A classical education has a particular view of the human as rational and free, capable of the truth, open to and longing for the beautiful, and able to choose and act toward the good. It is also the root of many virtuous friendships, encouraging students to see in one another the shared truth, freedom, and rationality they are taught to admire.

It was a Spring night, and I was in the Soccer-Mom Honda Odyssey, picking up a group of eighth graders, all of them classmates with my son at his classical charter school, after yet another Marvel Avengers film. Like any group of adolescent boys, they piled into the van with goofy physical energy, chatting about the special effects and their favorite characters. I did the parent thing, listening and yet trying not to impose, my role the dad, not the buddy.

And then something odd welled up from the back of the van. Someone started it, and the rest, barely missing a beat, chimed in:

Hwaet, we gardena        in geardagum

þeodcyniga                      þrym gefrunon,

hu ða aethelingas           ellen fremedon!

They kept going, with increasing enthusiasm. There were a couple of stumbles by one or two voices, but most of them had it cold, and they ended on the last half-line with a resounding roar:

Oft Scyld Scefyng            sceaþena þreatum,

Monegum mægþum       meodosetla ofteah,

Egsode eorlas,                  syþþan aerest wearð

Feasceaft funden;            he þæs frofre gebad,

Weox under wolcnum    weorþmyndum þah,

Oð þaet him aeghwylc     ymbsittendra

Ofer hronrade                   hyran scolde,

Gomban gyldan;               þæt waes god cyning!

Now, was there a bit of self-mocking irony in their performance of the opening lines of Beowulf? You bet; these were teenage boys, after all, laughing at themselves, sheepishly amazed that they were doing this.  They knew they were doing something that had been imposed on them by their teachers, and had caused many of them considerable effort and strain, and which had led to much whining and complaining at home during the process. In their voices was also the clear understanding that, outside of that van, anywhere in the rest of American culture—especially in the rest of American, suburban, adolescent culture—their recitation would mark them as, to use their own language, “turbo-Geeks.” But they did it. And they were, despite the irony and self-mockery, strangely proud of themselves. They had created a kind of fellowship over their turbo-Geek recitation. They called one another friends over, by, and through their recitation of these opening lines of Beowulf.

I want to emphasize that these were, in every other respect, pretty darned normal boys. They played soccer and baseball and participated in martial arts and went camping and hiking, and were about to be formed into a neophyte varsity rugby team by an ambitious pair of coach-brothers who love the sport. Just a year or so before, my son would get together for an evening-long “play date” with his public school seventh-grade friends, staring at a giant TV screen with game controllers in their hands, while the moms sat in the kitchen sipping chardonnay. But something had changed since we pulled him out of the upscale, well-funded suburban public district—we had bought our small house in this area precisely for that good—and put him in the start-up, underfunded, classical charter school. Now he had different kinds of fun, which led to different kinds of friends. At a birthday party, held under a picnic awning at a public park rather than in a vast bowling/gaming warehouse, I pulled up to find eighth graders playing on the swings, throwing around a football. At another, the birthday girl paused in a game of charades, asking me, “Dr. Roper, you study the Middle Ages, so you would know—is it GA wain or Ga WAIN? Please please let it be Ga WAIN!?” She rushed back to her friends, afire with my answer.

What had happened to my son? Who were these people with whom he was associating? Why did he, and his classmates, seem to be, well, kids again, more or less youthful and innocent in the way childhood and early adolescence should be, and yet in other ways older, more intellectual, wiser than the jaded, homo semper onlinicus adolescents in his public school? What had happened to their play? Why did it seem more youthful, more fun, happier, more energizing, than the play my son had engaged in before? Why did the quality of his friendships seem to be so much better?

I want to suggest that it was—is—this certain kind of education that has come to be called “classical” or, more historically, “liberal”[1] that is at the root of this, and that one of the great goods it produces is a kind of friendship that Aristotle and Cicero and C.S. Lewis would recognize. All teenagers are, in Aristotle’s term, gregarious, but these had become, to use his contrasting term, social. It is my contention that the very proponents of this kind of education—headmasters, teachers, scholars, and advocates—need to talk about this great good much more, for it could be the greatest good these schools achieve.

