Our nation’s K-12 schools bear a formidable responsibility rarely acknowledged in today’s public discourse. As E.D. Hirsch points out, “school is the traditional place for acculturating children into our national life.” If the American experiment in Constitutional government is to survive and prosper, schools need to graduate students who are prepared to enter the national conversation as thoughtful citizens. Indeed, a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” requires a citizenry informed by civic knowledge and shaped by public virtue.
First, a civic-minded citizenry tempered by virtue is likely to choose its representatives wisely. Thomas Jefferson well understood the importance of civic knowledge when he wrote that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” James Madison explained in his speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men.”
Second, civic knowledge and virtue serve as a stabilizing force in the otherwise often tumultuous affairs of the nation. Alexis de Tocqueville believed domestic virtue to be a promoter of industry, a stimulus to enterprise, and a powerful restraint of public vice. In Federalist 55, James Madison argued that a republican form of government presupposes the existence of public virtue to a higher degree than any other. John Adams amplified in the following way: “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure, than they have it now, they may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty— they will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.”
American educational institutions, along with other elements of civil society including family, faith, and work, therefore bear an obligation to foster citizenship in students. Schools ought to not only develop the mind and impart civic knowledge, but also improve the heart and nurture traditional virtues. The time-tested classical approach to education is a proven way to achieve these goals. By its nature systematic, organized, and rigorous, a classical curriculum immerses students in the enduring Great Conversation of Western civilization, deliberately cultivates the essential virtues—including courtesy, courage, honesty, self-government, perseverance, and service—and aims to produce graduates who can answer “why” questions with clarity, brevity, and force. The rigor of the classical model not only equips students with a rich foundation, but also teaches them how to organize those facts and ideas, and finally, empowers them to analyze and penetrate life’s larger questions. In the end, as Dr. Larry Arnn is fond of saying, students should learn to “love those things which are lovely and esteem and pursue wisdom”—a direct result of a content-rich curriculum that emphasizes the principles of virtuous living, traditional learning, and civic responsibility.