By Michael Davis
This school year, my family will be joining the throng of Southern Californians making long commutes, but for us it will be for the sake of our children’s education.
We live in Pasadena, but our kids will be going to Orange County Classical Academy, a new charter school in the City of Orange, a more than one-hour drive from our home. Our reasons for choosing this school involve a longer journey, one we started eight years ago when our twins were born. That was when, like many vigilant parents, we began investigating the state of public education in California.
Most parents who follow education already know what we’ve discovered. Among 77 nations, U.S. schools rank No. 37 in math and 18 in reading, according to the most recent international assessment, called PISA. In a nation that already performs poorly, California K-12 schools rank 37 according to US News and World Report.
But there is a more urgent story that hasn’t achieved the same visibility. Our kids not only suffer from underperforming schools but also from a crisis of moral health and personal meaning. This crisis deserves our special attention because it is proliferating in those very institutions our kids are working so hard to get into: the universities.
A portrait is now emerging of a generation of high school and college-aged kids suffering unprecedented declines in mental health and wellbeing. In their book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt conclude that our approaches to education and family upbringing have had the unintended effect of raising a hyper-fragile generation overwhelmed by young adulthood. Yale professors Anthony Kronman and William Deresiewicz advance a more troubling observation in their books “Education’s End” and “Excellent Sheep”: when universities jettisoned the morally formative role of the traditional liberal arts, their students lost the tools that equipped their predecessors for the pursuit of meaning and wellbeing.
As parents we knew something was wrong when the signs of a moral health crisis were reaching even into the cohort of the nation’s most elite schools.
Then we discovered OCCA. Its K-8 curriculum uses Core Knowledge, the educational standard for 30 years, and based on principles now validated in research and studies documented in the latest texts by Natalie Wexler, E.D. Hirsch, and cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham.
But more importantly for us, OCCA was a classical charter school, part of a movement that has been growing in popularity for decades by filling the void left by conventional public schooling.
The purpose of classical education is moral, not just academic, and its object is the heart as well as the mind. Classical education seeks to nourish in its students a certain kind of unembarrassed passion for the true and the good – and the virtues necessary to pursue them.
And talk about real diversity: The curriculum draws on cultures across 5,000 years, and invites students to engage the great conversations about the most important things. They hone these insights through Socratic engagement, to recall, critique, and reformulate new insights on their own from that broad, deep civilizational conversation.
When the products of conventional education seem so unmoored if not confused, schools like OCCA offer families a foundation for their children – a foundation firm enough to help them thrive in what promises to be an age that will test their generation.
We tried to start a school like OCCA in our own district. That was when we learned about the third source of our public educational crisis – politics. The board of the Pasadena Unified School District is notorious for many things but among them is its statewide reputation as militantly anti-school choice. Our plan was quickly scuttled.
The residents of Orange Unified School District should know they are fortunate their school board isn’t wholly populated by placeholders actively fighting against choice. But this may not be the case for long. Despite the well-documented merits of OCCA, the school was approved only because four of the members were not instinctively anti-choice; now three of those four seats are up for re-election this November, and the teachers union and others are working hard to end school choice once and for all.
If parents wish to avoid the fate of my Pasadena district, they must fight to preserve what my district has lost. For parents in the city of Orange and everywhere it means learning who your pro-school choice candidates are and fighting for them. Unless you do, your future will be what we are fleeing every day when we commute to and from the City of Orange.
Michael Davis is a partner in a small tech company and contributes to online journals on matters of culture, education and reform.