Now, I want to stipulate at the beginning that the results I see are not solely a matter of changing a curriculum. And it is quite obvious that my son’s friends were different because they came from self-selecting families who shared certain values and thus consciously chose this school with this curriculum. (For one thing, even though this was a public charter, a healthy number of these families were Catholics of a particular kind who had a raft of kids at home, and so certain values and even economic expectations were quite different from those of many families in our upper-middle-class suburb, where the median house size is north of 3000 square feet, the median list price—in Dallas—is well north of $470,000, and it’s an exceptional day when you don’t see multiple Teslas.) So in what follows I do not want to give sole credit to a particular kind of curriculum or set of books or approaches to education. But I want to argue that this curriculum and these educational approaches have multiple contributing effects that help create a culture where healthier, richer friendships can take place, and this friendship then goes on to reinforce that culture.

In a passage from The Four Loves that I think many of us read for the first time with the delightful shock of recognition—as in so many places, C.S. Lewis points out to us what we didn’t quite know but suddenly realize is exactly a description of our experience—Lewis writes that

[F]riendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like “What? You too?  I thought I was the only one” (96).

So friendship is the discovery of shared, but heretofore undisclosed, interest. We discover that what we saw as special to us is in fact shared with another—as he notes, at first almost always a single other. But soon we find others, or at least quickly hope to find others, and if we do, add them to our circle:

Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, the barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not. They would be glad to reduce it. The first two would be glad to find a third (97).

And the quality of this love is based on the intellect, on a kind of knowing or seeing:

In this kind of love, as Emerson said, Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth?—Or at least, Do you care about the same truth?” The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer (97).

Friends bond over seeing something, knowing something, being interested in the truths about something—whether it is woodworking or French wines or, as happened to me my freshman year of college, when punk was starting to rear its head, a guilty pleasure in James Taylor’s music. Friends are not as interested in each other as in this object of their attention, of their knowing, thinking, critically evaluating, judging.  “Hence,” says Lewis, “we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead” (98). Now, if we put together Lewis’ insights with the Thomistic notion that we become what we know, and love what we become, through a kind of connaturality, I think we can begin to see why Classical Liberal education provides more possibilities for rich, complex, healthy friendships.

In the typical progressive educational paradigm on offer in public and most private schools today, content—the very thing over which friends can bond—is, as E.D. Hirsch notes in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them and Why Knowledge Matters, progressively denuded from the curriculum in favor of content-neutral “thinking skills.”  Students are not asked to master actual historical information or works of literature but to learn how to think about things in general. The point is not knowing something but (as Todd Hartch said recently at a conference I attended) metacognition. A group assignment—it is, annoyingly, always a group assignment—that has students make up their own constitution teaches them about constitutionality, about the kind of thinking that goes into making a constitution, but not about the specifics of the United States Constitution. Worse, we parents are told—as we are in my local district—that the point is for students to “create their own meaning for themselves.” (Even in the sciences? Increasingly so.) What content is left is dreary, dystopian/depressing, and charged with constant, and even to the students, rather transparent political advocacy.  But if we are performing contentless critical thinking, focusing on our epistemological processes, there is little, well, stuff over which friends can bond. And if we are creating our own—and therefore by definition, individual, private—meanings, how do we get to that point where we find another who cares about the same truth, to whom we can say, “you too? I thought I was the only one!” The situation is eerily similar to the one Lewis describes, of the person who just “wants friends”:

This is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. They very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a Friend,” no Friendship can arise—though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers (98).

With a curriculum that is going nowhere, that has no content except one’s own reflections upon one’s thinking, even at times contempt for content, there is little to nothing to bond about, little to be a fellow-traveler towards. At least, I would say, there is little of richness to be about or towards. Oh, students in these schools do form friendships, of course; they form them most often over extracurriculars, over sports, over band, over the robotics team. And why? Because these are about something.  More often, they merely form more or less affectionate acquaintances over Pewdiepie or Call of Duty.

