A Nation Still At Risk

Terrence Moore

January 1, 2003

There is today a great war at hand. It is being fought in every home, in every neighborhood, and in every school in this country. It is the war for the minds and souls of young people. When I was in high school the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued this warning to an unsuspecting nation: "Our Nation is at risk… [T]he educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people… If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." These words neatly summarized my high school education. The question is whether the educational establishment has changed much in the last two decades.

My own experience has shown that we are a nation still very much at risk. Before becoming the principal of a school, I taught history at a small college in the Midwest. I found that most of my students were woefully unprepared for college and for civic life. Although very nice young people, they did not know much about history or literature or science or math. During the first couple of weeks in my course on Western Civilization, for example, I would give a geography quiz on modern Europe. More than half of my students could not identify Paris or London or Greece on the map. Even on taking the second quiz some weeks later, a substantial number of the class would score below 50%. I could use similar examples across a range of disciplines to indicate that young people these days learn very little in the first eighteen years of their lives when compared to men and women in the past or from other countries. This scares me. It scares me because what we call education, the handing out of degrees, increasingly does not reflect any attainment of knowledge. It scares me because young people who do not know places on the globe, and scientific facts, and basic words in the English language are little able to understand themselves and the world around them. It scares me because the rest of the world, especially after September 11th, looks to America for ideas, for leadership, and for courage. And yet the young Europeans I have met while teaching and traveling in Europe are surprised at how little Americans actually know. The words of warning pronounced by Edmund Burke to the British Parliament just before losing the American colonies ring true for America today: "A great empire and little minds go ill together."

For the next year or so I shall offer periodic suggestions on ways to recover the minds and souls of the nation’s youth. My purpose in these articles will not be primarily to criticize existing educational institutions or to point fingers of blame at those who have sapped the native curiosity of our young people by using that most powerful weapon of mass mental contraction: boredom. Rather, I hope to offer an alternative view of learning, which, while it may seem fresh and different, is actually old and venerated. We may call this approach to education "classical." Classical education has a history of over 2500 years in the West. It began in ancient Greece, was adopted wholesale by the Romans, faltered after the fall of Rome, made a slow but steady recovery during the Middle Ages, and was again brought to perfection in the Italian Renaissance. The classical inheritance passed to England, and from the mother country to America through colonial settlement. At the time of this nation’s founding classical education was still thriving. So important has classical education been in the history of the West that it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the march of civilization has paralleled the vibrancy of classical schools. Classical education must be distinguished from modern, progressive education since it values knowledge for its own sake; upholds the standards of correctness, logic, and beauty intrinsic to the liberal arts; demands moral virtue of its adherents; and prepares human beings to assume their places as responsible citizens in the political order. Curiously enough, the time-tested pursuit of truth and beauty is precisely what the uninstructed minds and souls of the nation’s youth are longing for.

Terrence Moore grew up and attended public schools in Texas. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His dissertation is entitled "The Enlightened Curriculum: Liberal Education in Eighteenth-Century British Schools." Dr. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools.