Dr Kevin Donnelly

Proven by a recent seminar in Melbourne where 30 parents, teachers, school leaders, academics and representatives from the Archdiocese of Melbourne and Catholic schools came together from around Australia to learn more about what constitutes a classical education, otherwise known as a liberal education, it’s obvious what is happening overseas is also happening here.

Whether America, England or New Zealand, parents have decided the best way to ensure their children receive an enriching, substantial and rigorous education is to establish their own schools free of government control.

One of the reasons Ron DeSantis is Florida’s governor and seen as a possible Republican presidential candidate is because he champions a balanced and impartial school curriculum; one that increasing numbers of parents are organising to achieve.

The movement to oppose woke ideology in schools and to reassert the value of an education based on what Matthew Arnold terms the best that has been thought and said also explains why Virginia now has a conservative Republican governor.

In England, such have been the fears state managed schools have lost their way Chris Woodhead, the former head of the government’s school inspection body Ofsted, helped establish independent Cognita schools dedicated to character development and academic excellence.

Katherine Birbalsingh, the headteacher of the independent Michaela Community School, has also gained prominence for arguing there is no place for cultural-left ideology in education and schools must provide a disciplined environment based on high expectations.

Whether overseas or in Australia, parents are concerned about falling standards, lack of discipline, teachers being overworked and a curriculum that is superficial and characterised by progressive fads like child-centred, enquiry-based, 21st century learning.

Parents are also mobilising to establish their own schools as a result of the negative impact of critical postmodern theory where students are presented with what the historian Geoffrey Blainey describes as  a black armband view of society and Western civilisation.

In opposition to what is seen as a superficial and politically correct education those involved in the Melbourne seminar, organised by the Page Research Centre, argue the curriculum should embrace a classical, liberal view of education based on Western civilisation’s best validated knowledge and artistic achievements.

The idea of a classical education can be traced to ancient Greece and Rome where what is central is the pursuit of truth, beauty and wisdom based on what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott terms as a conversation in which students are encouraged to participate.

In order to participate productively students must first be familiar with texts such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and Greek tragedies including Medea, Antigone and Oedipus.  Engaging in a Socratic dialogue where students are taught to evaluate and weigh arguments based on rationality and reason is also vital.

The various subjects and disciplines, whether music, art, mathematics, science, literature and history, while evolving over time, also embody essential knowledge, understanding and skills that must be taught in an explicit and substantial way.

Arguing students are knowledge navigators and digital natives and teachers are guides by the side and facilitators ignores the reality to be creative and critical thinkers students first need to be familiar with and master what is being taught.

As argued by the head of Sydney’s liberal/arts Campion College Paul Morrissey what also characterises a classical education is its focus on the four virtues so vital for the development of a student’s character; what Aristotle describes as prudence, justice, temperance and courage.

At a time when students are surrounded by an ego-centred, narcissistic culture based on what is immediately gratifying and utilitarian, teaching virtues grounds students in a more substantial, enriching and enduring set of beliefs and values.

A classical, liberal education, while drawing on the ancient world, also embodies a view of education based on the writings of Catholic theologians and philosophers including Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman.

Both argue instead of education being restricted to what is contemporary, immediately relevant and utilitarian it should introduce students to a more enriching and engaging appreciation of the spiritual and transcendent.

For those parents committed to the Christian faith and the word of God such an education, by necessity, includes what the Bible says about how best to live the good life, what constitutes good and evil and right action and the belief with God’s love and grace all will be well.

At the Melbourne seminar parents, teachers and school leaders from Melbourne’s Harkaway College, Sydney’s Hartford College and the planned John Henry Newman College in Brisbane demonstrated what is happening overseas is also happening here.

Add the fact a number of teachers at the seminar have established the Australian Classical Education Society with links to the America’s CIRCE Institute and it’s clear the educational tide is turning.

  • About the Author: Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior fellow at the ACU’s PM Glynn Institute and editor of Why Christianity Matters In These Troubled Times.