In recognition of schools starting across the country this week, this essay is the third in a four-part series on liberal education.
At a weeklong Austin Institute seminar for high school students for which I served as a faculty member this summer, I was pleased, but not surprised, by the academic caliber of the participants. What I didn’t expect, however, was their notable sense of social ease, which I witnessed as they quickly began to befriend one another both inside and outside the classroom. I soon discovered their educational backgrounds had taught them not only how to read, write, and think, but how to live well with others.
The Loneliest Generation
The social graces of the twenty rising high school juniors and seniors were especially striking in light of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory issued this May. In the advisory, the Surgeon General warns of an alarming dearth of social connection throughout the US. In-person social engagement has been decreasing across all age groups for quite some time, the report details, as has the average number of close friends Americans report having. The consequences are serious: the weaker our social ties, the more susceptible to physical and mental health problems we become. Young people are particularly at risk, with Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 today spending 70% less time with friends than the same age group did in 2003, and reporting greater levels of loneliness than in past generations.
Why are today’s teens and twenty-somethings, many of whom are surrounded by peers in high school or college, so lonely? In his work on Generation Z, what he dubs the “loneliest generation,” Daniel Cox, a scholar in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, links higher levels of social isolation to changes in upbringing. For generations, Cox explains, childhood revolved around “developing strong social networks” by, for instance, spending time “going to church barbeques or block parties.” Over the past few decades, however, parents have increasingly prioritized individuality as the primary goal for their children, beginning with the unique baby names they give them to help them stand out, as Joe Pinsker explored in an essay for The Atlantic last year. Hence, kids spend much more time trying to distinguish themselves in achievement-based activities than trying to get along with siblings or neighbors through play around the neighborhood or conversation around the dinner table. Cox concludes that consequently, fewer young Americans have learned the art of cultivating community.
Education Ordered toward True Leisure
The Austin Institute participants had been raised differently. While many factors influence upbringing, one constant was that they had each received a classical education—some at public charter schools, others at private religious academies, and still others at home through homeschool co-ops. During our week together, it became clear that the purpose, content, and method of their educations had helped to form their social natures.
While mornings and afternoons at the Institute were spent in classroom sessions on philosophy and literature, evenings were spent engaging in a range of recreational activities, from playing music and learning the English waltz to theatrical readings of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance and Karol Wojtyła’s The Jeweler’s Shop. Having taught college students and observed their social customs for the past five years, I expected the group of 16- and 17-year-olds at the Austin Institute to balk at the notion of soberly singing, dancing, and acting in front of one another. Studying great texts is one thing; performing is another. But these students welcomed the opportunity. I soon learned they weren’t afraid to “perform” for one another precisely because they did not see these activities as opportunities for performance. They saw them not as instrumental—avenues for achievement—but as intrinsically worthwhile occasions for leisure.
Nor were their dispositions coincidental. They were informed by their classical educations, which teach students to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty not for the professional or social accolades that academic study can accrue, but for its own sake. As I outlined in a Heritage Foundation Report on leisure and education in America earlier this year, classical schools offer students a countercultural approach to education, departing from their mainstream counterparts perhaps most radically in their overarching commitment to “the enduring, the changeless, and the permanent,” as the Great Hearts Academies teaching philosophy puts it, rather than to the trendy, the circumstantial, or the contingent.
Much like the Gen Z parents Daniel Cox describes, mainstream educational institutions profess to help students stand out and get ahead, whether through high standardized test scores, Advanced Placement courses, competitive arts and athletic programs, or, more recently, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. High school teachers and administrators counsel students to pursue these various measures of achievement and individuality for the opportunities they will provide, offering social mobility through admission to certain colleges and, eventually, eligibility for careers. At its best, an achievement-oriented education teaches students to work hard and strive for excellence. But “teaching to the test” or to college admission standards often leaves students with another takeaway: that one studies, plays sports, or pursues justice not because the material one studies is true, the sport one plays is beautiful, or the justice one pursues is good, but because such pursuits will earn professional promotion, economic advancement, and social approval. Should these activities cease to further one’s academic or career success, they would likewise lose their value. Even worse, this utilitarian attitude can easily corrupt relationships with other human beings. Once games and service hours become a means to personal advancement, so, too, can the teammates, friends, and community we serve.
