Contentious Content

By Alec Bianco

Our author bank includes all sorts of contradictory views and philosophies. How do we square that with our mission?

The Classic Learning Test is a favorite of many traditionally-minded and liberal arts high schools, whose curriculum tends to clash with the Common Core principles embodied in the SAT. It has, therefore, come as a surprise to some people to find that both our testing passages and our recommended author bank include figures like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Surely reading and analyzing works like The Will to Power or The Communist Manifesto is inconsistent with our mission?

Not at all.

Let us look for a moment at conventional standards in public education. For over a century, College Board has enjoyed a near-monopoly on college entrance exams. Its chief tool is the SAT, introduced as an aptitude test in 1926; the aptitude element has been downplayed to a vanishing point since that time. Given that the SAT is the most popular college entrance exam, most teachers will focus on preparing their students, directly or indirectly, for the SAT, which makes it a powerful controller of curriculum. As of 2016, the SAT has been aligned with Common Core—a set of standards that has proven unpopular with a large number of parents and lawmakers. (The ACT, the SAT’s principal competitor, is not substantially different in Common Core alignment.) Common Core has been modified, halted, or repealed outright in twelve of the states that adopted it.

A glance at a typical selection of passages for the contemporary SAT may suggest one reason why: as a rule, SAT passages are hopelessly dull and irrelevant. Boring material results in bored students, which is itself a barrier to learning. Works of philosophy or great literature are ignored. Passages are as likely to come from the newspaper as anywhere else! And this is to say nothing of texts such as op-eds by contemporary politicians. These are apt to be ideologically slanted, which may be natural enough in context—but many parents do not endorse such ideologies, nor want them presented to their children as if they were fact.

The truth has nothing to fear from honest inquiry.

It was in this landscape that Jeremy Tate conceived and founded the CLT in 2015. Our content harkens back to classic, liberal ideals of education, of the kind that minds like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and W. E. B. Du Bois enjoyed. This is where we get our mission statement, “Reconnecting knowledge and virtue.” The passages we use for testing are drawn from works of literature, philosophy, and science that have left their mark on our history, not infrequently by their sheer beauty. Their interest is universal and perennial. While the CLT does not require a background in the Trivium, it does reward critical thinking skills, and many passages we use are drawn from the great books. This does include a large number of authors on religion (many Christian, others not), a subject that is conspicuous by its absence from the SAT despite its personal and cultural importance. Private, religious, and homeschooling families have flocked to the CLT, finding in our test a perfect alternative to conventional exams, one that tests for the material they actually want their children to learn.

Why, then, include voices like Nietzsche or Voltaire, who seem to contradict our presumed vision? There are three main reasons:

1. We are not trying to push any one ideology. Christian and conservative families have seen the greatest value in our exams, it’s true. But we firmly believe that every student, regardless of their views on any subject, can and will profit by the kind of education the CLT promotes. A classic education teaches students how to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions, rather than imposing views from without.

2. Dissenting voices—and responses to them—are part of our intellectual tradition. Even if someone sees little of value in, say, the work of Karl Marx, it remains important because of the influence it has wielded on history. This is not only true because so many people have subscribed to Marxist ideas, but due to the work other authors have put into answering those ideas. Polemical writers like G. K. Chesterton or Friedrich Hayek must be understood partly in light of what they are rejecting.

3. The truth has nothing to fear from honest inquiry. One of the deepest convictions that underlies liberal education is that truth can be discovered by the mind of man. Liberty of thought and honest, attentive research are vital to that enterprise. Falsehoods will collapse on analysis, while the truth will only shine forth more brilliantly, provided we are allowed to analyze them fairly. At CLT, we are confident that our students are learning to recognize bad ideas and absorb the good.

This is why we include significant authors with whom we do not necessarily agree on our exams. We expect intelligent engagement with great texts from our students, including lively discussions with their parents and teachers. The renaissance of the American mind will not be achieved by quashing controversy, nor by resorting to stale material that nobody could object to. It will come by setting the vast resources of our tradition, past and present, at the disposal of every student who wants them—and showing why they merit wanting.

Alec Bianco is an alumnus of St. John’s College here in Annapolis, was classically homeschooled, and firmly believes that Plato is greater than Aristotle. He works for CLT marketing.

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