in their lives that take precedence over their national citizenship. Their identities as family members and members of the Body of Christ take precedence over their identities as a citizen of a state. Classically educated students have the equipment to discern between the importance of these priorities in their lives and to dedicate themselves to them accordingly.

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