BY: DAVID GOODWIN | JANUARY 20, 2023
It’s been a good year for classical Christian education. New school starts are up threefold, a book on classical education became No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and on Jan. 26, Fox Nation will release season two of a popular series on classical Christian education, “The Miseducation of America.” Of course, with growth comes attention. What is unusual this time is that someone with ties to our movement — one of our own — draws focus to a growing divide.
On Jan. 12, in the online journal Current, Jessica Hooten Wilson asked, “Is White Supremacy a Bug or a Feature of Classical Christian Education?” It should come as no surprise that, within her mainstream academic ecosphere as a scholar at Pepperdine University, she gets pressure. “I experience regular pushback from those who perceive [classical Christian education] as white, Western-only, and male-dominated.” She proceeds to cast aspersions on a few people and organizations — including, indirectly, mine. Her accusations become a pretext for her thesis: “If the classical Christian school movement is to survive — let alone flourish — we must oppose all forms of racism and misogyny and stand with the beauty, goodness, and truth that we hold up for our students.” I’ll take her up on that charge.
Hooten Wilson is a staccato note at the end of a new tune within our circles. Her article praises those groups she believes are taking the right steps. So far, I’ve heard no one publicly state the thesis so clearly as she does: “We should peruse the authors of the works and, if applicable, the editors or introductory writers to ensure an assortment of voices … as well as an equality of both sexes. If we look at the table of contents of a textbook or a reading list for a semester and find not a single woman or person of color in that list, then that curriculum is misrepresenting the classical Christian tradition.”
Choosing the Classical Canon
For the better part of three millennia, philosophical, theological, and literary authors labored to create the classical canon, representing countless cultural influences. Over much of this same time period, learned scholars have made lists of those that deserve “canon” status. It is unclear if there are minorities or women in Cassiodorus’ list of authors (400 A.D.), or Leonardo Bruni or Battista Guarino’s lists (humanists from the 1400s) — they don’t use those categories. Mortimer Adler and his team of about 40 renowned scholars chose the most widely recognized list of books in our time based upon their contribution to “the great conversation.” Adler’s merit-based criteria required a work to have changed the course of history and to have developed the collective Western mind. What Adler’s team did not do is look to race or sex as criteria.
The Western classical tradition has long included people of every race and sex in a particular way: The tradition deals with a body of texts that address the universal truths about the human condition, rising above our culture’s current quest to silo everyone into an intersection of identity.
Whatever your identity may be, the long journey toward Aeneus’ destiny amplifies the tension between duty and desire. The hilarity of twins unknown to each other, living in the same city, begets “A Comedy of Errors,” no matter your race or sex. Would Hooten Wilson tell the young women and minorities in our schools that they cannot fully converse with these texts because their voices are not represented in them? Shall our schools sacrifice universal human dignity on the altar of token inclusion? Hooten Wilson limits her criteria to women and minorities. Some, like Kimberle Crenshaw, will not be satisfied with this attempt to diversify our reading lists — there will always be one more disaffected group.
Duped into Old-Fashioned Racism and Sexism
By Hooten Wilson’s standard, we must scrape and scrape until we find a “fair” representation of “diverse” contributors. “I am especially excited about the number of women that we added to the Middle Ages list. … Classical schools should look through their reading lists to make sure women and persons of color are not excluded from their curriculum.” Classical Christian education should not be duped by the spirit of our age into old-fashioned racism or sexism. This spirit was cultivated not by our tradition, as Hooten Wilson claims, but rather by the Frankfurt School.
During the 1930s, a group of cultural Marxist scholars set up shop at Columbia University. The Frankfurt School set out on a mission to end the influence of Christianity in our culture. Their thickly veiled product called critical theory deliberately divides us by whispering one small lie, presented in two axioms: For a person to relate to anything, or gain from anything — in this case an intellectual tradition — it must have elements that “look like them” and match their “identity.” And, a second axiom follows: Thus, if something does not contain “diverse and inclusive” elements, it is racist or misogynist. These fruits of critical theory travel down a circuitous path from the Frankfurt School, to Hooten Wilson’s proposal, to a few classical educators who take incremental steps toward critical theory — all of this under the trendy label of “inclusiveness.”
True Liberation Through Classical Christian Education
Classical education was created to, and has, liberated the minds of countless people groups in history, and it is capable of doing the same in America today — and beyond. It has been at the forefront of the march for freedom and education; for individual rights apart from race or class or sex. If we let the very toxin that infects progressive education get into our classrooms, we’re doomed. This toxin was created and propagated by those who hate our tradition. Should we voluntarily drink it?
My daughter recently graduated from New Saint Andrews College. This is one of the institutions that those in Hooten Wilson’s camp label “misogynist.” The college seeks to uphold and respect traditional Christian femininity, which displeases feminists who seem to hate femininity. Misogyny? When my daughter brought her friends to our home over Thanksgiving, I remember listening to the conversation and thinking, “Where do these women come from? They’re strong, bright, extremely well-read, fluent in ancient languages, and honoring of Christian truth — including their God-given womanhood.” None were weak women. All seemed faithful, happy, and confident. I don’t think any of them would want Hooten Wilson’s prescription for their reading list.
Is Racism a Bug or a Feature in Classical Christian Education?
The Frankfurt School’s purpose was to deconstruct. To do so, they inserted a “bug” in our educational system: critical theory, and all of its descendent forms. Some in our movement now offer a batch of code that has this bug embedded deeply within it — in the form of reading lists. By Hooten Wilson’s reckoning, these groups are heading in the right direction. The rest of us are not. Will our institutions continue to follow her lead by adopting coded terms like “Kingdom Diversity”? Or will we recognize the code as a virus and say, “No thank you. The classical Christian tradition is above all that nonsense — and the nonsense of white nationalists, by the way. May a plague be on all your racist houses.”
If classical Christian education is to survive, it has to reject the foolishness of our age and embrace Christ’s way alone. Christ’s church favors neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.
The humanities are great because they unite. They are universal. Women and non-Europeans are now, in our present time, contributing to classical Christian education in spades. I work so that all children can rise up and join the great conversation without barriers.
“Identity,” however, won’t fit here. Check it at the door. We are Christ’s. We are classical. Those who want to be loved by the spirit of our age will become intoxicated by it, and slowly die of its poison.