The Defenders of Classical Education Are Destroying It

The Western canon is too diverse to be used as a political pawn.

An illustration of a rock wearing a graduation cap
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; Getty

In recent months, those of us who care about the humanist tradition in education have watched with dismay as right-wing politicians clear space for what they dubiously call “traditional education,” often linking their efforts to the cause of liberal education and the teaching of the Western canon. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has placed his “anti-woke” education agenda at the center of his emerging national profile, is a case in point. With promises to reform higher education by “aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition,” he has positioned himself as a defender of liberal education. Christopher Rufo, one of his handpicked appointees to the board of trustees of Florida’s New College, declared that part of the institution’s agenda would include a “shift” to a “classical liberal arts model that provides a distinctly traditional brand of education and scholarship.”

But the right-wing approach to liberal education and the Western tradition is as skewed as the notion among some academics that teaching the classics is tantamount to promoting white supremacy and European domination. In the presumption that the Western canon represents a single perspective, and in other surprising ways, elements of the radical right and the radical left seem to agree. And they are wrong. Only a censored and denatured liberal-arts curriculum can be employed in the service of ideological conformity. In the same way that liberal education does not have specific vocational and professional goals in view, it must also not have predetermined ideological or theological end points. To the extent that it is political, it is so because it cultivates self-determination, freedom of opinion, and personal agency.

In January, DeSantis, who studied history as an undergraduate at Yale, rejected a draft curriculum proposed by the College Board for a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies, denouncing it as woke indoctrination. Soon after, the College Board released a revised version of the course that de-emphasized readings and topics the governor opposed. After initially maintaining that DeSantis’s criticism had not influenced its decisions, the College Board acknowledged that the Florida Department of Education had, in fact, requested the type of changes it had made to the course. Guided by political and corporate priorities, Florida and the College Board, self-styled champions of liberal-arts education, threaten to undermine the kind of learning that equips students for informed and empowered citizenship.

We support the idea of liberal education organized around the discussion of texts of major historical significance, sometimes called a “canon”—works that have been pivotal in the political, social, and philosophical development of contemporary culture. Democracy is imperiled if we forget the debates and struggles from which it emerged, and if we don’t think deeply about what it means to be human. Not all texts and practices are equally effective for facilitating this type of reflection and conversation. The loose and shifting family of works that have proved exceptionally conducive to this task count as a canon.

That canon should be understood not as an inherited fixture but as a process requiring continuous revision and examination. Liberal education, like all other formal education, requires a degree of restriction. Selecting a canon should be the province of neither politicians nor corporations, but of faculty on the ground who are passionate about and dedicated to educating the next generation of citizens. The process should be an opportunity for educators to exercise democratic habits of deliberation, compromise, and collaboration.

The ideal of a liberal education isn’t only under threat from the political right. In December, President Joe Biden’s secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, tweeted, “Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce.” Acid responses from across the political spectrum accused Cardona of cynicism, anti-intellectualism, exploitation, and failure to address the needs of both individual students and the body politic. But Cardona is hardly alone in promoting this vision of education. Many colleges and universities encourage students to think of their education as an investment and to evaluate it in terms of future earning potential. Given the cost of higher education, our rapidly changing knowledge economy, and the fierce competition among colleges for a shrinking pool of students and their tuition dollars, this marketing strategy is not surprising.

And it isn’t false advertising. At many institutions, liberal education—the kind of education that students pursue for its own sake rather than for its practical or professional value—is in the process of extinction. Instead of a deliberate grounding in the historical, political, and ethical questions that shape our society, much of what passes for liberal education consists of “distribution requirements”—that is, topical courses in academic disciplines taught by specialists in those fields. Even when those courses are in “liberal arts” disciplines, they can fall far short of the ideal of liberal education.

At the high-school level, rigid testing regimes promulgated by vendors like the College Board and the erosion of teacher autonomy disincentivize liberal intellectual habits such as questioning received wisdom, skepticism of authority, and creative exploration. At the same time, pressure on secondary-school students to enroll in courses that earn college credit undercuts curricular mainstays like the decades-old 11th-grade survey of American literature, which should help students ponder the complexity of citizenship while affording a democratizing aesthetic experience.

Historically, liberal education has been the province of the elite, because it cannot be mechanized, prepackaged, and administered from above. It requires talented and caring teachers whose focus is on the individual development of students rather than on disciplinary research, test preparation, bureaucratic box-checking, or the reproduction of ideology. Today’s partisan weaponization of curricula threatens to exacerbate the decline of liberal education and put it further out of reach of students who lack the resources to secure it. Yet this moment of national attention also represents an opportunity. American democracy cannot survive without engaged citizens who are equipped to participate in the country’s ongoing conversation about freedom and equality. With small classes, carefully chosen texts, open debate and exploration, and teachers dedicated to the full development of their students, we can reclaim and revitalize liberal education. Practitioners and institutions should seize the opportunity to recommit to education in self-governance, taking the classroom as a laboratory for democracy.