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East High School student Josiah Peters reads Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book. —Photo by Ehren Joseph

Denver’s Classical Education Boom (And Why We Joined In)

Those age-old tools—good books, taught in context—are still some of the best teachers.

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One late-fall morning, a pink glow from the east shines through our car windows as I drive my kids to school. I’m nervously watching the clock (and the traffic) when my then first-grade daughter murmurs, “For each new morning with its light/ For rest and shelter of the night….” She trails off, then says, “Mom? I guess Ralph Waldo Emerson probably lived in Colorado because I see the morning light he was talking about.”

I would love to say we regularly read 19th-century American poets around our house, but the truth is our kids attend a classical school. Back when I began shopping for elementaries, I discovered typical public school curricula tend to separate literature from its history. Plus, new standards emphasize “informational texts”—like train schedules and recipes—over literature. In contrast, classical education employs literature as a window to culture, people, and ideas over time, providing a deliberate link to historical context and philosophical impact. Pragmatically, exposure to good writing boosts vocabulary, provides early knowledge of grammar, and bolsters speaking skills. All of which explains why, in 1946, the high minds at Harvard pushed what Life called “the world’s great literature” so fervently.

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But my favorite benefit of a curriculum rich in literature is loftier. Stories help us understand our collective and individual humanity: Charlotte’s Web gives us a view of self-sacrificial love. The Hobbit reminds us that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability to act in spite of it. Hamlet shows us the results of too much (brooding) talk and not enough action.

Momentum for classical ed is strong. At least eight such schools—including parochial, traditional private, and chartered public varieties—operate in the Denver metro area, four of them having opened in the past seven years. “I think more parents are realizing that our education system today is sometimes a real gamble,” says Nate Ahern, headmaster of my kids’ school, Lakewood’s Augustine Classical Academy. “So they’re looking at other options. Classical education boasts a multicentury track record of brilliant results, beginning with Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers.”

And if Galileo had been required to take the ACTs, chances are he would have aced them, considering classically educated kids bettered the national average in English by almost seven points (27.2 compared to 20.4) and reading by almost six (27.1 versus 21.4). For now, I’m just glad we have children building solid grammar foundations and vocabularies wide enough to say what they mean—and the wisdom to occasionally wonder at the morning light.

(Read our November feature on the state of education in Colorado)

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