Contrast this with the typical classical school: with a coherent curriculum of rich content—of great classics of children’s and then adult literature; with history classes that teach the events, heroes, villains, and texts of history; with mathematics and science based in, not just calculation, but thinking through the subjects as liberal arts; with teachers who call students to know and master these things, so that the content sticks; there are simply more, and higher, things which the students can share, about which they can say, “You too? The Iliad had that effect on you?  You love and care about the Battle of Marathon?” The two friends side by side are looking ahead at more wonder-filled objects of their attention.  (Lewis says friends can bond over dominoes or white mice, but clearly he thinks it would be better to bond over something more than those.) In my son’s charter school, students are not allowed to make references to pop culture during class discussions, either as a way to illustrate a point or to frame a reference or question. This policy exists partly to reduce differences in social status among students, so that those with vacations in expensive places or access to more internet and cable content could not get the drop on their fellows.[2] Students at first chafed at this, and the older ones mock it a bit and find ways around it a bit, but largely honor it. But the good of the requirement goes well beyond leveling the socio-economic distinctions that can be so invidious in adolescents: it forces the students to bond (even with that slight mockery of their Beowulf performance) over the actual content of the curriculum. Setting aside pop culture allows some breathing space for friendships to take root in this richer soil. Their friendships, which they are still starting to form at these ages, take shape over more thoughtful, more complex, more challenging and more mature subjects. And as the students become The Odyssey and the Confessions through co-naturality, they themselves become larger, and have more, and higher, things about which to share present or future friendships. These friends now have Diomedes and Ajax and Athena and Hephaestus in their souls, along with Copernicus and Euclid and Caravaggio, and “you too?” has a better chance of being about some of these things—even about mutual contempt for those who deserve it, like Robespierre. But the good of a classical curriculum goes beyond content; as every classical school (at least that I know or have heard of) features at its heart the seminar, one learns not just the content but an approach and attitude to the content and a way of working through it, an approach that suggests that one can discuss, debate, and even disagree in spirited, indeed thumotic ways, and not just still remain friends, but in fact widen and deepen those friendships. As Lewis says, he can be my friend who cares about the question, even if we disagree quite animatedly over the answer. A seminar, my colleague (and more importantly, friend) Matthew Walz says, “allows persons to be recognized as persons, and their positions or interpretations as just features or aspects of persons.”[3]

If the curriculum features virtue, then ethical and moral thinking—even better, ethical, and moral action in moments of history and works of literature—is part of the content upon which they can, and often do, bond as well. The field of reference is wide, so their friendships are wider and deeper—and perhaps more enduring; the stories coming from the classical school movement, now well into its fourth decade, suggest that what I am coming to call “classical friendships” have a shelf life that exceeds the usual high school associations—witness, for example, the lifelong friendship between two alumni of the Trinity School in South Bend, Indiana—J.J. Sanford, the University of Dallas Provost, and John Lee, now the headmaster of the school.

And even more: so much of the great literature of ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, and the Early Modern west features interesting friendships, thematizes friendship, and interrogates the nature and quality of friendships, that, whether these feature in the direct discussion or not, students are treated to a startling panoply of the ways to be a friend and are presented with authors asking about the quality of these friendships. Achilleus and Patroklos, Orestes and Pylades, Madison and Jefferson, Chesterton and Belloc—even Odysseus and Athena—or more troublingly Antonio and Bassanio or the speaker of Shakesepare’s sonnets and the Fair Youth: friendship and the bonds of human relationship are prominent throughout the great literature, and often barely accessible in the demotic texts of contemporary progressive education.

All of this has the potential to move the students from being gregarious to being social, the marvelous distinction Aristotle makes in The History of Animals.[4] Teenagers are quite naturally gregarious, as Aristotle says pigeons are. They flit and flutter in groups; they form cliques; they gather in hallways and at tables in the lunchroom. But “Social creatures are such as have some one common object in view; and this property is not common to all creatures that are gregarious. Such social creatures are man, the bee, the wasp, the ant, and the crane.” It takes education—socializing—of the young to move them from gregarious to social. It is the central task of a curriculum to form students so they have one common object in view, whether it is a Euclidean proof, or Mr. Gradgrind and his horse, or the witty banter of Beatrice and Benedick that everyone but they knows masks real respect for each other’s intellect, a respect that soon leads to affection and finally to love.

