Can the Classical Past Inform 21st Century Education?

“You betcha,” as we say in Minnesota. I had the opportunity last week to present and participate in an informational event for the new Mill City High School in east downtown Minneapolis, where “Tradition meets Innovation.” The new high school will open this fall, based in classical education, along with global classical studies that fit the multiple world traditions of our city.

Mill City High School start-up director John Miller presented a brief lesson to demonstrate the classical experience. He posed this question to attendees: “What happens in a good education?” and provided wide-ranging quotes representing global perspectives on education.

So what is 21st century about that? First, the use of space. To start, we sat in “classroom formation” at rectangular tables that seated two or three people each. We were instructed to move our tables (each with a set of wheels) to a corner of the room with the matching color affixed to our table. Everyone set up their corner in a “self-organizing system.”

We started in small groups of 2 or 3, then opened to our larger corner group. Each of us selected our favorite quote and shared why. Discussions were fascinating, with students and adults alike. Classical education is about open-ended questions. It is about the reasons for how and why we think. We talk with each other. We learn to communicate and articulate ideas. There are no wrong answers . . . does anyone have the right answer to “What happens in a good education?”

I asked the mother of several alumni of a different classical charter high school, what that education meant for them. She responded, “I watched my children develop and grow from narrow thinking to expanded views. They learned to listen. Even part of ‘arguing’ is being able to listen. Listening allows you to challenge your own beliefs.” Said her daughter, “I learned how to communicate my ideas—and this will be with me outside of high school for the rest of my life. “

Communication, facing each other, with teachers and students as peers. So simple. So needed in 21st century education.