In contrast, classical schools embrace an older understanding of education, one that prepares students for festivity and friendship, rather than socially handicapping them. Like their ancient and medieval predecessors, classical educators maintain that a crucial purpose of education is to liberate students from a calculative, utilitarian mindset by teaching them how to enjoy intrinsically worthwhile activities for their own sake. This does not mean that classical schools downplay the importance of working hard or striving for excellence, but that they emphasize the intrinsic goodness and beauty of those virtues—like those of fortitude and magnanimity—so that students might cultivate them because they are good and beautiful, not because they will help them to acquire wealth, power, or fame.
In other words, classically educated students learn how to practice virtue when they are at leisure, not just when they are pressed by necessity. As Aristotle explains in the Politics, education must make citizens “capable of being at leisure.” This is why, in addition to teaching citizens useful arts and sciences, the Greeks also reserved a central place for music, “with a view to the pastime that is in leisure.” In learning how to hear and marvel at intricate melodies and harmonies, students also learn how to perceive and appreciate the order and beauty of nature and the whole of human life, and, further, how to celebrate that beauty in genuine festivity, with friends and fellow citizens. Hence, Aristotle references Homer’s Odysseus in saying “that this is the best pastime, when human beings are enjoying good cheer and ‘the banqueters seated in order throughout the hall to listen to a singer.’”
Similarly, today’s classical schools teach students how to be at leisure with one another in part by hosting social gatherings that they prepare students to enjoy beforehand. As several Austin Institute students explained to me during our evening of waltzing, their schools and homeschool co-ops host ballroom, swing, and line dance lessons before every school dance, so that they might become occasions for delight rather than anxiety or boredom. Other students added that they had begun to play musical instruments in a similar manner—learning casually from friends and siblings after school. In doing so, these students had picked up more than skills in the arts or lines for their résumés; they had learned how to enjoy life together.
The Great Conversation
This conviviality animates the classroom as well, where classical educators teach students how to converse with peers and authorities alike by raising questions that have captivated thinkers for millennia. Though classical curricula can vary, a common commitment to “renewing the great conversation,” to quote the theme of this year’s National Symposium for Classical Education, unites them. Aware of the extensive history of pivotal words and deeds—treatises, speeches, dialogues, poems, and plays, as well as foundings, covenants, discoveries, revolutions, and wars—that have shaped the way we live today, classical educators seek to bequeath to new generations their intellectual heritage, helping them better understand themselves and the world around them. Neither geographically nor ideologically monolithic, this heritage includes the Western foundations of Greek philosophy and Roman law, as well as the Eastern origins of Judaism and Christianity, and its leading thinkers are marked not by unexamined opinion but by a willingness to question opinion through deliberation and discourse.
Hence, studying the key questions that have perplexed the greatest minds of human history not only introduces students to the “great conversation” responsible for our civilization today but invites them to join in. When encountering Plato and Aristotle’s disagreement over the idea of the good, the Bible and Niccolo Machiavelli’s divergent teachings about virtue, or James Madison and Thomas Jefferson’s debate over intergenerational justice, students discover that these arguments are not mere historical artifacts but live questions for each of us today. Furthermore, exchanges like these demonstrate that the search for truth occurs not in isolation but in community, through living and reasoning together. Students of classical education thus learn that without meaningful conversation and friendship, individuality can only take you so far.
Replacing Imaginary Friends with Real Ones
Perhaps the most obvious sign of social maturity among the summer seminar students was their detachment from personal devices, which the Surgeon General Advisory on loneliness singles out as detrimental to social connection. Though most of them had phones in case of emergency, they voluntarily kept them stowed away for the week. This healthy freedom from screens the students no doubt learned from their parents, the primary educators of their characters. Yet, it surely helps that most classical schools also discourage the ubiquity of phones and tablets. “Although we teach to a variety of learning modes,” the Great Hearts Academies teaching philosophy explains, “we believe the written and spoken word hold a privileged position in human expression and knowledge.”
The Surgeon General Advisory identifies “reform[ing] digital environments” as one of its six pillars for advancing social connection. In calling for increased data transparency from technological companies, the Surgeon General hopes to further the development of “safety standards (such as age-related protections for young people) that ensure products do not worsen social disconnection.” Measures to reduce smartphone addiction among the youth are commendable, especially as artificial intelligence companies work to create chatbot-driven avatars to fill the void of in-person relationships. Still, these efforts will only go so far without commensurate endeavors to draw young people into the “real world.” In immersing students in the truth, beauty, and goodness of reality, institutions of classical education are leading the way.
The featured image is in the public domain courtesy of Adobe Stock.