All curricula articulate an anthropology, whether they intend to or not, because curriculum is the sacrament of an education. It is the visible sign, the tangible way of coming to know and understand what the grace is that this type of education will convey. As I say often, risking cliché to make my point, curriculum is where the rubber meets the road.  Curriculum is the plan you lay out to make manifest the idea you hold about that education. A classical education has a particular view of the human as rational and free, capable of the truth, open to and longing for the beautiful, and able to choose and act toward the good—and I suspect that is, even if they cannot articulate it, one of the main reasons parents choose this kind of education. So the friendships in such a curriculum can be Aristotelian friendships of virtue, not merely pleasure, as they encourage these adolescents to see one another as rational and free, and to enjoy the free gift of friendship by choosing these friends through their mutual interests.

Now, I began with a caveat, and I will end with one. As I noted, all of these effects do not result from merely changing a curriculum. But if curriculum is the sacrament of education, and if every curriculum carries with it—not just articulates but instantiates—an anthropology, then changing from a progressive to a classical curriculum can actually effect a change that can radiate out to families, as the schools and headmasters and teachers begin the work of rhetorically persuading parents of the goods they, often quite surprised, begin to see in their children. (My new—and I hope I am not being presumptious in saying this—good friends Beth Sullivan, Chris Weir, Andrew Seeley, and Michael Van Hecke at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education tell me they see this shift again and again in Catholic parochial schools that “go classical.”) And here is the second caveat: none of these kids are perfect. There was, just a year ago in my son’s school, an unpleasant tiff among 9th-grade girls that spilled all the way into the 10th grade last year, and engulfed—inevitably, in a class of only forty students—some of the boys as well. These are adolescents, after all. But my son has started to see in friends what he wants in a friendship, to define that in adult terms, and to be capable of the being that very kind of friend himself. For that, we have to thank this form of education.

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[1] Those at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE), whose names I will mention later in this essay, argue strongly for their term over “classical,” in that it is faithful to the long use of this term in western education, and signifies an education that liberates the student. While I agree wholeheartedly with this point, I can see the point of those who use “classical” to signify the very different kind of education on offer from the typical (and typically progressive) schools today. Part of the confusion comes from many small colleges and universities, thoroughly progressive in aims and curricula, that are widely accepted as being “liberal arts colleges” that have lost almost all connection with the western tradition of the liberal arts or liberal education. Another part of the confusion is a popular way of conflating “liberal arts” or “liberal education” with the “humanities.” Parents seeking something better for their children might be excused for being confused if the same term is being applied to a high school that Brown University or Williams or Reed College use to describe themselves. But none of those colleges call themselves “classical,” so it seems the term might help in making the distinction. In debating this question with Matthew Mehan at the ICLE conference, he eventually said, “Oh, so you see parents looking at the term ‘classical’ like ‘classical music’—demanding, elevating, artful, beautiful.” “Precisely,” I responded.  And just like the “classical” in “classical music” is an inaccurate and clunky term, but does help make some useful distinctions and serves the public discourse reasonably well, until it doesn’t, I suppose drawing parents in with the term “classical education,” and then educating them into the term “liberal education,” is a move I am comfortable making. I tend to use both: Classical Liberal Education. But then again, I am a wordy, boring academic.

[2] Along with the requirement for uniforms, the ban does seem to achieve this goal to some extent.

[3] Email conversation, November 4, 2019.

[4] Thanks to my colleague and friend Andrew Moran for pointing me to this distinction in a text I knew not at all. Friends who share our interests want to share more things that deepen our shared interests.

The featured image is “Self-Portrait with a Friend” (1519) by Raphael (1483-1520), and is the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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