Andrew Kern, President of the CiRCE Institute, speaks about the revitalization of classical education in our country and state.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is Andrew Kern, president of the CiRCE Institute, based in Concord, North Carolina. We are going to be discussing an old approach to learning that is seeing revitalization in our country and in our state, and that is Classical Education.
Founded in 1996, the CiRCE Institute provides a wealth of research and resources for use in classical schools and homes where teachers and parents seek to apply these ancient principles of learning to today’s educational settings.
Andrew has assisted with institutional development and start-up in over 100 schools since 1996, including some schools here in North Carolina. And he has co-authored the best-selling book Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America.
Andrew Kern, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show!
ANDREW KERN: Thank you, John. Having seen what classical education can do in our communities there’s no place I’d rather be than here right now. So, thank you for this honor.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know our listeners will be very interested. Now Andrew, what exactly is classical education? Help our listeners understand what that term encompasses.
ANDREW KERN: It’s a big idea. Let me give a very general definition of it: Classical Education […] is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on the true, the good, and the beautiful. And as Christians, we believe that the end of classical education is so that the student is better able to know, glorify, and enjoy God. So, that’s sort of a definition. The simplest way to put it is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. If you want to break it into elements, we’ve identified four that we believe in and I think they do a fair job of summarizing it. The first one is: logocentrism. That will be familiar to some people like the Gospel of John. The idea of logocentrism basically means that the world makes sense. The second principle is: a high view of man. For the Christian, that means that man is made in the image of God. For the ancient Greeks, it meant he had a divine spark. There’s a number of different ways to look at that but classical educators have a very high view of what a human being is. Third: responsibility for the Western tradition. I emphasize the word “responsibility” there. We don’t have the right either to abandon or to abuse it. And then forth: a truth-oriented way of teaching. The content and the modes of teaching are oriented toward students being able to perceive the truth. And if you take those four elements, we believe you will cultivate wisdom and virtue in your students, and strengthen your community.
JOHN RUSTIN: So what does Classical Education look like in say elementary school vs. high school vs. college?
ANDREW KERN: First there are some things that are common. The main commonness is that you’re always focused on something excellent, something noble. Think Philippians 4:6-7,”Whatever’s true, whatever’s just, whatever’s noble….” those sorts of things. That leads to an emphasis on things like the great books: Aesop’s Fables for younger children, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for older children. And when you get into college, you never do escape from those. The ideas, though, they’re the same; ideas like the true, the good, and the beautiful, no matter what age they are. But the biggest difference is that with the younger students, by nature they’re more dependent. You have to equip them to use the tools of “truth fishing” as Dante put them in his poetry. Think of it like an apprenticeship. When Leonardo da Vinci started his apprenticeship, he was basically taking horsehairs and making paintbrushes out of them. By the time he was an adult, he was painting masterpieces that the world had never seen before. And that’s how it works, is that first it’s very different from the modern mind because at first, you’re very dependent on your teacher in classical education. But the goal is always independence. In a modern school, and I’m caricaturing here, but in a modern school, we pretend that the child is free and independent as a kindergartner; but by the time he’s in twelfth grade, he’s a slave. To exaggerate, but we don’t teach them how to think independently. It’s very ironic that way. So the difference really is: the older they get, the more independent they get. Practically, that means you’re going to have kids memorize quite a bit, really at all the stages, but you’re going to have them memorize a lot in the lower school years. We still believe in things like drilling, math, equations, we want kids to learn how to dance with numbers and you only can learn how to dance if you step on each other’s feet, you don’t get faster and faster. We believe in teaching foreign languages, especially Greek and Latin, and Hebrew if possible. It’s harder to get teachers for that, but if possible. But in all of this, the goal is that they move toward independence and that means discipline first and freedom second.
JOHN RUSTIN: You’ve touched on this already, but what really differentiates classical education from how most schools operate today? And, do you believe it is better? Or just a different approach?
ANDREW KERN: To the second question, I think it’s both better and different. I think it’s a different kind of thing from what most modern educators are trying to do. So let me defend that and let me say that—I’ll put this in extreme terms, caricatures again—because nobody does a really perfect classical education and nobody does a really perfect conventional education. It’s too bad on the classical side; it’s a relief on the conventional side. But here’s what I mean: In conventional education—and if people want me to, I can document this—there are three basic beliefs: First, is that there is no truth. The second is that, even if there is a truth, we can’t know it. And the third is that even if you could know the truth, you couldn’t communicate it to another person. That being the case, we don’t teach our children in our schools to know the truth and to communicate it. In classical education, the whole thing is oriented to knowing and communicating truth. And this goes back to the arguments between Socrates and his debating partners. Now in the classical tradition, the belief is that truth leads to freedom. We aren’t born free; you become free when you live in truth. And therefore, what classical education does is it cultivates freedom. What conventional education does is it worries all the time about control. An example of that would be the way, in the state systems in America; you have increasing federal control all the time over details of daily life in the local school. So there’s truth versus no truth; there’s freedom versus control. And then ultimately, the foundation of modern culture and the foundation of modern education—if you dig down to its foundation—you find there isn’t one; there’s nothing there. And modern thought is rooted on the foundation that Nietzsche explained was “nothing.” And for the classicist, the foundation is the nature of things, that things have a nature, the nature of things can be known and the nature of things needs to be respected. And the goal of science class, for example, is not to overthrow nature but to align ourselves with nature, to live with nature. The goal of math class is to learn about the nature of the human mind and how the nature, how the mind relates to the world outside of it. I know that sounds really philosophical, but it’s not; it’s really practical; Either we can know the world outside of the mind, or we can’t. If we can’t, we’re in trouble.
