In a 2010 essay for National Affairs, Frederick Hess tackled a very difficult question: does school choice work? It’s not so easy to answer, for a few reasons: long-term studies are fewer and farther between; there are different kinds of “school choice” and different ways to offer and administer such opportunities; and most considerations of school choice effects don’t really measure, say, the difference in safety and security for students who may be performing about average in their new environment but do not fear for their lives going to and from school each day.

But the simple fact that we’re still asking the question–or using alternative methods to grade progress–suggests at the very least that the fledgling school choice movement has not met its expectations. Those in favor of school choice respond, correctly, that the evidence shows plenty of encouraging signs for properly designed school choice programs, and that efforts by school choice opponents to limit and obstruct the process plays its own part in obscuring the efficacy of school choice. There is also the simple element of fairness and equality of opportunity: why should poor Americans have fewer educational opportunities than others? But the mixed results on school choice also shine a light on one very important–and often overlooked–aspect of education reform: curriculum matters a great deal. Conservatives worried about the state of American education have to be prepared to tackle the question of not only where the students should learn, but what they should learn.

Though it wasn’t intended as such, an intriguing idea comes today from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s review of a posthumously published memoir of Earl Shorris, a different kind of education reformer. Shorris, Riley writes, wanted to tackle the problem of poverty, and figured out a unique approach while interviewing inmates at a prison. Riley recounts the conversation:

He asked one of the women at New York’s Bedford Hills maximum-security prison why she thought the poor were poor. “Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown,” she replied. “What do you mean by the moral life?” Shorris asked. “You got to begin with the children . . . ,” she said. “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures.” He asked whether she meant the humanities. Looking at him as if he were, as he puts it, “the stupidest man on earth,” she replied: “Yes, Earl, the humanities.”

That provided the spark that eventually became the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which Shorris designed and which is available to the poor in many cities in the U.S. as well as a few countries abroad. Riley continues:

The Clemente Course differs from life at universities in other ways—for instance, by taking the Western classics seriously. How many college graduates have read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides and Mill? It also differs in its sense of what the texts can do. Much of the liberal-arts curriculum in universities today is devoted to learning about oppression of one sort or another, but Shorris argued that the study of the humanities is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. Not that Clemente texts are routinely cheery or anodyne. Shorris himself taught Dostoevsky, “the brilliant archeologist who dared to make us look deep into our dark sides.” But Shorris did feel that, by reading and discussing classic texts, life was better or richer in some fundamental sense: more valued, more hopeful, more free.

Though Riley specifically mentions universities, there’s no reason this idea couldn’t be integrated into high school curriculum too. In the culmination of his life’s work, a 1,200-page history of political thought, Alan Ryan discusses the fact that political theorists must grapple with the thoughts and ideas of their long-dead predecessors. “There is no way to do this,” Ryan admits, “without running the risk of foisting our own views on the unresisting dead. It is the obvious danger of attempting to have a conversation with great, but absent, thinkers who cannot tell us we are talking nonsense.”

Yet as students who study the classics could attest, it matters less that they cannot tell us we are talking nonsense than that we are attempting the conversation. When students grapple with the great thinkers and writers, they permit themselves to elevate their own intellectual stature in order to “get in the ring” in the first place.

When Shorris says that studying the classics can make a life more hopeful, more free, he knew what he was talking about. One of the last chapters in Shorris’s book, The Art of Freedom, describes a reunion of sorts in Salt Lake City of graduates of the course. They describe it alternately as “life-altering,” a rebirth, a way to tap into hidden strengths and talents. “They read the Allegory of the Cave as if it were the story of their own experience before they came to the course,” he writes. But you get the feeling that although he was pleased, he wasn’t surprised. Unlike real estate, when it comes to education it isn’t only about location, location, location. Education reformers would do well to keep that in mind.

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