“Does education pay?”

David Withun

In an 1891 essay penned as a student at Harvard, future civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois asked a provocative question: “Does education pay?”

Anticipating the rivalry with Booker T. Washington that would define much of his early career, Du Bois writes true education is more than just practical job training. Genuine education, Du Bois argues, aims at the higher ends of human life, the “Truth, Beauty, and Virtue” of the tradition that includes Aristotle, Socrates, Michelangelo, Goethe, Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Christ—a few of the denizens of the realm that Du Bois calls “the kingdom of culture.” One enters this kingdom through an education grounded in the liberal arts—the great works of literature, history, philosophy, and science that have explored the nature and meaning of human life.

Today, a liberal arts education continues to have both detractors and defenders. One hotspot for the conflict between the two is the increasing national interest in returning to classical education.

While this movement has been on the rise in charter schools, homeschooling, and private schools for several decades, it has grown even more prevalent during the last few years as the recent pandemic drew attention to the problems in America’s public schools. Just as in the days of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, much of the conflict over classical education is focused on questions of access, particularly for people of color and children from underserved communities.

In the early 20th century, opponents of classical education favored a vocational focus for the education of black Americans, the white working class, and the masses of new Americans immigrating from across the globe. Their efforts led to the current situation, in which classical schooling has far too often been a privilege available to a select few. With the increasing interest in classical education among diverse communities, many of the old arguments against it have resurfaced.

Opponents of classical education, for example, have argued that its focus on canonical works of literature, history, art, and music is outdated and is not culturally relevant to the current generation of children — the most racially and culturally diverse in the nation’s history. If these critics fear that Greek mythology, Renaissance art, and Roman political intrigues will not capture the short attention spans and inspire the imaginations of today’s youth, a step inside a classical classroom will quickly dispel such notions. When taught with expertise and enthusiasm, the ancient works of Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles have as much ability to capture hearts and minds now as they did thousands of years ago. More than that, young people, through the skillful guidance of a teacher, can pick up and build upon the themes of these works to apply them to their own lives and contemporary circumstances. The rage of Achilles and the homesickness of Odysseus are easily relatable to the lives of today’s high school freshmen, despite the time and cultural distance. The issues of war and displacement, immigration, law enforcement, and justice raised in works like Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Sophocles’ “Antigone” speak readily to the contemporary concerns of young people.

The current practice in most schools emphasizes young adult books whose “relevance” is excruciatingly obvious. With simple plots, basic sentence structure, and limited vocabulary, this practice does a grave disservice to today’s young people. It limits their exposure to complex texts and stunts their intellectual growth, leaving them unprepared for the demands of the texts they will encounter in college. Furthermore, it traps them in a presentism that prevents them from seeing how the emotions, injustices, and tumults of their own lives are part and parcel of a much bigger human drama. It only slightly veils many contemporary educators’ contempt for young people’s intellectual and empathic abilities in its insistence that students must read in the classroom only what they already see on their own streets.

Du Bois recognized the link between the broader vision of the world “above the Veil”—as he termed it—granted by liberal education and access to power and civic participation. It is this link that forms the crux of Du Bois’s critique of Washington’s philosophy of industrial training. A denial of access to classical liberal education, writes Du Bois, entails the denial of full citizenship and curtails the possibility of growth into positions of leadership. It is, in short, the imposition of a permanent caste system.

As Roosevelt Montás has recently written in his book Rescuing Socrates:

Far from a pointless indulgence for the elite, liberal education is, in fact, the most powerful tool we have to subvert the hierarchies of social privilege that keep those who are down, down.

The failure of America’s public schools to adequately provide young people with the knowledge they need about wider American culture and society is one of the main sources of the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor. Young people in underserved communities are denied the social capital that comes with knowledge of the culture—the ability to chime in with something meaningful when anyone from Mansa Musa to Mozart to Marx comes up in conversation among friends who went to high-priced private schools. Such denial of cultural capital is not merely the loss of the ability to engage in intellectual snobbery. In a country where graduates of private schools with liberal arts curricula are vastly overrepresented in places from the Ivy League (including both students and professors) to the Supreme Court and the Senate to Wall Street, it’s an exclusion from the halls of power.

More than that, disadvantaged students are denied a heritage of thought and action that is rightfully their own. As Du Bois points out in his essay, though it took more than 2000 years, “the Platonic ideals of Justice, Right, Freedom and Love took hold of the world” and eventually led to the Western creed of liberty and equality—and the end of legalized slavery. Indeed, Du Bois himself drew much inspiration from Plato, as did leaders like the more radical black power activist and co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton. For his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, Martin Luther King, Jr. drew on the natural law theory developed by Roman philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, medieval Catholic theologians like Thomas Aquinas, and Enlightenment political thinkers like John Locke.

While Plato might spark a vague recollection for many Americans, figures such as Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke would be entirely foreign to the average student of a public high school in the United States today—as would their ideas that animated the abolitionist and civil rights movements. I have myself encountered many high school students whose understandings of history were so garbled by its absence in public school curricula that they believed that King had been responsible for ending slavery. Students in classical schools, meanwhile, are immersed in the works and ideas of these important figures and others like them.

Black classical educators today, such as Anika Prather and Angel Parham, continue to emphasize what Du Bois wrote more than a century ago: access to liberal arts education is deeply tied to freedom, justice, and equality. Du Bois defended classical liberal education against vocationalism in his own day because he knew that denial of access to liberal education was a denial of access to leadership and full civic equality.

With the increase in attention to classical education comes a return to the ancient debate. Although we are now separated from their battle by a century, we are not far from the argument between Du Bois and Washington. The recent resurgence of interest in classical education has the potential to open to underserved communities and young people the door to an opportunity that liberal arts education has offered for centuries.