JOHN RUSTIN: Is classical education something that can be incorporated or adapted into an existing school, or does a school pretty much have to go in the direction of classical education or a contemporary approach?
ANDREW KERN: I don’t hold to a purist view on this. I think there’s no such thing as the perfect classical school, so either you’re moving toward it or you’re not. That’s my priority. Therefore, any school can improve. First of all, there’s a question of orientation: Any school can reorient itself toward truth-focused learning instead of what we call pragmatism, but really its just nihilism. The second thing is it is hard, right? It’s hard because honestly, it’s hard because positions get threatened. It’s a lot easier and more efficient to teach kids classically for the simple reason that it’s possible. But people are accustomed to doing things certain ways and get paid to do things certain ways and have been trained to do things certain ways, and those trainings and patterns and habits…. You know, we like to talk about being revolutionaries in our culture, but we don’t mean that when it comes to our daily habits. We just mean that when it comes to what we buy on TV commercials. So, it can be done by anybody and my encouragement would be, first, reorient yourself toward teaching students to see the truth and then second, do what you can; take one step.
JOHN RUSTIN: Andrew, is classical education accessible, in your opinion, to students of all learning levels and abilities, or is it best suited to just the brightest and most advanced students.
ANDREW KERN: I think it for everybody. In fact, one of my favorite books is a book called Simply Classical by a lady named Sheryl Swoopes, who had two—I think she had two adopted children with severe learning disabilities and I believe they had a strong emotional component to them. And she found, to her astonishment, that teaching them Latin helped them to be more peaceful, to be more secure within themselves. I’ve heard of kids with dyslexia finding that they can read in Latin while they can’t read in English, which is interesting. I think that might have to do with the very complicated nature of the English alphabet and Latin is simpler. I believe that classical education has a simplicity to it, foundation to it, that kids with learning disabilities need more than anybody else. And then it has, because it has such a strong foundation, it has an upward reach that the best and the brightest really need to be seeking otherwise. They just get cocky and think they can do anything.
JOHN RUSTIN: Andrew, what kind of presence does classical education have in North Carolina? It seems like more and more classical schools are popping up. Are you seeing a significant uptick in the number of classical schools around the state? And, if so, to what do you attribute the growing level of interest?
ANDREW KERN: I see a growing number of schools and also a vast number of home educators going in the direction of home schooling. It is growing. I don’t think it’s very huge yet, maybe it’s a percent or two of our students, maybe it’s more than that, but it’s growing and having an impact because it works so very well. But in home schoolers, you’re seeing just a huge number of home schoolers turning to it. Classical Conversation is a home schooling network. There’s another called Paideia Fellowship. We service the institute located here in North Carolina, and I think that there is a very good presence for it in the state of North Carolina. The number one driving force behind classical education, in my observations, is the love of mothers for their children. And I think, if our country has a future, I hope it’s because of that. It’s because mothers love their children so much that they’re looking at what schools are doing and they’re saying, “Wait a minute. Is that what I actually want for my children”? And the mothers are paying an enormous price to educate their children in the state of North Carolina. And I think that’s what’s driving it more than anything else.
JOHN RUSTIN: Andrew, we are nearly out of time this week, but I want to give you an opportunity to tell our listeners what types of resources the CiRCE Institute offers for both parents and educators who want to learn more about classical education. And where can they go to access those resources?
ANDREW KERN: Thank you. The easiest thing to say is we have a website: it’s circeinstitute.org and there you can find podcasts; We have a blog that’s updated almost every day; We have a number of downloads, including our podcasts, that are free and so people should feel free to come check that out. We also have conferences that they can learn about there. We carry a number of books. And then we have an apprenticeship for teachers and home schooling parents who want to master the arts of classical teaching. And if they don’t have time for the apprenticeship, which is a three-year program, we have an “Atrium” which is sort of a doorway into the apprenticeship. They meet online for a couple of meetings a month to read really good books. I think the easiest thing to say is to visit our website and you can learn about a number of the offerings that we have there. And if you can pray for what we’re doing we’d appreciate that more than anything.
JOHN RUSTIN: Let me repeat that website for our listeners. It’s again circeinstitute.org. And with that Andrew Kern, I want to thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters this week, and for your great work at the CiRCE Institute as you work to preserve and promote the rich educational heritage of classical education.
ANDREW KERN: Thank you for letting me participate in your program. And hopefully your great work will continue and the families in North Carolina will keep on growing in their wisdom and virtue.
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